One of the most widely anticipated contests in Final Four history till take place in the second game from New Orleans Saturday night when arch-rivals Duke and North Carolina square off in the NCAA tournament for the first time in history.
At least point you almost certainly know all of the defining storylines here — first tournament meeting, Coach K’s last season, Duke out for revenge for their last meeting, UNC shooting for the ultimate rivalry trump card by ending Krzyzewski’s career — so let’s address three things about the actual game that you should know before the Blue Devils and Tar Heels get it on in The Big Easy.
1. Duke has a clear talent advantage
For a long time in this rivalry, North Carolina was viewed as the side that was always loaded with future NBA stars, while Duke’s success was more about the culture of the program — one with terrific college players whose skills wouldn’t necessarily translate to the highest level of success in the NBA.
That dynamic has been sort of flipped on its head in recent years, and never has that change been more apparent than at this moment.
If you pull up virtually any mock NBA draft on the internet right now, you’re likely to see at least three Duke players before you get to a player on one of the other three teams that will play in New Orleans this weekend.
Paolo Banchero is a near-lock to be a top three pick in the draft and could go No. 1 overall, A.J. Griffin can likely lock up a top 10 spot with a strong performance or a pair of strong performances inside the Superdome, and Mark Williams and Wendell Moore Jr. also seem like safe bets to be taken in the first round.
North Carolina’s Caleb Love and Brady Manek would seem to have a chance to hear their names called in the draft (Love if he chooses to leave school early), but almost certainly not until the second round.
We know this Carolina team can outplay this Duke team because we all saw it with our own eyes just a month ago. But if both teams are playing to their highest level on Saturday — which would be wonderful to see from an objective viewing standpoint — it should be the Blue Devils who are moving on to Monday night.
2. Expect a high-scoring game
Whether its the extra time off, the massive arenas or just the gravity of the moment, the Final Four has a tendency, especially in recent years, to produce poor shooting and low scoring games from teams that had been lighting up the scoreboard in the preceding weeks.
There are reasons to believe Duke-North Carolina won’t fall victim to this plague.
The over has hit in the last six meetings between these two arch-rivals. Not only that, but the scores from those games have gone over the pregame total set by the oddsmakers by an average of 20.1 points per game.
Duke lit up UNC in Chapel Hill on Feb. 5, shooting 57.6 percent from the field overall and racking up 87 points in a 20-point demolition of their Tobacco Road Rivals. The Tar Heels one-upped the Dukies a month later by hanging 94 on the Devils in Coach K’s last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
These have also been the two highest-scoring teams in the tournament, with North Carolina averaging 82.5 points in its four March Madness victories, and Duke averaging 79.8. Interestingly, the Blue Devils have scored exactly 78 points in all but one of their four victories.
3. The three has carried UNC to this point, but it might not carry them on Saturday
North Carolina’s surprise run to the Final Four has been fueled primarily by red-hot three-point shooting. Because Caleb Love, R.J. Davis, Brady Manek and company have been hitting the outside shot at a higher clip, they’ve also been taking a larger percentage of their shots from three.
During the regular season, the Tar Heels took about 38 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc. In their upset wins over Baylor and UCLA, that number jumped to 44 percent and 47 percent, respectively.
Interestingly though, when UNC stunned Duke, 94-81, at Cameron Indoor back on March 5, the three-point shot wasn’t a weapon that really fueled that upset. The Tar Heels took 23 shots from beyond the arc, but made only nine, good for a solid, but not spectacular percentage of 39.1. The bigger reasons for that huge rivalry win were Carolina’s 19-of-22 performance from the free-throw line, it only turning the ball over five times, and it shooting a torrid 53.3 percent from inside the arc.
North Carolina will absolutely be letting its fair share of shots fly from deep on Saturday night, but if those shots aren’t falling early, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Tar Heels are cooked.