Something strange has happened with the Duke-North Carolina rivalry this season.
No, the intensity and fire didn't dissipate in the Tar Heels' thrilling 82-78 win in Chapel Hill in early February, but as we prepare for Saturday's rematch inside Cameron Indoor (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), we do so while scratching our heads to figure out who these two blue bloods really are.
In what is very rare to this bitter rivalry, No. 5 Duke (24-6, 12-5 ACC) and No. 9 North Carolina (22-8, 11-6) will face each other on the final weekend of the regular season as total mysteries to us -- and probably themselves.
This time of year, we usually know what to expect from these teams. But here are supposedly two of the best teams in the country, and they have confused us to no end during the second half of the season. UNC went from breaking a three-game losing streak to close out January by winning six straight in February, to losing to Miami 91-88 on senior night at home to a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from just beyond half court.
Yes, a prayer clinched the result, but even before that, UNC allowed Miami to shoot nearly 55 percent from the floor, including 50 percent from 3-point territory. The Heels also missed seven free throws and turned the ball over 13 times.
Duke has gone from potential No. 1 seed to a team hoping to secure a No. 2 seed with its own five-game winning streak in February. However, that win streak was undone by an ugly 64-63 loss at Virginia Tech -- a game the Blue Devils controlled throughout until failing to score at all in the final two minutes.
In wins, these two have looked like national title contenders. In losses, well, we just aren't sure what to make of them. The only thing consistent about these teams has been inconsistency, and there's a good chance we really won't know who either is until the NCAA tournament.
Both are enigmas, but that isn't to say they aren't good teams. Good teams cross the 20-win threshold with ease; which they have. And good teams head into March as high seeds; which they will be. These are good teams; they're just different from the two teams we saw last season.
UNC has yet to convince us that it can stand on the same platform as the national championship-winning Heels from 2017, but consider that this team has just two more losses than last season's team had at this point. Maybe the team that almost swept February is the real UNC of the 2017-18 season. Another win over Duke could give the Heels a much better sense of their own identity going into the ACC tournament and beyond.
Duke has to figure out how it wants to play, and it has to do so right now. More importantly, the Blue Devils have to figure out whether they're a better team without star freshman forward Marvin Bagley.
Yes, it sounds crazy when you consider that Bagley is projected to be a lottery pick in this year's NBA draft, but small ball without Bagley led to four straight wins for Duke. His return resulted in the Blue Devils scoring their second- and third-fewest points of the season, including in this week's loss to Virginia Tech.
Duke has found its defensive footing with its zone, but the other end of the floor is a total question mark at this point for us, and probably for the Blue Devils themselves.
Both of these teams are as far as can be from the bubble, but their true identities remain a mystery. Saturday is a chance for Duke and UNC to point themselves in the right direction as the season continues to shorten.
Other teams to watch this weekend:
No. 20 West Virginia at Texas, noon ET, Saturday, ESPN
This is certainly more about the Longhorns (17-13, 7-10 Big 12) than the Mountaineers (22-8, 11-6). West Virginia is firmly in the NCAA tournament and has won four of its past five games. Texas, however, has lost five of its past seven and is currently listed as a No. 11 seed in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi's latest bracket -- and is a part of his First Four.
But for Texas to possibly solidify a spot in the tournament -- without having to win the upcoming Big 12 tournament -- the Longhorns will likely have to end the regular season with a win over the 20th-ranked Mountaineers. Revenge should also be on the Longhorns' minds after West Virginia pummeled them 86-51 in Morgantown back in January.
South Carolina at No. 14 Auburn, 3:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, SECN
For a national audience, it’s probably hard to get invested in this game, but it will help decide the SEC’s regular-season champion. Auburn (24-6, 12-5 SEC) had a chance to lock up the conference last Saturday but was upset at Florida 72-66. The Tigers had another opportunity to take home the title on Tuesday but fell 91-82 at Arkansas.
Auburn, which Lunardi has dropped to a No. 3 seed, lost to the Gamecocks 84-75 when they first met in mid-February. South Carolina (16-14, 7-10) has since won two of its past three games.
An Auburn loss and a Tennessee win over Georgia would give the 16th-ranked Vols the SEC regular-season crown.
Notre Dame at No. 1 Virginia, 4 p.m. ET, Saturday, ACCNE
Again, this is more about the underdog. Virginia (27-2, 16-1 ACC) has already locked up the ACC regular-season title, but the Cavaliers are still in the hunt for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
For Notre Dame (18-12, 8-9), this is a chance to change the NCAA tournament committee’s opinion. While the Irish are a part of Lunardi’s Next Four Out, the return of All-American senior forward Bonzie Colson from a broken bone in his left foot has given this team postseason life. That was pretty evident as Colson recorded 12 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes in Notre Dame’s 73-56 over Pittsburgh on Wednesday night.
Notre Dame hasn’t been good enough to get into the NCAA tournament without Colson in the lineup for the past two months (going 6-9), but if the Irish beat the No. 1 team in the country on the road with Colson, Notre Dame might be a more appealing team to committee members.
TCU at No. 12 Texas Tech, 4 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN2
At the start of the season, no one thought that these would be the two teams from the state of Texas with a real shot at competing for the Big 12 title in February. And while Kansas locked up its 14th straight regular-season championship last week, Texas Tech (22-8, 10-7 Big 12) and TCU (21-9, 9-8) made things interesting for the conference all season.
Both teams are firmly in the NCAA tournament, with Lunardi listing Texas Tech as a No. 4 seed and TCU as a No. 6 seed, but Saturday is a chance for Texas Tech to get some much-needed momentum going into the Big 12 tournament and stop its four-game losing streak.
Texas Tech beat the Horned Frogs 83-71 in early February, but TCU is riding a four-game winning streak.
California at No. 19 Arizona, 6:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, PAC12N
Despite the drama surrounding the Wildcats (23-7, 13-4 Pac-12), Arizona locked up the Pac-12 regular-season title with its 75-67 win over Stanford on Thursday night. The Wildcats did it with Sean Miller back coaching after publicly denying an ESPN report involving him and an alleged pay-to-play conversation concerning star freshman Deandre Ayton. Arizona also saw the return of top guard Allonzo Trier, who had been declared ineligible by the NCAA after testing positive for a banned substance. Trier missed just two games and scored 18 points in his return.
This is a chance to see what a clear-minded Arizona team can do against a Cal (8-22, 2-15) team that has lost 15 of its past 16 games before heading to the Pac-12 tournament. On paper, Arizona should roll against the Pac-12's worst team, especially considering that the Wildcats prevailed through a drama-filled Thursday and will conclude the regular season in front of what should be a raucous home crowd.
No. 10 Cincinnati at No. 11 Wichita State, noon ET, Sunday, CBS
The Shockers (24-5, 14-3 American) might have needed overtime to beat UCF on Thursday, but with a seven-game winning streak in hand, they'll face Cincinnati (26-4, 15-2) at home in a winner-take-all matchup for the regular-season American Conference championship. The Bearcats will enter Sunday's game with a three-game winning streak, but lost to Wichita State earlier this season 76-72.
With that win over Cincinnati, another win Saturday would allow the Shockers to win the American in their first season in the league. We wondered how the Shockers would do playing in the American with tougher league competition, and they have adjusted just fine.
A win by the Bearcats would be their first regular-season title since sharing the crown with Louisville in 2014.