There may not be a hotter team in the ACC right now that the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Despite the fact that North Carolina is unranked, and up until this recent six-game winning streak was on the bubble to make the NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels are actually favored to beat Duke by a point and a half. Many Blue Devil fans may scoff at that but in reality North Carolina has been playing much better and arguably better than Duke.
In their six game streak the Tar Heels have beaten Maryland, Virginia, and NC State; all teams that have beaten Duke two more recently. Now the transitive property of winning and losing means nothing but neither do ranks when these two teams play.
Part of the reason for North Carolina’s recent success has been the play of PJ Hairston who scored 22 against Maryland. Coach Roy Williams has gone to a smaller lineup and it has paid dividends. The most important aspect for the Tar Heels is the confidence they have picked up during their streak and a confident team, especially is a big rivalry game is a dangerous team.
Duke in contrast is struggling somewhat. Sure they have won two straight games against a Top 5 Miami team and Virginia Tech at home but they haven’t been flawless.
Many of the Blue Devils issues have been overshadowed by the return of Ryan Kelly, who many in the media and fans alike have likened to a savior of sorts. Duke was a good team without Kelly, but really no better than any of the other half dozen contenders and perhaps not even that good.
Mason Plumlee has significantly fallen off the pace he set earlier in the year and Duke just hasn’t been as good since his decline in play. He was awful against Maryland and that resulted in a loss. He wasn’t much better against Virginia and that was another loss. Kelly’s return was suppose to open things up for him in the middle and it has; Plumlee though hasn’t responded.
He has received fewer and fewer double teams in the two games since Kelly’s return as opposing coaches have had to remember they can’t play off Kelly, but Plumlee has been increasingly indecisive and down right weak at times in the post. His match up with James MacAdoo will be one to keep an eye on because if MacAdoo can have his way with Plumlee and the Tar Heels can hit shots Duke will be in trouble.
Even with Kelly back, North Carolina’s smaller lineup could present some challenges if Duke tries to go bigger. And Duke’s options off the bench for smaller lineups aren’t necessarily attractive ones to combat a hot North Carolina team, or really any team for that matter.
North Carolina being favored isn’t a surprise to me given the issues I’ve seen out of Duke even in their blow out win against Virginia Tech. It wasn’t the Blue Devils best effort and part of that may have been he emotions of senior night and part of that may have been fatigue but it wasn’t until last that Duke took care of the Hokies. If they come out of the gates and struggle against North Carolina early the game could get ugly.
The Blue Devils are still trying to get back to the level of play they were at before Kelly got hurt. Kelly hasn’t appeared to miss a beat but his teammates aren’t a smooth running engine right now. North Carolina in contrast has seemed to finally click after a season of struggles.
In this series records, rankings and home court advantage don’t necessarily mean a thing but teams playing with confidence usually do. North Carolina certainly is but at this point it is hard to say if Duke is or not. Guess we’ll see Saturday night.
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