Why this season’s first Duke-North Carolina showdown will be a thriller

(The following is an excerpt from Seth Davis’ mailbag on SI.com)

We begin today’s Twitterbag with a fairly obvious question. I got lots of these in my mentions during my weekly Twenty for Tuesday chat:

Duke or UNC? — Nick Brezinski (@nickbrezinski)

Who’s your pick for Duke-UNC on Thursday? — Dele Alli Fan Page (@zantrum17)

Who you got Thursday? I don’t think Duke can handle UNC on the interior. — Scott Whitlow (@dswhitlow)

That’s right, the best rivalry in all of sports returns. I’ve always loved the symmetry that the first Duke-North Carolina game occurs just a few days after the Super Bowl. It accentuates the pivot I addressed in Hoop Thoughts this week moving the world from football to college hoops. So let’s kick off—er, tip off the game with my breakdown and prediction.

FOUR REASONS WHY DUKE WILL WIN

1. The Blue Devils are whole again. There have been very few games in which Duke, everyone’s preseason No. 1 squad, was at full strength both on the floor and on the bench. When the season began, three of the team’s four heralded freshmen (Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden) were injured. Just when that resolved itself in December, Grayson Allen got suspended for a game. Just when Allen was getting back, Mike Krzyzewski had to step aside to have back surgery. Right around the same time, senior center Amile Jefferson reinjured his foot. Jefferson returned two weeks ago, but it has taken some time for him to regain his form. And last Saturday, Krzyzewski was back on the bench for a home win over Pittsburgh. Duke has had its struggles this season, but the Blue Devils have never really had the chance to be a team in full. Here’s their chance.

2. Grayson Allen is playing like Grayson Allen again. This is the part of the story I think people missed. Allen contemplated turning pro after a terrific sophomore season, but he returned to school and was a preseason favorite to be national player of the year. He played poorly early on, and then he injured his toe, which kept him out of practice for two weeks. The pressure he was putting on himself to live up to the preseason hype and justify his decision to return was a big factor in his meltdown against Elon. It hasn’t been an easy time, but over the last three games, Allen is averaging 20.3 points on 44.8% three-point shooting. This is especially important because he is the closest thing this team has to a point guard. Not only does he have to be able to score, he has to be able to lead.

3. The freshmen are starting to live up to their billing. Highly ranked freshmen forward Giles and Tatum were the source of much of Duke’s preseason expectations. Recently, however, Duke is playing better because it went back to relying on its upperclassmen. Still, while Giles, who has gone through three knee surgeries in the last two years, will not be a featured performer, he has looked stronger and more confident recently. And while Tatum tried to carry the offense for a while, he has morphed into a more complementary role as an inside scorer and rebounder. Those two guys don’t have to be Duke’s best players, they just have to make enough plays to push the team across the finish line.

4. The game is in Cameron, and this is Duke-North Carolina. Yes, the Tar Heels have been the more impressive team this season, but that homecourt advantage is huge. The one rule in this rivalry seems to be that what ends up happening is the opposite of what’s supposed to happen.

FOUR REASONS WHY NORTH CAROLINA WILL WIN

1. The Tar Heels have a huge advantage at point guard. It’s hard not to have an advantage when the opponent doesn’t even have someone playing this position (at least not in a traditional sense), but Joel Berry II has been one of the best point guards in the country this season. He is averaging 14.9 points, 4.0 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game while making 42.1% from three. When Duke gets in a tight spot at the end of a shot clock, it doesn’t always know where to turn. For North Carolina, there is never a question.

2. North Carolina should dominate the glass. This has been a staple of Roy Williams’s teams the last couple of years, but this year’s might be one of his best. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebound percentage and rebound margin (plus 13.5). They have one player, 6-foot-10 senior Kennedy Meeks, who ranks fourth nationally in offensive rebound percentage, and another, 6-foot-11 freshman Tony Bradley, who would be first if he played the minimum 40 percent minutes to qualify for kenpom.com’s rankings. Not only does that mean North Carolina can get a lot of rebounds, but the superior frontcourt depth means the Heels have lots more fouls to give in the paint. That will be especially true if 6-foot- 6 junior swingman Theo Pinson, a versatile defender who has missed the last three games with an ankle injury, is back in the lineup.

3. Duke is having a hard time guarding the dribbler. This has not been an unusual problem for Duke. It’s why Mike Krzyzewski has dabbled in some zone in recent years, including when the team won the NCAA championship in 2015. North Carolina is well equipped to take advantage, not just with Berry and his backcourtmate, Nate Britt, but especially with Justin Jackson, a 6-foot-8 slasher who has been lighting it up this season to the tune of 18.6 points per game. It’s going to be a lot of fun watching Jackson and Duke sophomore guard Luke Kennard go bucket for bucket. The difference is Jackson is the better driver.

4. The game is in Cameron, and this is Duke-North Carolina. It is a huge game in one of the great venues in all of sports. Of course the home team is supposed to win. But the one rule in this rivalry seems to be that what ends up happening is the opposite of what’s supposed to happen.

FINAL PREDICTION

North Carolina 79, Duke 77. The Heels get just enough offensive rebounds to pull it out. Can’t wait to watch!

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