Mid-February already was abnormally late for the first Duke-North Carolina game. The original tipoff for Feb. 12 was only the second time since 1988 the first meeting of the rivalry was played as late as February.
Then came the snow in the Tobacco Road.
The postponement made Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams wait until Feb. 20 for their first meeting of the season.
For fans, the wait will pay off in fascinating ways. Duke will play three games in five days, including Saturday’s matchup with Syracuse at Cameron Indoor. North Carolina is amidst a stretch of four games in eight days.
And more than that, a little more than two weeks will separate this game and the return trip to Durham on March 8.
Not a bad way to ease into March Madness.
What’s on the line for Duke
The Blue Devils remain in contention for a No. 1 seed, but this game will loom large for a team with five overall losses and a 10-3 record in the ACC. The rivalry has been tilted toward Duke since 2010 as Krzyzewski’s team has won seven of the last nine. Despite Duke’s edge in the rankings and ACC standings, the Tar Heels have one more RPI top 50 wins (five) than the Blue Devils this season (four).
What’s on the line for North Carolina
The Tar Heels need to legitimize this latest hot streak of seven consecutive wins. An enigma to start the season, North Carolina isn’t losing to teams outside of the RPI top 100 anymore (Miami, UAB and Wake Forest). If the Heels can show they can still beat the top teams, the selection committee should feel confident putting Carolina in the top half of the bracket.
Duke at North Carolina
Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN/ACC Network
Line: Duke by 2
Record: 21-5, 10-3 ACC
About North Carolina
Record: 18-7, 8-4 ACC
Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Duke 72-68
Braden Gall: North Carolina 77-74
Mitch Light: Duke 77-64
You’ll tune in to watch: Jabari Parker, Duke
The Blue Devils freshman will play his first and probably only game in Chapel Hill before he goes to the NBA Draft. After a brief slump early in the conference schedule, Parker again looks like the best freshman in a star-studded rookie class. Since fouling out of the overtime loss to Syracuse, Parker is averaging 22.3 points and 10.5 rebounds in his last four games.
Pivotal Player: James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina
Much of North Carolina’s turnaround has been due to the improved play of James Michael McAdoo. After an uneven sophomore season, McAdoo is becoming the player Roy Williams hoped he would be. McAdoo’s turnaround has been keyed by playing closer to the basket rather than settling for mid-range jumpers. He had 24 points and 12 rebounds in Saturday’s win over Pittsburgh, but he got into foul trouble against Florida State on Monday for a scoreless night.
Biggest question: How does Duke handle Carolina in the paint?
Duke’s biggest weakness is on the interior as the Blue Devils have allowed opponents to shoot 49.3 percent form 2-point range, an average that ranks 200th in the country. If McAdoo is attacking the paint, he’ll give Duke trouble. Beyond McAdoo, North Carolina also has 6-foot-9, 200-pound freshman Kennedy Meeks, who exploded for a 23-point, seven-round performance Monday against Florida State.