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Duke and North Carolina continue to confound entering Battle of the Blues

PHOTO (Duke Athletics): Mark Williams scored 20 points at Georgia Tech.


Now what?

Nobody knows. College basketball has always been a game of upsets, but the COVID-19 pandemic has added additional head-scratching over results.

Duke and North Carolina are both coming off disappointing losses as they prepare for Round II of the Battle of Blues, Duke (11-10, 9-8 ACC) and North Carolina (15-9, 9-6 ACC) at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Smith Center.

North Carolina lost Monday at Syracuse, 72-70, while committing 20 turnovers. Duke lost Tuesday at Georgia Tech in overtime, 81-77, while shooting just 7-of-26 (26.9 percent) from three-point range.

Can one team bounce back better than the other from a loss as they have throughout the season? Or will they both come up lacking again in their struggles with inconsistent play?

North Carolina remains in the 68-team field as projected by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi as a No. 10 seed, but Duke is now among “first four out.” There is still time for both teams to improve – or hurt – their resume with Saturday’s final regular-season game followed by the ACC tournament.

The fact they’re both unranked is confounding enough to understand. When North Carolina won 91-87 on Feb. 6, it marked the first time both schools met while unranked since 1960.

The 1960 Tar Heels, though, finished strong enough to be ranked No. 16 entering the ACC tournament. Meanwhile, Duke got on a roll in the ACC tournament, including upsetting North Carolina in the semifinals, to win the ACC tournament and finished ranked No. 18 in the final poll. In those days, only one team advanced to the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils won two games before falling in the regional final.

Might a similar scenario play out with one or both teams finishing strong?

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, pointing to a second straight overtime loss among Duke’s eight single-digit defeats this season, says his team is playing hard but hasn’t gotten the breaks that have gone their way in the past.

“The kids have fought all year,” Krzyzewski said. “They have not given up. Again, you have a unit that you don’t really practice that much with, and they’re in there and they figure out a way where really, we could win. You’ve got a great shot there and that would’ve been unbelievable. This group just hasn’t had anything unbelievable happen for them, but they’ve continued to work hard and compete.

“They’ve been a good group. I’m very disappointed, but they will keep fighting, and we’ve got to do that again Saturday night. Every time we line up, that’s what we have to do. Our guys have done that. Over the years, we’ve been very fortunate, so I don’t know if the basketball gods are evening things up a little bit. We respect Georgia Tech and we’re not going to make any excuses. We’re going to keep fighting and see what the heck happens.”

Duke was only 7-of-26 from three-point range and played the final 6:14 of regulation without Matthew Hurt after he fouled out. Hurt finished with only 12 points, while freshman center Mark Williams and sophomore guard/forward Wendell Moore both scored 20.

North Carolina’s problem has been turnovers. Syracuse scored 28 points off of 20 turnovers.

“It’s frustrating, there’s no question,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “We talk about turnovers. We practice. We emphasize it in practice. We give discipline points if you do turn it over in practice. All those kinds of things. But the bottom line is I haven’t gotten them to understand how important the possession of the ball is.

“I’ve got to do a better job of getting them to understand borderline plays can’t be made. Up on the board, the three things that I put down. Make the easy play was one of those but I haven’t been able to get them to do it. They can read it up on the board, but I haven’t been able to get them to understand it and just make the easy play.”


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