NEW YORK -- Duke and North Carolina.
The best rivalry in the sport, separated by less than 10 miles -- but it’s a game nearly 500 miles away in Brooklyn that could give one of them a chance at a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday.
The wins set up Round 3 between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels on Friday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) in the ACC semifinals, after the two teams split the regular-season series, with each team winning on its home court. This one means a little bit more, though. Neither team is in line for a 1-seed, with Kansas holding the final spot on the top line in most projected brackets. But if Duke or North Carolina can win the ACC tournament -- combined with a Kansas loss in the Big 12 tournament -- that victor could find itself atop a region in three days.
“It’s a big-time game,” North Carolina senior Theo Pinson said. “Everyone and their mama gonna be watching the game [Friday]. I’m going to be ready. My teammates are going to be ready.”
The two teams met less than a week ago, with Duke erasing a 10-point halftime deficit to win by 10. North Carolina won the first game exactly a month ago -- the final game in which Duke played man-to-man before switching to a full-time zone defense.
The Blue Devils have fully bought into playing the zone, with Thursday’s win over Notre Dame the eighth straight time Duke’s opponent has scored less than one point per possession.
“One trend that I'm seeing that is a good thing for our team is our defense at the end of the year is the best that it's been all season, and that's the same thing that happened in 2015,” Duke senior Grayson Allen said. “At the end of that year, by the time the tournament came around, we were playing -- we were one of the best defenses in the country.”
Bagley goes off in Duke's rout of Notre Dame
Marvin Bagley III records 33 points and 17 rebounds as Duke beats Notre Dame 88-70 in the ACC quarterfinals.
Allen hit his first five 3-pointers Thursday against Notre Dame, finishing with 23 points. It was his fifth 20-plus-point effort in his past eight games -- after hitting that mark just five times in the first 24 games of the season. Just as important, Marvin Bagley III finished with 33 points and 17 rebounds, a good sign considering a common refrain over the past month was that Allen and Bagley never seemed to have big games on the same night.
With Allen and Bagley clicking at the same time, though, and the zone defense locked in, Duke is starting to hit its peak at the right time.
“We're definitely on a roll right now,” Bagley said. “Everything is -- we don't have it all figured out yet. We're still learning, one thing at a time. But I definitely think that we're getting better and we're continuing to grow as a team, and it's not a better time to grow as it is in March when we're getting into tournaments and stuff like that. It's a perfect time for us to continue to come together and play at our best.”
North Carolina hasn’t done anything as drastic as switch from a man-to-man defense to a zone, but the Tar Heels aren’t the same team they were when they beat Duke earlier this season, either. The biggest change has come from Pinson, who has had six double-doubles in his past 15 games -- after doing it just once in his career before this recent stretch. Pinson has scored in double figures in eight straight games, going for a career-high 25 points Thursday against Miami.
Pinson's big night fuels UNC to win
Theo Pinson scores a career-high 25 points to go along with 11 rebounds as the Tar Heels beat the Hurricanes 82-65.
Pinson is taking on more of a playmaker role, going off the dribble and finding teammates. He was credited with only three assists on Thursday, but it felt like more.
“I have the ball in my hands a lot, so I have the choice of shooting the ball or passing to my teammates,” Pinson said. “If they’re not going to play me, I’ve got to be aggressive. That gets my teammates going. If I’m scoring, I’m a threat, so that means they have to guard me, too, and that just gets those guys even more open shots.”
Earlier in the season, North Carolina’s success came and went with the performance of Joel Berry and Luke Maye. If both those guys weren’t scoring, the Tar Heels found it tough to beat good teams. But on Thursday, Berry and Maye combined to shoot 5-for-29 from the field and finished with 13 points. Pinson stepped up, as did Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson. Roy Williams’ decision midseason to switch to a smaller lineup that puts his five best scorers on the court at the same time has made the Tar Heels far more dangerous offensively.
“We’ve always felt like we’re not just one guy, not just two guys. … ” Roy Williams said. “Those two guys have gotten most of the accolades, but it is a team out there, and I’m happy about that.”
While Duke and North Carolina are still developing as teams, and are beginning to hit their stride heading into the NCAA tournament, one thing that hasn’t changed is the Duke-Carolina rivalry. And it has a little more importance Friday.
Duke is next in line after Kansas for a 1-seed, as the Blue Devils have a top-five RPI and wins over North Carolina, Michigan State and a host of others. They’re also in the top three in the BPI and at KenPom, and No. 1 in Sagarin. North Carolina is a bit more of a long shot, but if the Tar Heels win the ACC tournament, they will have 14 Quadrant 1 wins -- only one other team has double-digit wins in that category.
Roy Williams tried to limit the pressure after Thursday’s games.
"Last year, we lost the game that's going to be played tomorrow,” he said, referring to Carolina losing to Duke in last year’s ACC tournament. “And I think we kept playing. My memory is not as good as it used to be, but I think we kept playing."
Williams can try to make it appear like any other game, but the reality is it’s still Duke vs. North Carolina -- but this time, it’s in Brooklyn.
And this time, it could be for a lot more than just regular-season bragging rights.