The ACC regular season comes to a conclusion Saturday night with a matchup between the no. 3 North Carolina Tar Heels and no. 4 Duke Blue Devils. After winning at Cameron Indoor a few weeks ago, the Tar Heels are 4-point favorites at home.
North Carolina could be the hottest team in the country right now. The Tar Heels have won six in a row and 13 of their last 14 games, including their win at Duke. There have been a couple of close calls along the way, but UNC has looked convincing in almost all of their recent wins. With a win on Saturday night, the Tar Heels can secure at least a share of the ACC title.
Duke, on the other hand, hasn’t been quite the same since losing at home to North Carolina. To be fair, they’re 3-1 since then, including a road win over Syracuse and a blowout of Miami. But the Blue Devils have also lost to a short-handed Virginia Tech team and barely survived a home game earlier this week against a Wake Forest team that’s 4-13 in ACC play.
One Less Lottery Pick
Of course, Duke’s recent swoon has coincided with the absence of freshman sensation Zion Williamson. The Blue Devils never recovered after Williamson hurt his knee 30 seconds into the first meeting with North Carolina, and they haven’t quite figured out how to play without him. All signs point to Williamson sitting out Saturday’s game, forcing Duke to continue its search for Plan B.
Without Williamson, RJ Barrett has had no problem stepping up. He’s scoring over 26 points per game over his last five games, topping his season average of 23 points per game. But Cam Reddish, who is also a projected lottery pick, has been hot and cold, managing just six points in the close win against Wake Forest. Players like Tre Jones, Marques Bolden, and Alex O’Connell aren’t guarantees to make significant offensive contributions either, so when Reddish struggles to score, the pressure on Barrett to carry the team is immense.
While the Blue Devils will miss Williamson’s contributions on offense, his absence could be felt more on the defensive end. Without Williamson’s massive size clogging the paint, Duke could struggle to contain UNC big man Luke Maye. In the first meeting between these teams, Maye scored 30 points, making 14 shots from inside the arc. Duke will need to find an answer if they want to slow down Maye this time around.
Of course, Maye is just one-third of UNC’s three-headed scoring machine. The Blue Devils will also have to account for Colby White and Cameron Johnson. To be fair, Jones handled White in the first meeting, holding him to nine points and six turnovers. However, sharpshooter Johnson scored 26 points against Duke, and that was without making a 3-point shot. Knowing that they’ll have to pay closer attention to Maye could make Duke more vulnerable against both White and Johnson.
Even if Williamson makes an unlikely return, this is North Carolina’s game to lose. Barrett has been the only other reliable player on Duke’s roster while the Tar Heels have three high-volume scorers who are capable of having big games. Bet on North Carolina covering the 4-point spread against Duke on Saturday.