Duke has finally climbed its way back into the top 10 of the national rankings. North Carolina is on the outside looking in. Despite the different directions the two teams have gone this season, everything is on the line as the No. 8 Duke Blue Devils head to Chapel Hill to take on the North Carolina Tar Heels at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN/WatchESPN.
The Blue Devils started out with national title chatter in the preseason, but a January slump (by Duke standards) had people reassessing that notion. The Blue Devils lost by two points on the road at Notre Dame and then put up their worst offensive effort of the season in a loss at Clemson.
Since then, Duke has been on a tear. They have won seven out of their past eight games with the lone blemish being a two-point overtime loss to Syracuse, the top team in the nation. A renewed focus on defensive intensity has helped revitalize the Blue Devils since falling to Clemson. In their seven wins since, opponents have averaged 60 points per game.
If Duke keeps on playing this kind of defense, they are an incredibly tough out. They have the top offense according to KenPom.com's ratings, and score 1.23 raw points per possession. To put that into perspective, the national average is 1.05 points per possession. If there was any team in the ACC that can slow down the Blue Devil's offense, it is possibly North Carolina.
North Carolina, by North Carolina's standards, isn't having the best season. They started out ranked No. 12 and bottomed out when the Tar Heels put up one of their worst games in decades. North Carolina lost to Syracuse, 57-45, en route to starting conference play 0-3 for the first time since 1996-97.
It has been an up and down season for the Tar Heels, who have wins over Michigan State and Kentucky on the resume, but also baffling losses to UAB and against Belmont at home. Things are looking a bit more on track lately, however. North Carolina has won five straight games by an average of almost 14 points to claw back up the ACC standings.
The turnarounds for both teams stem from star players finally finding their grooves. Duke's rookie Jabari Parker was benched to close out the Notre Dame loss. Since the loss to Clemson, Parker is averaging 18.5 points per game. The Tar Heels' leading scorer Marcus Paige has also come alive during the current five game-winning streak.
The Syracuse Orange are the unanimous No. 1 team in the nation, but they'll have their work cut out for them to keep the unbeaten streak going. Scores against the Orange have been rather tight recently, but Syracuse keeps finding a way to win. Earlier in January, the Orange stuffed an upset minded Panthers squad in a 59-54 win. Syracuse coughed up a 10-point lead in the second half but hit their free throws in the waning seconds to secure the win.
After a hot-start to ACC play, the Panthers are looking a bit vulnerable as of late. They lost consecutive games at home against Duke and Virginia and struggled in their next two wins over Miami and Virginia Tech. They need overtime to top Miami on the road and then needed double overtime to push past the Hokies -- the same Hokies who sit in the cellar of the ACC at 1-10. The Panthers have struggled with their shot in their past four games, shooting 36 percent from the floor.
The Wildcats picked the best opponent to try and match their best road-game winning streak in conference play since 2005-06. Villanova is 5-0 on the road in the Big East play this season and has a good chance to match the 6-0 record with a win over DePaul. Villanova has won the past seven games against the Blue Demons by 14.7 points.
DePaul seemed to get back on the right rack with a victory over Butler in double overtime. They beat St. John's by two points but since then have lost six-straight. An 88-62 loss to Villanova on Jan. 18 got the bad path going. Villanova, on the other hand, has been coasting through the Big East without too many bumps. They rebounded from a thumping defeat against Creighton with their current five-game win streak. The Wildcats have been rolling over their last three games, winning by an average of 22 points.
Some of the other nationally televised games on Wednesday.
South Florida Bulls at No. 24 Connecticut Huskies, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN
No. 14 Kentucky Wildcats at Auburn Tigers, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Central Florida Knights at No. 20 Memphis Tigers, 9 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
Baylor Bears at TCU Horned Frogs, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN
Stanford Cardinal at Washington Huskies, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN
New Mexico Lobos at Boise State Broncos, 9:15 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network
California Golden Bears at Washington State Cougars, 11 p.m. ET, ESPNU/WatchESPN