It's astounding that for as excellent as both Duke and North Carolina have been for decades, the 2022 Final Four marks the first NCAA Tournament in which the two blue-blood programs meet.
The last time both reached the national semifinals in the same season was 1991, before legendary Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski had ever won a national championship and when current Tar Heels head coach Hubert Davis played for Hall of Famer Dean Smith.
With more than 30 years leading up to this moment, and Coach K seeking a sixth title to cap an illustrious career, college basketball's premier rivalry takes center stage for one of the sport's most highly anticipated matchups.
Final Four: East Region No. 8 North Carolina (28-9) vs. West Region No. 2 Duke (32-6)
Time: Saturday, April 2 at 8:49 p.m. ET
Where: Caesars Superdome (New Orleans)
Spread: Duke -4
Keys for North Carolina
Hubert Davis' predecessor Roy Williams favored an up-tempo, high-scoring brand of basketball, and the first-year head coach did not deviate from that. The Tar Heels come into the Final Four ranked top 40 nationally in adjusted tempo, per KenPom.com, and No. 18 in adjusted offensive efficiency thanks to their low turnover rate and outstanding team-wide 3-point shooting.
And indeed, in key wins over this same Duke team to cap the regular season, as well as a second-round upset of reigning national champion Baylor, North Carolina effectively pushed the pace to the tune of 94 and 93 points (with a 95-point outpouring against Marquette sandwiched between, for good measure).
In the win at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Tar Heels scored 1.25 points per possession, outpacing a Duke team that leads the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. But Carolina's ability to outpace the Blue Devils wasn't merely the Heels outrunning their rivals: The Heels held Duke to 1.05 points per possession.
That's something of a magic number to beating the Blue Devils: anything below 1.1 gives an opponent a shot. In Duke's six losses this season, it fell below that threshold five times.
Central to the win last month was Armando Bacot's play on the interior. He was excellent on offense but, perhaps more importantly, held Duke's sensational freshman Paolo Banchero to 10-of-21 shooting inside the 3-point arc.
Keys for Duke
Defending North Carolina's starting five has proven to be a case of picking one's poison here late in the season. Brady Manek's caught fire and can scorch defenses from 3-point range — he's shooting a hair below 40 percent for the season and has hit multiple treys in 10 out of the last 11 games — and North Carolina's lost five games when he's connected on just one or none.
But in mitigating Manek's threat from outside, the Blue Devils must also account for Caleb Love. Love has two NCAA Tournament games with six made 3-pointers. He's been able to stretch defenses out with his shooting, feeding off that of Manek as well, then attacks the rim off the dribble.
Duke used some zone defensive looks to get to the Final Four, showing the old dog Coach K is more than willing to adopt new tricks even in his last season. Zone might be an answer for the dribble-drive penetration and Bacot's touch around the rim, but daring Carolina to shoot from 3-point range would be a risky gamble.
On the flip side, attacking the paint to draw fouls on the Tar Heel defenders will be significant. North Carolina lacks depth, and Duke throwing out the tandem of Banchero and 7-footer Mark Williams could generate some whistles down low.
North Carolina is playing its best basketball of the season for the past month and looks especially dangerous. Lack of depth has yet to hurt the Heels so far in the NCAA Tournament, but can that good fortune continue in New Orleans?
Duke battled to reach this point, adapting its style as it's gone along — most notably the implementation of some zone defense. The Blue Devils will assuredly bring a more lively defensive performance into the Superdome than the porous showing against UNC at the end of the regular season, but will it be enough?