Arguably the best rivalry in all of sports will take place as the Duke Blue Devils host the North Carolina Tar Heels for the 234th time on Wednesday night.
Duke (21-2, 8-2) will enter with a five-game winning streak following its victory over Boston College on Sunday. The Blue Devils are in sole possession of second in the ACC, as they are two games out of first place.
For North Carolina (16-7, 6-4), this game will be its second straight away from Chapel Hill as the Tar Heels were crushed by Miami on Saturday in Coral Gables. Five of their seven losses have came on the road, with three of the five coming within conference play.
Regarding the illustrious series between both teams, Duke has won 22 out of the last 33 games dating back to the 1998-99 season. They also have won nine of the last 15 games in Durham during that span.
For Duke to continue its recent success, it will have to follow these five keys to victory before adding another number in the win column and staying in contention for an ACC regular-season championship.
Two of the Duke Blue Devils' best games came in the past week against Florida State and North Carolina State. One of the main reasons behind their success in those games was their ability to put together quick starts.
In their meeting against Florida State, Duke started the game off on an 18-2 run while looking crisp and explosive from the opening tip. After closing the first half out with a 20-point lead, Duke went on to a 79-60 victory over the Seminoles.
Following that performance, Duke turned its attention to a North Carolina State team, who handed the Blue Devils their first loss of the season back on January 12. A quick 11-2 run from the start by Duke carried over to a 28-9 lead at the midway point in the first half. Duke turned back a late rally from the Wolfpack, going on to avenge its first loss with a 98-85 win.
In each game, Duke was able to convert their first few shot attempts while cranking up the defensive intensity at the other end. Listed below is statistics capping the Blue Devils' early success against the Seminoles and Wolfpack (via ESPN Play-By-Play):
- vs. Florida State - During their 18-2 run, Duke shoots 8-of-10 from the field while holding FSU to 1-of-8 shooting and forcing three turnovers.
- vs. North Carolina State - With a 28-9 lead at the 11:46 mark in the first half, Duke is 10-of-15 from the field while limiting NC State to 3-of-16 and forcing three turnovers.
While their recent quick starts did not transition over to their last game against Boston College, they were still capable of earning a hard-fought win. However, slow beginnings against a hungry North Carolina squad and the No. 1 scoring offense in the ACC could present the Blue Devils with a difficult challenge as they try to protect their home court for the 13th time this season.
One of the main keys that will likely determine the outcome of Wednesday's clash between Duke and North Carolina will be who protects the basketball more efficiently.
North Carolina will enter as the best team in the ACC in forcing turnovers as they accumulate 15.6 per game. However, Duke is the second best team at protecting the basketball, as they only average 11.0 turnovers per game.
Point guard play will be most important regarding this aspect of the game. In the Blue Devils' one-point victory over Boston College on Sunday, Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton combined for seven of the 13 Duke turnovers (via ESPN Box Score).
One other player to watch for the Blue Devils is senior forward Mason Plumlee. The 6'10" big man leads the team in turnovers with 2.9 per game. If the Tar Heels elect to show a double team against Plumlee, he will need to make smart decisions with the basketball when finding open shooters on the perimeter.
Turnovers could be the difference in a victory or a loss for a Duke team that is still in the hunt for a regular-season conference championship.
For Duke to extend its winning streak to six games and stay undefeated inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, they will need to rebound the basketball with great prowess.
As it's been well documented throughout the season, one of Duke's main flaws has been their inability on the glass to rebound at a high rate. While North Carolina ranks as the second best team in rebounding margin at plus-4.7, Duke is currently ranked eighth at -0.1 (via ACC Team Stats).
However, during their five-game winning streak the Blue Devils have out-rebounded four of their five opponents.
The key matchup will be in the post between Mason Plumlee and James Michael McAdoo. However, the more interesting battle could take place between a pair of bouncy freshmen in Amile Jefferson and Brice Johnson.
During Duke's five-game winning streak, Jefferson has averaged five rebounds per game as he continues to earn more playing time while senior Ryan Kelly is still nursing his injured right foot.
Johnson began his freshman campaign with North Carolina on the right note, as he was accumulating 6.3 rebounds in the Tar Heels first four games. He has remained at a steady pace throughout the season and is currently third on the team in rebounding while averaging nearly 13 minutes a game.
Although North Carolina has a clear advantage in rebounding on paper, it's worth noting that in the rivalry between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, anything can happen.
North Carolina freshman point guard Marcus Paige has seen his share of tough, home-crowd environments this season, including trips to Indiana, Texas and Miami to name a few. However, none will compare to that of his first game inside Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Paige started his freshman season with a heavy burden upon his shoulders in replacing Kendall Marshall, the highly efficient lefty from a year ago. In his first four games, Paige was sporadic. His 0.9 assist-to-turnover ratio was completely unexpected.
Despite a grueling start, Paige has improved his assist and turnover numbers, as he is now averaging a 1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio.
However, his shooting numbers have been horrific.
Paige is shooting 32 percent from the field, including 29 percent from three, while averaging 7.1 points per game. In his last 10 games (of which North Carolina has won six) he is shooting 28 percent overall.
Wednesday night, it will be loud, energetic and a very raucous setting for Paige to make a considerable statement. He will also have to matchup against two of the best on-ball defenders in the ACC in Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton.
Will he unravel under the immense amount of pressure in his first game against Duke?
Magic 8-ball says: Outlook good.
In a rivalry game between Duke and North Carolina, the three-point shot is extremely crucial, mainly because of the momentum either team can carry throughout the course of the game.
Duke shoots the ball tremendously well at home. However, one of the biggest keys to a Blue Devils victory on Wednesday isn't primarily focused on their offense as it is their three-point field goal defense.
While the Tar Heels rank fourth in the ACC in three-point field goal percentage at nearly 37 percent for the season, Duke ranks third in the conference in three-point field goal percentage defense, as they have allowed teams to shoot just 30 percent.
Their defense, much improved from a year ago, has also allowed only 106 threes made against them which is the lowest number of mades threes against a team in the ACC (via ACC Team Stats).
In North Carolina's seven losses this season, they are a combined 36-of-123 from three.
The Tar Heels will arrive into Cameron Indoor Stadium fresh off of a demoralizing loss to Miami in their last game. Duke knows exactly how North Carolina is feeling as they were in the same place following a crushing loss to the Hurricanes six games ago.
The Blue Devils bounced back in their next game behind an accurate three-point shooting performance.
Now, North Carolina will be faced with the opportunity to do the same.