The North Carolina Tar Heels are set for their second rivalry meeting against the Duke Blue Devils today, and top recruits such as 2016 five-star power forward Harry Giles will be in attendance in Chapel Hill to watch UNC take on the No. 3 Blue Devils. Duke is back on the right track after Ryan Kelly re-joined the team a little bit earlier than expected, and he was making it rain demolition-style against the Miami Hurricanes. Duke avenged an earlier loss to UM thanks to Kelly’s ridiculous return, and Duke is likely the best team in the country with their star stretch forward. Without him, they might not be much better than UNC.
The Tar Heels turnaround this season came against Duke in mid-February. After a blowout against Miami broke up a three-game winning streak for the Tar Heels, the squad turned it around by playing Duke tough on the road with a narrow 73-68 loss. Thereafter, UNC cemented themselves as an NCAA Tournament team by embarking on a sensational six game winning streak that included blowout wins over solid teams in Virginia, Maryland, and the rival North Carolina State Wolfpack.
UNC might find it more difficult to beat Duke now that Kelly is playing, but we must also keep in mind that the Tar Heels are a better team than the were when they played Duke in mid-February. Although Duke has likely improved much more since then due to the return of Ryan Kelly, UNC’s six-game winning streak was more than just a result of improved morale and a better mentality. The Tar Heels switched things up schematically, and Roy Williams is finally taking advantage of P.J. Hairston’s talents and has modified his scheme to better fit the other talented players on the roster.
Today’s game at 9:00 p.m. ET in the Dean E. Smith Center will obviously be on ESPN, because it features the biggest rivalry in college hoops. Duke and North Carolina are both playing top 25 caliber ball, and I honestly think UNC should be ranked between 22 and 25. Duke definitely deserves their top three ranking, and a convincing win over the Tar Heels could vault them into first. Meanwhile, a win for UNC would safely entrench them as one of the top 20 teams in the country.
What a turnaround it has been for Roy Williams and his boys in Chapel Hill. They are playing much better due to some great ball movement and better rebounding. It is somewhat easy to forget that James Michael McAdoo is hauling in nearly eight boards per game, and that Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston are pulling down six and four boards per contest respectively. There are six other players on the team who are averaging at least two rebounds per game as well.
Duke is my pick to win this game, because they are just so good with Ryan Kelly back in the fold. Although they didn’t beat Miami by much, it was still just Kelly’s first game back from his severe injury. It’s easy to trump up Duke too much due to the return of Kelly, but I still expect them to win this game. I also expect this game to be extremely close, and I think it’s going to be in the same five-point window as it was last time. UNC is also at home and it is a rivalry game, so a five-point margin as a prediction is almost a wash- this game could really go either way. In the end, though, I’m not going to bet against a Duke team with a healthy Kelly (team-leading 28.6 PER this year).
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.