There are few rivalries in any sport that can compete with Duke and North Carolina. On Friday night, we get the tiebreaker to the slugfest.
Duke and North Carolina are powerhouses in NCAA basketball each and every year, so, when they meet, all eyes are drawn to them. Two Hall of Fame coaches helm ships of potential NBA stars as they do battle for bragging rights. This season is no different.
Record-wise, Carolina has had the edge and finished atop the ACC with a 14-4 mark in conference play; Duke stumbled and was just 11-7, but managed to go 25-8 after torching everyone on their non-conference schedule. Both teams are led by future first-rounders who are the two best players in the conference.
Luke Kennard and Justin Jackson headlined the All-ACC First Team, and Jackson was the recipient of the conference’s Player of the Year award. He didn’t have the best statistical season, but Jay Bilas made an interesting point the other day when he said how the award should be given to the best player on the best team. It’s hard to argue with that, and the development of Jackson is remarkable. After deciding to come back for his junior year, the 6-8 Texas native inflated his scoring average to 18.1 points and shot 45.2 from the field.
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Jackson always had the ability to get to the hole, but he took that next step by becoming a knockdown shooter from three. Heading into tonight’s contest, his 87 made threes are second in the ACC, and his 38.2 clip is third. Couple that with his in-between game, and Jackson is a tough guard for whoever matches up against him.
Fortunately for Duke, they have a player of similar caliber in Kennard. There’s no question about who the leader of this team is after the season the sophomore put together. Heading into 2017, the Blue Devils’ roster was packed to the brim with talent and was going to be led by Grayson Allen. That expectation was wrong. The second coming of J.J. Redick didn’t pan out, and he’s in the midst of a sub-par season after being in the National Player of the Year talk in 2016.
He managed to hit some big shots against Louisville in Duke’s last game, but Kennard has been the go-to guy. The 6-5 lefty is one of college basketball’s trickiest guards because he’s efficient and doesn’t have a hole in his game. Impeccable footwork is what allows Kennard to create so many chances even without being super-athletic with the ball on a string. Few college players can replicate that — and even fewer are guards.
While Kennard and Jackson are the most notable, it’ll be the other guys who decide the victor, and that’s been a theme throughout.
Getting three matchups between Duke and North Carolina in one season is like having 19-year-old Britney Spears sing “Happy Birthday” to you … and the cake is made out of rainbow cookies.
The first meeting was back in February and Duke was already three games into their seven-game winning streak. Carolina was the fourth game of that stretch, but they were showing how they were clearly one of the nation’s most dominant teams. Game number one was a shooting in every sense of the word.
Both squads shot better than 50 percent from the field, and Jayson Tatum was the deciding factor. Everyone watching knew that Jackson, Berry, Kennard and Allen were going to get theirs and it was up to all the complementary pieces to step up. The first duo did what we expected and combined for 36 Carolina’s 78, but Kennedy Meeks was the only other Tar Heel to score more than eight points. And he had nine.
Looking over at the opposite bench, Duke, who’s not deep at all, got exactly was what necessary to take home the dub. Allen was the hot hand with 25 and Kennard followed his lead with 20 of his own, but it was Tatum (and Frank Jackson) who put the pressure on UNC. The freshman was dreadful from the field and missed nine of his 14 shots, but he didn’t relent. By the end of the night, 19 points accompanied Tatum’s name, and he was 7-of-8 from the line. Moreover, he displayed great versatility: nine rebounds, five assists and two blocks.
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Jackson had 11 points in 20 minutes, and it’s important I point out the 50-50 ball Matt Jones came up with about 30 seconds left in the game.
I’ll admit I misspoke saying their first meeting was a shootout because matchup two blew that one away. The final regular season game — and senior night for the Tar Heels — had a frenetic pace that made it look professional. Carolina did a solid job limiting Duke’s field goals, but the whistle was not in their favor, and Duke got 35 attempts from the line.
At the forefront was Allen, who got eight of his 14 points from the free throw line. Kennard was also huge from the stripe but was able to get going from the field on top of it, and the Heels had no one to slow down the sophomore who finished with a game-high 28 on 9-of-17 shooting. The Blue Devils’ effort was rounded out by Jackson (15 points), Tatum (13 points) and Amile Jefferson (12 points), but no one came up more clutch than Joel Berry.
He matched Kennard’s 28 with the same amount and connected on each of his five shots from three. If Berry didn’t play that well, UNC would’ve been on the losing end yet again. Not only did he nail a clutch jumper over Allen late in the half, but Justin Jackson was playing terribly and had just 15 points on abysmal 6-of-17 shooting. He did, however, have the game-sealing bucket that put the Heels up 88-83 with 20.4 seconds left.
Isaiah Hicks, one of the seniors who got honored, was huge for Roy Williams and put together his best outing of the season that night. In his final game at the Dean Smith Center, Hicks exploded for 21 on 7-of-9 from the field and also hauled in nine rebounds.
I’m far from a bracketologist so I can’t tell you that we’re going to see these two meet in the NCAA Tournament at some point. Regardless if they do or don’t, this game will have the feel of it. And this is the best part — it’s not even for the conference championship.
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