The race for top honors in the ACC comes down to three key games this week.
Just the way it should be.
Heading into the last week of the ACC regular season, two of the most storied programs in all of college basketball are locked in a collision course toward the ultimate prize in conference bragging rights: the regular-season championship and the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament.
Here's a look at how these two clubs have dominated the Atlantic Coast Conference, and how just three games will potentially decide who comes out on top.
Duke is looking to repeat as regular-season and tournament champions in the ACC
Here's a remarkable stat for you: since 1976, Duke or North Carolina has either tied for or been the outright ACC regular-season champion, all but seven seasons.
Put simply, these two teams dominate one of the oldest and most successful basketball conferences in all of college hoops.
Last year, Duke tied Maryland with a 13-3 conference record for top honors in the ACC. The Blue Devils took to No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament thanks to a tiebreaker.
The Tar Heels are looking to head back to the top of the pack in the conference after finishing in 10th place last year, the lowest North Carolina had finished at the end of the regular season since 1952.
Leonard Hamilton will try to add a marquee win to his team's NCAA Tournament résumé
Key Game: UNC vs. Florida State
Location: Leon County Civic Center—Tallahassee, Fla.
Key Players: Harrison Barnes (UNC), Kendall Marshall (UNC); Derwin Kitchen (FSU)
Overview: Florida State has had an above-par season in an otherwise down ACC season, but if the first meeting between these two teams is any indication, the Seminoles will have their work cut out for them on Wednesday night.
Florida State couldn't contain freshman point guard sensation Kendall Marshall in Chapel Hill. Marshall went off for 16 assists in their first meeting, leading the Tar Heels to a 20-point win as four players scored in double figures.
To add injury to insult, this time Florida State will be without leading scorer Chris Singleton, who suffered a broken foot two and a half weeks ago against Virginia.
About the only thing the Seminoles have going for them is that they'll be playing at home, where they haven't lost a conference game so far this season. Florida State will have to rely on senior guard Derwin Kitchen to slow down Marshall and give his team a chance to bring down the Tar Heels.
Projection: Too much firepower from the Heels and the loss of Singleton make the Tar Heels a 10-point favorite. North Carolina 79, Florida State 69.
Demontez Stitt will try to take it to the Blue Devils at Cameron.
Key Game: Clemson at Duke
Location: Cameron Indoor Stadium—Durham, N.C.
Key Players: Nolan Smith (Duke), Kyle Singler (Duke); Demontez Stitt (Clemson), Jerai Grant (Clemson)
Overview: Considering they have a new coach, a new offense and lost First Team All-ACC player Trevor Booker from last year's team, Clemson has come tantalizingly close to making a case for an NCAA Tournament bid this season. But thanks to a down year in the ACC, the Tigers will need a miracle—and a win Wednesday night against Duke—to pull it off. Even then, it could be a long shot.
Because of the league's unbalanced scheduling, this will be the first meeting between these two teams this season. The Tigers come into the matchup having lost three of their conference games by just two points, including a heart breaker at North Carolina on Feb. 12, which Clemson lost 64-62.
It's also Senior Night for Duke in Cameron on Wednesday. That means Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith will be jacked up for this one. Smith is leading the ACC in scoring, and Clemson will have their hands full trying to keep the ball out of his hands.
The only consistent, reliable scorer the Tigers have is Demontez Stitt, who is averaging just over 14 points per game on 43.7 percent shooting. But the Blue Devils are known for their suffocating defense on opposing guards, so Stitt could have his work cut out for him. Look for the Tigers to dump the ball down low to senior forward Jerai Grant, who has had an up-and-down year, but has scored in double figures his last three games.
Projection: Duke's seniors will not be denied in this late-season ACC matchup at Cameron. Clemson may keep it close in the beginning, but a patented Duke run will give the Devils their 13th conference win. Duke 77, Clemson 60.
The Blue Devils will have to contain Kendall Marshall to have a shot at the regular-season crown.
Key Game: Duke at North Carolina
Location: Dean E. Smith Center—Chapel Hill, N.C.
Key Players: Nolan Smith (Duke), Kyle Singler (Duke); Kendall Marshall (UNC), Tyler Zeller (UNC)
Overview: Not since 2008 have Duke and North Carolina entered their traditional final regular-season match up tied in the conference standings. But if all goes according to plan for both teams, that's exactly what the scenario could be as Duke makes another trip down 15-501 in one of college basketball's best rivalries.
The last meeting between these two squads ended up as an instant classic as Duke erased a 14-point Tar Heel lead at halftime behind the sharp shooting of sophomore shooting guard Seth Curry and the All-American play of Nolan Smith.
If UNC is able to recreate the first half of that game, where they held Duke to 33 percent from the field and only one three-pointer, while sustaining it over the long-term, it could be a long day for the Blue Devils.
Tyler Zeller put up stellar numbers in the first matchup, scoring 24 points and pulling down 13 rebounds. If the Plumlee brothers, Miles and Mason, can contain the 7-foot junior forward, Kendall Marshall will need to turn to forward John Henson for offensive help. Henson has struggled as of late, averaging just eight points per game after scoring in double figures in six straight contests.
Projection: In what should prove to be another memorable game between these two teams, Duke owns a slight advantage in experience. Duke seniors Smith and Singler will pull out all the stops and come out of Chapel Hill with another regular-season ACC championship and the ACC Tournament No. 1 seed. But it will come down to the wire. Duke 68, North Carolina 66.