College basketball’s top rivalry will take center stage again on Saturday night, with the North Carolina Tar Heels attempting to get their season moving in the right direction against the hated Duke Blue Devils. ESPN.com’s panel of college basketball experts weighed in on their expectations for that game, recalled some of the rivalry’s top players, and discussed the ACC vs. Big Ten NCAA tournament debate.
It’s been a horrible season for North Carolina, which is why it would be exhilarating for the Tar Heels and their fans if UNC can find a way against Duke in Chapel Hill this Saturday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN). How shocked will you be if North Carolina wins this game? What will it mean if the Tar Heels win?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: Well, Kentucky lost to an Evansville team that has started 0-11 in the Missouri Valley Conference. At halftime on Wednesday, Wake Forest (the same Wake Forest that lost to Boston College and Charlotte) had a double-digit lead over Louisville. The Illinois team that couldn’t beat Miami (25-point loss to Connecticut) or Missouri (losses to Charleston Southern and two losses to Texas A&M) is tied for first place in the Big Ten. So I won’t be shocked at all if Cole Anthony drops 35 points or more and UNC beats Duke in one of the craziest years we’ve witnessed in college basketball since the turn of the century.
I have to believe that this rivalry factored into Anthony’s considerations prior to his return. Why come back if this game didn’t matter to him? North Carolina isn’t a good team. But so-so teams have defeated a bunch of good teams throughout the season.
I don’t think a North Carolina win means anything for the season. I still think this is an NIT team. But if UNC beats Duke in a down year, Tar Heels fans are going to throw this in the faces of Duke fans for eternity.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I’m not really sure anything would shock me in a Duke-North Carolina rivalry game. That said, I would be fairly surprised if the Tar Heels came out with a win. Cole Anthony has immediately returned to his high-usage role as the focal point of Carolina’s offense, and more time removed from the injury should make him slightly more efficient. If he puts up a line similar to some of his early-season games — 25 points, eight rebounds, six assists or something like that — then the Tar Heels should stand a chance.
I actually thought Carolina could go on a bit of an at-large run once Anthony returned, but a home loss to Boston College and then the defeat at Florida State ended that before it even got started. I think the only way the Tar Heels save their season is with a conference tournament title.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: After seeing Evansville win at Kentucky and Stephen F. Austin emerge victorious at Duke this season, I would not be shocked if North Carolina won at home against the Blue Devils. Mike Krzyzewski’s team looked eminently fallible in its eight-point win at Boston College, and, possession for possession, the Tar Heels in ACC play have been markedly superior to the Eagles. Not to mention Duke is highly reliant upon Vernon Carey Jr., and Tre Jones on offense, and the former has picked up his fourth foul in four of his last six outings. Now, am I predicting the upset? No, but far stranger things have occurred in 2019-20.
Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. Records don’t hold much water in rivalry games, especially when we’re talking Tobacco Road. Duke is very good and very balanced, but all bets are off with a healthy Cole Anthony. He’s that much of a difference. Interestingly enough, Roy Williams took his superstar freshman point guard off the ball in a narrow road loss to Florida State. Anthony, though, is too smart a player not to have learned from the errant shots he took against the Noles. Expect a heightened attention to detail for the Heels, who are playing for their season over the next month.
Who’s your favorite player in the history of Duke-UNC, the one player you’d love to see on the floor just one more time in this rivalry?
Borzello: I mean, I’d like to see Michael Jordan play in the Duke-UNC game one more time, considering his only games in this rivalry came before I was born. Trajan Langdon would be fun to watch again, Jerry Stackhouse and Vince Carter were awesome, J.J. Redick and Tyler Hansbrough always made things a little more exciting. But very few players brought it so consistently in the Duke-UNC rivalry more than Jason Williams (now ESPN NBA analyst Jay Williams).
Williams struggled in the two Duke-UNC games as a freshman, but he turned up as a sophomore. He had 32 points in the first Duke-UNC game in 2001, then went for 33 points, nine assists and seven 3-pointers in the second. In 2002, he had 18 points and seven assists, then 37 points and eight 3-pointers in the second. Williams capped it off with 20 against the Tar Heels in the 2002 ACC tournament. He had a truly elite college career, and exemplified it during these rivalry games.
Schultz: He may not be my favorite player, but I’m not sure anyone was more polarizing and entertaining than Tyler Hansbrough — at least not since Christian Laettner. Hansbrough was extra special because he stayed through his senior season and never backed down, took a play off or even seemed to smile.
The fact he was so dominant — first player in ACC history to earn first-team All-America and first-team All-ACC honors all four years — made him that much more disdained by Duke fans, and frankly by anyone not rooting for Carolina. That’s the thing about Hansbrough that never ceases to amaze me: He made Duke somewhat likable, because the alternative of rooting for him was so unbearable.
Medcalf: Don’t make me pick one. Please. If I have to, give me Vince Carter. Before he rebooted the NBA dunk contest, Carter was a flashy, athletic freak turning every collegiate game into his own personal mixtape. Before social media, you’d turn to SportsCenter and you’d see Carter flying through the air. Just Google the Clemson alley-oop. My goodness. He catches the in-bounds and it honestly looks like his hand is over the backboard before he dunks it. It’s breathtaking.
Actually, give me that entire 1997-98 North Carolina squad. I need Shammond Williams at point guard. Antawn Jamison, one of the most underrated players in 1990s college basketball. Young Ed Cota off the bench. Makhtar N’Diaye. I’ll take that entire group, which reached back-to-back Final Fours. We get so caught up in the 1998-99 Duke squad that we sometimes forget that those UNC teams in 1997 and 1998 are also on the list of the best teams that never won a title.
Gasaway: I wouldn’t say no to seeing a certain No. 23 from North Carolina from a few decades back or, for that matter, to No. 0 from Duke last year. But, what the heck, I’ll go relatively off-grid here and name a somewhat unsung Duke-UNC rivalry hero who will also be in attendance as one team’s current director of operations.
When much-heralded Blue Devil freshman Kyrie Irving missed all three games against the Tar Heels in 2011, it was Nolan Smith who led Coach K’s team to a perfect 3-0 sweep. Smith erupted for 34 points in the win in Durham and followed that up with 30 in Chapel Hill and a 20-10 points-assists double-double in the ACC tournament title game. Truly, the senior mastered the Duke-UNC moment.
The ACC is by all accounts having a down year but also has three of the top eight teams in the country. The Big Ten has 12 legitimate NCAA tournament hopefuls but lacks a clear Final Four contender. When we walk away from this deal in April, who are we going to say had the better postseason?
Gasaway: Great question. The reigning national champion is from the ACC, and the league sent a rather incredible three No. 1 seeds into the bracket last year. But was the most common takeaway that the ACC had an especially good postseason? Or were there postmortems after Duke almost lost to UCF, after North Carolina fell by 17 points to Auburn in the Sweet 16 and in the aftermath of the Blue Devils losing a thriller in the Elite Eight to Michigan State?
Memories are short, and reaching the Final Four is everything. I’ll wager on the Big Ten leaving a better 2020 postseason legacy here, purely on the grounds of population and redundancy. One tournament upset won’t necessarily be disastrous for a league that might send 10 or 11 teams into the field. But if Duke, Louisville or Florida State should trip up, the ACC won’t have much in the way of advantageously seeded backup plans.
Borzello: I think it’s the ACC, but the number of chances the Big Ten is going to have come March makes this a really interesting question. For me, it comes down to this: The three top teams from the ACC might all be better than any team from the Big Ten this season. Duke is undoubtedly going to enter the NCAA tournament as a national championship contender, while Louisville beat the Blue Devils in Durham and is the favorite to win the ACC regular-season title. Florida State has length and depth and has won five games in the last two NCAA tournaments. I think all three can make the Final Four.
And are we really going to count out last year’s national champion, Virginia, which seems to have turned things around somewhat in the last couple of weeks? Perhaps some of this argument will come down to how it’s judged. The Big Ten might get five or six teams in the Sweet 16, but the ACC could have two in the Elite Eight and one in the Final Four. I’ll take the latter.
Schultz: Given the sheer volume of quality in the Big Ten, this is a rather easy proposition. Better yet, there’s upside in this league as well, thanks to Michigan State, Maryland, Rutgers, Iowa, Penn State and Ohio State — which seems to have rediscovered its rhythm of late with three straight wins. The ACC, however, is as top-heavy as it’s ever been. Where is the balance? And why trust three teams when we can have twice as many capable of making a run in March? With the level of uncertainty around college basketball’s elite this season, the safer and shrewder move is to bank on the less sexy, but far steadier, Big Ten.
Medcalf: I think we judge conferences by championships. Since Michigan State won the national title in 2000, the ACC has won eight national championships, counting former member Maryland’s run in 2002. The Big Ten has won zero. That still matters. I still think the ACC has multiple teams that can win the national championship. Duke can win it. I think Louisville can win it. And I think a Florida State squad playing top-25 defense is in the mix too.
Illinois and Maryland entered Thursday’s games tied for first place in the Big Ten. Anybody willing to put money on one of those teams making a run? Probably not. I don’t think we’ll care about the limited number of teams from the ACC in the field if one or two gets to Atlanta. Fans in that league can say, “Look who we had to beat to win a conference championship!” Trust us. They will. In the Big Ten, it’s the same story. The regular season is a gauntlet but we’re now talking about 20 years since the league has won a national title. That’s why it’s easy for outsiders to dismiss anything the league does prior to March.
ESPN.com expert picks for this weekend’s top games
(Lines, when available, from Caesars Sportsbook. Predictors do not have access to lines when making score predictions.)