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Elliot Cadeau and Cormac Ryan set to play in first UNC-Duke game on Saturday

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UNC first-year guard Elliot Cadeau (2) dunks the ball during the men’s basketball game against Louisville on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, at the Dean E. Smith Center. UNC defeated Louisville 86-70.

In the game of life, Elliot Cadeau and Cormac Ryan are not in the same gym. 

Ryan is 25. He has attended Stanford and Notre Dame and finished his MBA last spring. Cadeau is 19. He just started college after leaving high school before his senior year. He’s still working on his first-year foundations. 

That's not a knock on Cadeau. He’s simply in a different stage of life.

But if you want to talk about the game of basketball, Cadeau and Ryan both reside in the Dean E. Smith Center. Both are crucial starters for the No. 3 North Carolina Tar Heels. And they both — as the youngest and oldest Tar Heels, respectively — are set to play in their first UNC–Duke game on Saturday.And in this rivalry, even for those who've played in it before, you never truly know what’s coming.

“I would like to go into a game knowing what to expect,” veteran center Armando Bacot said. “But [not knowing] definitely makes it a lot of fun. It makes this rivalry what it is."

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Ryan has played in 136 college basketball games. He’s played in three NCAA tournament games, scoring 29 in the first round in 2022. He’s competed against Duke four times and dropped 28 on the Blue Devils in 2021. 

There isn't a lot Ryan hasn’t experienced in college basketball, but Saturday will be a first. What won’t be different, however, is Ryan’s leadership.

At any given stoppage of play, the Tar Heels huddle on the court and Ryan is almost always at the center of it, barking out instructions or encouragement. You can see his leadership. And during timeouts, head coach Hubert Davis said Ryan is a vocal presence with his teammates.

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UNC graduate guard Cormac Ryan (3) and UNC senior guard RJ Davis (4) celebrate after a basket during the Monday, Jan. 21, 2024 men’s basketball game against Wake Forest in the Dean E. Smith Center. UNC beat Wake Forest 85-64.

“I know Cormac talks to [Elliot] about things that are important and things that he has learned,” Cadeau’s mom, Michelle, told The Daily Tar Heel. “And I think that’s invaluable.”

Ryan will no doubt bring his competitive fire Saturday. No basketball or water cooler is safe — Ryan isn’t afraid to unleash his frustrations. But where on Earth does that fire come from? As it turns out, the answer is not on Earth.

“God,” Ryan said in absence of a better explanation after a win over Louisville. “I don’t know. I was just born this way.”

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On his official visit, Cadeau and his family had dinner with RJ Davis and then-Tar Heel Puff Johnson. Naturally, a major topic of conversation was the rivalry. 

The Cadeau family has heard about the rivalry. They’ve read about the rivalry. Cadeau has played rivalry games in high school.

“But obviously nothing like this,” Michelle said.

How will Cadeau approach the game Saturday? Probably just like any other. And as of late, it’s appeared as though he's become more comfortable wearing Carolina Blue. Cadeau has come a long way since he threw a pass off Ryan’s back at the end of a tough loss to Kentucky.

“He’s evolved, but I think what we saw in the beginning wasn’t really Elliot,” Michelle said. “It took a little bit for him to get acclimated. I think this that we see now is more like the Elliot that we know.”

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UNC first-year guard Elliot Cadeau (2) speaks with graduate forward Jae'Lyn Withers (24) before a free throw during the men’s basketball game against Louisville at the Dean Smith Center on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. UNC defeated Louisville 86-70.

Cadeau recorded a career high 16 points, along with six assists, against Florida State. He was in all-out attack mode all game long. 10 days prior in a North Carolina victory over Louisville, he pounced on a long-looping Cardinals inbound pass. He leapt in the air like a football free safety, knocked the ball into the open floor and then bolted to the other end, soaring to the tin for an electric one-hand jam. 

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That’s what Cadeau brings: pure electricity. With Cadeau plus the crowd, there will be no shortage on Saturday.

“I think the energy in the [Smith] Center is going to really, really mean something at that particular game,” Michelle said. “And I think [Elliot’s] going to feed off of that."

If you ask his backcourt mate Davis, the Tar Heels just need Cadeau to be Cadeau.

“He’s a supreme talent, he’s been playing really well for us this year,” Davis said. “So just go out there and play your game, don’t get too caught up in the rivalry game. Just go be Elliot."

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com