UNC Basketball: Why Duke Game Is Biggest Opportunity of Season
America's greatest college sports rivalry (some would argue its the best American sports matchup in general) resumes Saturday. Duke takes Tobacco Road from Durham to Chapel Hill for the latest installment of a legendary endless battle between these perennial title contenders.
The Blue Devils beat UNC 73-68 earlier this season. That February showdown in Durham dealt North Carolina its third loss in six games.
Circumstances have changed since the teams' first clash of 2013, but the stakes continue to increase. The Tar Heels are riding a six-game win streak, solidified as an NCAA Tournament team, while Duke is the nation's third-ranked squad and still in contention for a top seed in the national tourney.
UNC is playing arguably its best basketball of the winter right now. Another date with Duke should tell us a lot about how far this Tar Heels team has come and what kind of postseason potential it carries into the second half of March.
Chance to Shine Under Bright Lights of Basketball's Biggest Rivalry
The 236th matchup between Duke and North Carolina occurs on national television in prime time (9 p.m.). Promises of games like these are part of the allure that attracts some of the nation's top high school recruits to each program.
The stage doesn't get bigger across the basketball spectrum than UNC versus Duke. This is the 125th time that either the Blue Devils or Tar Heels are ranked in the national top 10 when the teams go toe-to-toe.
It's an opportunity for two-time national championship coach Roy Williams to remind the country that North Carolina can still compete with the nation's best despite a regular season that failed to match the level of success that has defined the Williams Era.
The winner of this game will receive a major boost in the court of public opinion and in rankings, which ultimately influences the final NCAA Tournament bracket.
Duke could potentially claim a top seed in the tourney with a road victory, while UNC's situation remains rather fluid. A pair of regular season losses to the Blue Devils would make the Tar Heels' path to a Final Four considerably more arduous.
Keep Momentum Rolling in the Right Direction
North Carolina is on quite a roll since stumbling out of the gate during its first stretch of the season. The Tar Heels started 10-5 overall and 0-2 in ACC action, but have turned things around to become the ACC's hottest team.
UNC is 7-0 at home since Jan. 10 but the team is enjoying success on any court these days. Since falling to Duke on Feb. 13, the Tarheels have picked up six straight wins, leapfrogging conference foes in the standings.
During the six-game span, UNC has won every game by at least nine points, finding a way to put opponents away late. The Tar Heels have limited four teams to fewer than 60 points during the streak.
Trust among players has never been higher this winter, and the team carries newfound confidence into its showdown with Duke.
Tar Heels Are Due for Statement Victory
UNC's six-game win streak has salvaged an otherwise ho-hum season in Chapel Hill. It's important to note these victories didn't exactly come against the conference's best teams.
Virginia, NC State, Florida State, Clemson, Maryland and Georgia Tech have been left along the wayside during the Tar Heels' recent tear. Only Virginia and NC State are above .500 in conference action.
UNC is winless against Miami and Duke, the two teams it currently trails in ACC standings. The Tar Heels are just 1-4 against ranked opponents this season.
North Carolina is in need of a statement victory. A win over third-ranked Duke would certainly do the trick.
Opportunity to Set the Stage for Postseason Success
A victory over Duke would send North Carolina surging into ACC Tournament action riding the momentum of a seven-game win streak. Hot regular-season finishes don't always equate to tournament success, but we've seen plenty of teams ride late momentum deep into March.
North Carolina is looking at a top four seed in the conference tournament, and a win would likely lock up at least a No. 3 seed. When competing against familiar foes in a loaded league like the ACC, any kind of a postseason reprieve is pivotal.
A significant run in the conference tourney could drive UNC to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament (perhaps even a No. 3, although admittedly it's an outside shot). On the flip side, an early ACC exit could stick the Tarheels with a mid-level seed and an unfavorable first-round matchup in the NCAA Tournament.
Saturday presents a chance for UNC to set the table for itself with a win.