The latest edition of the legendary North Carolina vs. Duke rivalry went to the second-ranked Blue Devils, who topped the Tar Heels on Wednesday night by a 73-68 margin. Duke’s home victory keeps Coach K’s squad at the head of the race for a No. 1 seed this March, but it also shows why the Blue Devils are a good bet to have the edge on Carolina well beyond the current season.
The key factor in Duke’s victory was that the Blue Devils kept their composure. Not only did they not panic when Carolina jumped out to an early lead—one that it held throughout the first half—but they held up under late-game pressure to finish 17-for-20 from the free-throw line in closing out the win.
The Tar Heels, in contrast, came out with through-the-roof energy, but as soon as Duke took the lead in the second half, UNC became more tentative. Roy Williams’ team also turned in a disastrous performance from the free-throw line, shooting just 13-for-23 on the game.
What is the common factor behind all those Duke successes and Carolina failures? Experience.
A team with veteran leadership (as provided here by Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry) is one that’s better equipped to ride out an early storm and one that’s likely to shoot better in the clutch. A team with enormous talent but lacking that steadying influence—a description that certainly fits UNC—will always be at a disadvantage in crunch time against the older group.
Obviously, this year’s Tar Heel team is an exceptional case when it comes to lack of experience, because no team is going to lose four starters to the pro ranks on an annual basis. Still, the kinds of NBA-level athletes Roy Williams recruits are always going to be a poor bet to stay on campus for more than a couple of seasons.
Mike Krzyzewski recruits in the same exalted circles, of course, but Coach K has routinely managed to keep a high-level senior or two on the roster to mentor the one-and-dones. Whether it’s Christian Laettner or Shane Battier or Mason Plumlee, Duke has far more success than most five-star programs when it comes to getting four collegiate seasons out of NBA-bound talent.
That pattern isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Williams will get an occasional four-year superstar (see Hansbrough, Tyler), but his teams will virtually always be at an experience disadvantage against Duke.
In a matchup of two perennial title contenders with two Hall of Fame coaches, that’s the kind of difference that can tip the competitive balance in Duke’s favor more often than not.
On top of that trend, the short-term recruiting battle also appears to be going Duke's way. The biggest personnel advantage Carolina has right now is the Tar Heels' collection of big, athletic wings—Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston, etc.—but that edge is about to disappear.
The prize of Duke's next freshman class is 6'8" SF Jabari Parker, ESPN's No. 2 recruit in the country. He's joined by a pair of other highly-regarded wings (6'4" Matt Jones and 6'6" Semi Ojeleye), so even if UNC can land top target Andrew Wiggins, the Blue Devils will still have gained ground on the perimeter.
In addition, Parker may well be followed by one of the biggest stars of the 2014 class, Justise Winslow. Although both the Tar Heels and Blue Devils are recruiting the 6'5" Texan, only Duke has the benefit of already having Winslow's ear, courtesy of his friend, Blue Devil freshman Rasheed Sulaimon.
UNC, for its part, has made its biggest gains at the point guard spot (2013 commit Nate Britt and 2014 commit Joel Berry). Duke has little reason to worry about freshman opposition at that position when it's likely to have two more years of current sophomore Quinn Cook at the helm.
Even Duke's NBA losses don't look like they'll help the Tar Heels much. Plumlee, Curry and Ryan Kelly will be gone, but with another Plumlee (little brother Marshall) and Amile Jefferson taking over inside, the Blue Devils aren't going to be bereft there.
As for Curry's departure, don't forget that redshirt senior Andre Dawkins will be back next year along with the crop of freshmen on the outside.
North Carolina, meanwhile, gains plenty of experience but will probably lose its best player (James Michael McAdoo) to the NBA draft. His departure offsets some of the benefit of UNC's own top 2013 recruit, PF Isaiah Hicks (No. 17 in the class, again per ESPN).
Predicting exactly when the likes of Sulaimon, Jefferson and Carolina's Marcus Paige will bolt for the NBA makes for some muddy waters, but the overall trend is apparent. Duke is set up to hold its own (if not take the lead) on raw talent for the next few seasons while still featuring that vital leadership edge.
It's looking like Carolina will be blue for years into the future when the Blue Devils show up on its schedule.