On Thursday night, college hoops fans will be treated to the latest chapter in one of sports’ best rivalries when No. 8 North Carolina travels to face No. 18 Duke.
These high-intensity games are always filled with bad-blood (literally), but Thursday’s matchup will have extra meaning.
From ACC title implications and NCAA Tournament seeding to just plain pride, here is why the latest edition of Duke-North Carolina is so important.
We’ll find out if the ‘real’ Duke has arrived
After losing three of four games during a stretch in January, Duke’s season was on the brink of disaster. Since then, however, the Blue Devils have won three straight, leading many to proclaim that Duke is “back.” But is it really?
If you dig deeper, this winning streak isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. One win came against a fringe NCAA Tournament team (Wake Forest) in a game when Luke Kennard hit the game-winner with just seven seconds to go. The second came against a Notre Dame club that has lost five of its past seven overall, and the third was against the last-place team in the ACC (Pitt). And even in that Pitt win, Duke led by just four with under two minutes to go.
Does that really feel like a “streak” befitting of a team ready to go on a deep run in March? It feels a little hollow, which is why a win against North Carolina is so important. A victory over a Top 10 team (especially a rival) is one you can hang your hat on – and one that will truly signify Duke is back.
It's a showcase for top NBA Draft prospects
As in any Duke-Carolina game, there will be plenty of future NBA talent on the floor, with upward of seven or eight guys with real pro futures playing Thursday. And each could use this game to improve his stock.
The two guys with obvious NBA futures are Duke’s Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles, neither of whom has lived up to expectations this season. Tatum – known as a deadeye shooter coming out of high school – is shooting just 31 percent from behind the arc, while Giles continues to struggle while recovering from multiple knee surgeries. Grayson Allen, Justin Jackson and Marques Bolden are all fringe first-rounders who could impress scouts with a big game against elite competition.
Then there is Luke Kennard, who has been Duke’s best player by far this season and has played his way into the first-round discussion. That would only ramp up with another big performance Thursday.
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It has major ACC regular-season title implications
While Duke is almost certainly out of the conference's title mix (incredibly, the Blue Devils haven’t won one since 2010), North Carolina could win its second straight. But it’s hard to see it happening without a win Thursday night.
North Carolina sits at 9-2 in conference, a half-game ahead of second-place Florida State. However, this is the start of a tough stretch for the Tar Heels; five of their final seven ACC games are against teams ranked in the Top 25. For comparison’s sake, Florida State has six conference games left but only one against a current Top 25 team.
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It has major NCAA Tournament seeding ramifications
Barring something totally unforeseen, two No. 1 seeds (Villanova and Gonzaga) are all but wrapped up, and the Big 12 winner (Kansas or Baylor) also should get one. That means that the final No. 1 is up for grabs with either that second Big 12 team, the Pac-12 champ (depending on who it is and how it finishes) or Carolina snatching it up.
This isn’t a must win for the Tar Heels to get a No. 1 seed, but it sure would help.
It's about pride for both clubs
Duke needs this win to prove it is back as a team that can do damage in March. A loss here – at home – would only further the narrative that the Blue Devils are a good-to-decent team that beats up on inferior opponents.
For North Carolina, the pride factor is much different. The Tar Heels won the ACC regular-season title last year, but most believe Duke has seized control of this rivalry in recent years. And they’re not wrong; the Blue Devils have won 11 of the last 15 meetings, and eight of the past 11. A second straight win for UNC at Duke would do plenty to quiet that narrative, however.