In North Carolina, the final Saturday of the men’s basketball regular season will always have a special meaning. Each year, the occasion marks the second matchup between UNC and Duke, with both teams typically jockeying for higher NCAA Tournament seeding.
But this season, the stakes will be much different. The two blue blood programs have been unranked since Jan. 18, and neither has solidified an NCAA Tournament bid.
After losing to Syracuse on Monday, UNC must avoid a loss to hold its place in the bracket. Here are three key factors that will dictate the outcome of this critical rivalry showdown.
Hurt vs. UNC’s frontcourt
Over the first month of conference play, Duke’s sophomore forward Matthew Hurt looked like the early leader in the ACC Player of the Year race. Following the departure of first-year forward Jalen Johnson — who left the team on Feb. 15 to prepare for the NBA Draft — Hurt has gotten even better.
In Johnson’s absence, the sophomore has scored over 20 points in three of the last five games, including a 37 point outing against Louisville. At 6-foot-9, Hurt can stretch the floor with his perimeter shooting, as he is knocking down triples at a 45.9 percent clip.
In the first matchup, UNC stymied Hurt to his worst performance of the season, as he finished with seven points and fouled out. The Tar Heels found success by feeding the post early, which put Hurt into foul trouble and took away his offensive rhythm.
With four different post options, look for the Tar Heels to make Hurt work defensively early in the game.
In the 91-87 win against Duke earlier in the season, UNC shot 10-15 from behind the arc — by far the team’s best shooting performance of the season. Although repeating this efficiency is unlikely, attempting to free up some open looks could do wonders for UNC on Saturday.
While first-year point guard Caleb Love was the headline act in the first matchup, notching 25 points and seven assists, first-year Kerwin Walton also played a big part in the win, knocking down all four of his shots from deep.
Over the last three games, though, Walton has gone just 5-24 from deep.
“He’s made enough shots and his confidence is high, so I think he’ll be fine,” senior forward Garrison Brooks said. “I pretty much just keep my voice in his ear and tell him he’s going to be alright.”
Saturday's rivalry matchup will be the final home game of Brooks' and fellow senior Andrew Platek's careers.
Since stepping into a larger role last season, Brooks has arguably been the Tar Heels most productive player, evident in his second-team All-ACC selection in 2020. But perhaps more importantly, his vocal presence has guided the team through its fair share of ups and downs.
“He’s willing to take the blame, step up for everyone else slacking kind of thing,” junior Leaky Black said. “His leadership has just made a huge jump since I’ve been here.”
Another invaluable piece to the Tar Heels the last two years has been Platek, who voices guidance to UNC’s young group of guards.
When head coach Roy Williams recruited Platek in high school, he noted that while his style of play lacked the glamor of other high-profile players, he fit the mold Williams was looking for.
“Andrew fit every category — he had the toughness, ability to make shots, and was a team player,” Williams said. “I’ve been very happy to say that I’ve been able to coach Andrew.”
Over the last two seasons, both players have been highly productive in the rivalry matchup, with Brooks leading the way with 18.7 points and 8 rebounds over the last three meetings. If the Tar Heels hope to pick up a win, the senior leaders will certainly need to make an impact.
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