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Duke, North Carolina enter rivalry with more questions than answers

College basketball’s highest-profile rivalry is back, but it looks a little different this year.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In 2018, as in most years before it, the first of the two annual meeting between arch-rivals Duke and North Carolina is taking place during the week immediately following the Super Bowl. This is not a coincidence.

The first leg of the post-football portion of the American sports calendar tends to hone in college basketball. March Madness is the primary focus, of course, but there are many who enjoy partaking in a healthy dose of appetizers during the final month of the regular season. With this phenomenon well-established, what better time to serve up the first of two helpings of the sport’s highest-profile rivalry?

The rivalry itself never plays second fiddle when it comes to the storylines surrounding a meeting between Duke and North Carolina, and with good reason. These are two of the three or four most recognizable names in the sport, and their reputations are well-earned.

The last 143 times these two teams have played, at least one of them has been ranked in the Associated Press top-25 poll. The last time neither was ranked by the AP was on Feb. 27, 1960, and even then, North Carolina was No. 12 in the coaches poll. The last meeting where neither was ranked in either poll was Feb. 25, 1955.

In evidence that might strike a stronger chord with those not impressed by deep history, either Duke or North Carolina has been a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed in every NCAA Tournament since 2004, and one of them has been a top seed in all but two of those big dances. If you want to go back a little further for an even more hard to believe statistic, every Final Four played from 1989 to 2001 except one featured the Blue Devils or the Tar Heels. The two teams have also combined to win nine of the last 26 national championships, and two of the last three.

There’s a reason for ESPN’s relentless promotional push each February.

As that level of sustained success would indicate, Duke and North Carolina rarely enter the second half of conference play still seeking answers to a great number of questions. But this hasn’t been a normal season for the bulk of college basketball’s blue-blood programs, and two of the bluest are no exception.

Mike Krzyzewski is coaching one of the most talented rosters he’s ever had at his disposal. There’s little argument about this. And yet, we’re nearly three full months into the season and the Blue Devils have yet to show any ability whatsoever to keep talented opposing guards from lighting them up.

Boston College’s three starting guards combined to make 13 three-pointers and score 76 points in an 89-84 Eagles’ upset that knocked Duke from the ranks of the unbeatens and its spot atop both the AP and coaches polls. The issue surfaced again in a 96-85 loss to NC State where the Wolfpack shot 50.7 percent from the field, and again in a stunning defeat at the hands of St. John’s, where star guard Shamorie Ponds dropped 33 to help the Red Storm snap an 11-game losing streak.

There are other issues — Trevon Duval has been wildly inconsistent in multiple areas and Grayson Allen still seems like he has no idea what his role on this team is supposed to be — but none of them will matter if the Duke defense doesn’t right its wrongs over the next month.

Shutting down Joel Berry and Luke Maye would be a nice start. If Coach K does elect to go with the zone he’s been using to try and hide his team’s defensive warts, then it’ll be on Berry, Maye, and Pitt transfer Cameron Johnson to take advantage. The issue for Roy Williams is if those three don’t bring their best on offense, UNC’s massive deficiencies in the paint could result in the game getting out of hand.

Therein lies the issue for the 2017-18 Tar Heels. After two straight trips to the national title game due largely to points in the paint and second chance opportunities, they suddenly find themselves without the tools necessary to follow their own blueprint for success.

The early exit of Tony Bradley for the NBA draft last spring left Williams hoping that at least one of his newcomers or inexperienced reserves would develop into a better than expected post presence. That hasn’t happened. The result is North Carolina has been forced to get out of its comfort zone and play small ball. Or at least something resembling small ball.

Williams has been playing the frontcourt duo of Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks less and less in recent weeks. While the move has resulted in an increase in production from the Carolina offense, it has had a nearly equally adverse effect on the other end. With no capable inside defenders, the Tar Heels have been forced to double team opposing big men just about every time they receive a paint touch. This has left them susceptible on the perimeter, and other teams have been taking advantage. A lot.

North Carolina enters Thursday night’s game against Duke ranked 340th out of 351 Division I teams when it comes to three-point defense. They are allowing opponents to make an average of 10.2 three-pointers per game, the worst mark in school history. In 17 of their 24 games this season, their opponents have knocked down at least 10 shots from beyond the arc.

This would be a troubling trend for any team at this point in the season. It’s especially difficult to come to terms with when you’re staring down a matchup with the second-best offense in the country, one with a frontcourt duo of Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter with the ability to kill you by scoring or by finding open teammates quickly and accurately.

For Duke, Thursday night’s game is about making the first of many statements they hope will follow over the month to come. Statements that remind the college basketball world there is no team in the country with more talent, and despite some persistent shortcomings that can be attributed largely to youth, there’s still no team more likely to win six consecutive games in March.

For North Carolina, this is about proving that a surprise run to a third straight Final Four is something that Tar Heel fans can still be daydreaming about without feeling overly foolish. It’s about showing that a different vehicle is still capable of getting this program to its familiar destination.

More than any of that, though, this is about the rivalry. The spectacle. The unofficial start of college basketball’s second season.

Whether you love Duke-North Carolina, or just love to hate it, you’re going to be watching.