ACC Game of the Weekend: North Carolina at Duke

No. 6 North Carolina (26-4, 13-2) at No. 4/3 Duke (26-4, 13-2)

Carolina beat Duke last year on its home court to clinch the regular-season title. Can it do the same in Cameron, giving Carolina its first win there since 2009?

Everyone with a television set tuned to ESPN in the last month heard all about this game and that it will decide the ACC regular-season title. There has been some inevitable backlash to the national obsession with the rivalry, but with the success both teams have had – both in the ACC and nationally – the other 10 ACC fanbases with beef should probably just get over it. It’s not going anywhere, and the fact that this game decides the regular-season crown for one of the two teams (or both) more often than it doesn’t is Exhibit A as to why.

Keys to the game: The foul line. Duke shot 26 free throws against Carolina, and that is still the second-most against the Tar Heels this year. Four of Duke’s attempts came from being fouled on a three-pointer but a number of came from Carolina racking up fouls. That was uncharacteristic of the Tar Heels, who are No. 1 in the nation in fewest fouls per game, and something they’ll have to avoid in Cameron. Only one Duke home ACC opponent put Duke in the double bonus in the 2nd half earlier than Carolina did (the 9:08 mark) and that was NC State (9:25 mark).

Carolina shot 70% from the line in that game, but missed some late. Carolina has shot 75% or better in five of its last six games from the charity stripe and has attempted 24 or more foul shots in three out of the last six. Duke shot just 65.4% against Carolina and has shot over 70% four times since.

The three-point line. Carolina was outscored from beyond the arc 42-3 in the first matchup. Carolina had 34 two-point possessions and five one-point possessions with just three three-point possessions. Duke had 14 three-point possessions and one four-point possession (Seth Curry was fouled making a three), adding 18 two-point possessions and two one-point possessions.

Numbers aside, Carolina head coach Roy Williams said that of Duke’s 36 three-point attempts, no more than five came the same way and that’s what makes Duke dangerous. They can get three-point looks from different players and all kinds of ways, whether it be different types of screens, defensive lapses, pass fakes or sharp cuts.

It’s generally made too big a deal out of when Carolina loses to Duke – the Blue Devils have outscored Carolina from three in all but one game since 2004 (a Carolina loss). Duke is going to take a lot of three’s, and they’re going to make plenty. But Carolina has to hope that they miss more than they make. And Duke has to hope Carolina doesn’t suddenly show up draining three-pointers out of nowhere, as they have done at times this season, because Duke will struggle with Carolina’s inside game as it is.

Self-Belief. The Tar Heels have to believe they can win. They’ve played well just once on the road in league play (at NC State) and they should have won the first meeting with Duke anyway. It left a lot of Tar Heel players scratching their heads and wondering how that win slipped away. There might be a seed of doubt left over. Certainly Duke, no matter how many points it is down, will believe it can win. North Carolina has to maintain its poise and withstand the inevitable Duke runs.

And Duke, which has either lost or been tested far too many times in Cameron, has to avoid letting their own demons creep back. Carolina has let opponents shave points off leads but generally late and against the second string. When Carolina has been up 15 or more in the second half of an ACC game, no team has cut their lead to below ten.

Random stat: Adam Lucas provides a great look at this over on TarHeelBlue.com: This is the seventh regular-season Carolina-Duke finale that will decide the ACC regular-season title. Only three have happened in the Mike Krzyzewski era, and Carolina is 2-1 in those games. Two have come in the past four seasons (this marks the third in the last five years).

Prediction: North Carolina 84, Duke 77

Last week: 7-4

Season: 127-46 (63-27 ACC)

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