Sunday, April 18, 2021

Duke-North Carolina rivalry is unrecognizable this year

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It’s a Duke-North Carolina game unlike any other. Neither team is ranked, the first time that can be said in this rivalry since Feb. 27, 1960. Neither team is an NCAA Tournament lock. The loser won’t just lose bragging rights in this bitter rivalry — a setback will hurt their standing for the Dance.

According to BracketMatrix.com, which averages out 93 Bracketology projections, if the NCAA Tournament was set to begin now, North Carolina would be a 10-seed and Duke wouldn’t be selected. Duke was listed in just 14 of 93 brackets while North Carolina was in 86 of 93 brackets.

Duke, owning a pedestrian 7-6 record, enters the showdown coming off a dreadful loss at Miami, which has just two other ACC victories. The Blue Devils have just one Quad 1 victory (the highest value of win) in four chances and they have two Quad 3 (the second lowest) losses.

North Carolina (11-6) is even worse against Quad 1 opposition — it is 0-5 — but it does have a 5-1 mark in Quad 2 competition and has five wins away from Chapel Hill.

That matters to the selection committee, since the tournament is played at neutral sites.  

Neither has a very good NET rating, the analysis tool teams are rated by. Duke is No. 66 and North Carolina is No. 57. 

These weren’t supposed to be vintage Duke and North Carolina teams, but they were expected to be decent. Duke was ranked ninth in the Associated Press preseason poll and picked second in the ACC. North Carolina was ranked 16th and picked fourth.

Early on, it was apparent the Blue Devils had issues. They lost non-conference home games to Michigan State and Illinois. They struggled with mediocre-at-best ACC foes Notre Dame and Boston College. They don’t shoot it well from deep (32.7 percent), struggle with turnovers (13.3 per game) and are 12th in the ACC in field goal percentage defense (45.7) and 13th in three-point percentage defense (36.7). Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has resorted to playing more zone. The third-ranked recruiting class hasn’t lived to the hype, as five-stars prospects Jalen Johnson, DJ Steward, Mark Williams and Jeremy Roach have all struggled with consistency and being counted on immediately to produce.

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Like Duke, North Carolina welcomed in a top recruiting class, bringing in three five-star recruits. Forward Day’Ron Sharpe, who is averaging 9.6 points and 7.8 rebounds, has been the best of the three. Guard Caleb Love is producing more turnovers than assists on a game-by-game basis while shooting 22.2 percent from deep and Walker Kessler has been a virtual non-factor.

The Tar Heels are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country, making just 30.2 percent of their attempts (289th worst), and don’t defend the arc very well either, allowing the opposition to make 35.8 percent from long range. The strength of this team is in the paint, riding the forward trio of Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot and Sharpe. They have kept them afloat.

The game means more for North Carolina, simply because the Tar Heels path to the tournament is actually manageable. This would be a Quad 1 victory. They still have ample opportunities for quality victories against Florida State, Syracuse, Louisville, Virginia and Virginia Tech.

Duke almost needs a miracle. It doesn’t have as many remaining games left that could move the needle, and it needs to win a majority of them.

Their best chance at the tournament is winning the ACC Tournament. .

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