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It’s still Duke-North Carolina, no matter the rankings

PHOTO (UNC Athletics): Roy Williams masked up in a strange college basketball season.


Everyone knows by now Duke and North Carolina aren’t playing for an ACC title or No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They’re still clinging to hopes for an NCAA bid.

But it doesn’t seem to impact the intensity of the game.

It didn’t matter the first time around, even though much was made of the teams meeting as unranked opponents for the first time since 1960. The game went down to the final moments until North Carolina left Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 6 with a 91-87 victory.

Now the Blue Devils (11-10, 9-8 ACC), clinging to hopes to earn an NCAA bid in the 68-team field, travel for a 6 p.m. Saturday game at the Smith Center to face the Tar Heels (15-9, 9-6), who are trying to return to The Dance after a one-year absence.

The unranked anomaly goes back another five years this time. It’s the first time neither team was ranked in either game since playing Feb. 4, 1955 and Feb. 25, 1955. At least dating to 1960, at least North Carolina had won the first of its NCAA titles, in 1957. Neither team had a national champion banner hanging in 1955, only the third season of the ACC.

“It’s another big game,” said North Carolina junior guard Leaky Black in a Zoom call. “We know it’s Duke-Carolina, regardless if we’re ranked or not. Everyone will be tuned in, I’m pretty sure. You always want to play your best. It’s always an audition. Somebody might be watching – you never know. We’re going to play hard. We know what’s at stake.”

In the latest ESPN Joe Lunardi bracketology, Duke is listed as the “the last four in” for one of the play-in games. North Carolina remains listed as a No. 10 seed, seemingly a comfortable cushion. The rankings will shift some more entering next week’s ACC tournament.

The lack of national anticipation over the matchup spares us hyperbole from ESPN’s Dick Vitale, but it doesn’t change much else. Vitale still has to attend and Army-Navy Game before he has a right to claim Duke-North Carolina is the greatest rivalry in sports.

“All these games are really important for us,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Carolina has a better record. I would think that they would be in the tournament – I would hope that what they’ve done would’ve earned that. If we’d won these two overtime games (losses to Louisville and Georgia Tehc), we might be both in that situation, but we did not. I guess there’s something different for you guys to write about than the No. 1-seed and all that, but it’s still an extremely important game.”

Both teams have been consistently inconsistent, but one difference from the first Duke-UNC game has been the recent emergence of Mark Williams, a 7-foot-1, 230-pound freshman center. He has average 15.3 points and 8.0 rebounds in the last three game against Syracuse, Louisville and Georgia Tech. In that stretch he has played 25, 26 and a career-high 35 minutes.

In the first North Carolina game, he played only 14 minutes with two points and eight rebounds. North Carolina outrebounded Duke, 38-31.

But even with Williams seeing more playing time, North Carolina has a size advantage inside with sophomore Armando Bacot (6-10, 240), 10.4 points, 8.0 rebounds per game; senior Garrison Brooks (6-10, 240), 9.6, 6.0; freshman Day’Ron Sharpe (6-11, 265), 9.8, 8.0; and freshman Walker Kessler (7-1, 245), 4.1, 2.8.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams acknowledged the difference is only from the outside looking in.

“I don’t know if it makes any difference between the two teams and two coaches,” Williams said. “It’s still Duke vs. North Carolina, an ACC game, end of the regular season. For me, it’s just try to play as well as we can play and see what happens. See where we’re placed in the ACC tournament and play your tail off after that.”


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