CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Who would have thought, as little as a month ago, that Duke and North Carolina would've been the two hottest teams in the ACC?
Yet that’s exactly where things stand entering Saturday’s rivalry showdown at the Smith Center, thanks in part to the return of Blue Devils forward Ryan Kelly a week ago and the Tar Heels’ switch to a four-guard starting lineup last month.
“We’ve accomplished a lot that hasn’t been seen, just coming together and working a lot harder than we did initially,” said UNC forward James Michael McAdoo, whose team has won six in a row since losing at Duke last month. “... After all those games, when you used to interview us, we used to say, ‘We need to learn from our mistakes.’ It took us long enough, but we’re at a point now where we don’t want to go back and have that feeling again.”
A few things to watch when the game tips off at 9 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN:
KELLY VERSUS P.J. HAIRSTON
UNC coach Roy Williams said he was wowed by the performance of Kelly, the third-ranked Blue Devils’ 6-foot-11 senior, when he scored a career-high 36 points against Miami last weekend; after all, it was the player’s first game back after missing 13 straight because of a foot injury.
With Kelly in the lineup, “their team changes drastically,” said Williams, whose Tar Heels lost to a Duke team sans the forward last month.
“You’ve got Seth [Curry] and Mason [Plumlee] and Quinn [Cook] and Rasheed [Sulaimon] and all of those guys who have played really well. And all of a sudden they’ve got a huge shot of adrenaline here two weeks before the tournament starts -- [with the return of a player] who, according to Mike [Krzyzewski], may have been their best team defender, best talker on the defensive end of the floor. [Who] gives them another rebounder, a guy who can take charges and block shots.
“And he gets 36 points in the first game back, that’s mind-boggling to me.”
Kelly has averaged 27 points in the two games since his return, and his matchup with 6-5 UNC sophomore Hairston -- who has averaged 17.6 points since he was inserted into UNC’s starting lineup during the Tar Heels’ last game at Duke -- will be key.
Especially considering that Krzyzewski himself has been a bit wowed by Hairston.
“Hairston’s played great -- not good, he’s played great,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s taken advantage of his matchup, and that matchup hasn’t taken advantage of him, because he’s really a tough kid, he’s strong. I just think he’s tough-minded. A bigger player hasn’t hurt him on his defensive end of the court, and he’s really hurt that other player. Really, he’s been one of the best players in the conference the last few weeks.”
Saturday will mark the final game at the Smith Center for shooting guard Dexter Strickland, UNC’s lone scholarship senior.
His career has been a roller coaster -- from an NIT season as a freshman, to a rebuilding season as a sophomore, to an ACL tear in 2011-12. But after settling for an inconsistent outside shot all too often earlier this season (he was still recovering from that knee injury, sometimes hampering his ability to drive to the basket), Strickland seems to be getting his speed and confidence back.
And at the right time.
“He’s a tough kid, he’s handled some tough times,” Williams said. “He’s really done some good things, and I’m really pleased that lately, things have gone a little bit smoother for him.”
Strickland, who also serves as backup point guard, has recorded 31 assists and only three turnovers during the Tar Heels' six-game winning streak -- a pretty impressive stretch for a player who had limited ballhandling experience when he first came to UNC.
THE ACC SEEDING RAMIFICATIONS
The Tar Heels have earned a first-day bye in the ACC tournament, but could still finish with the third or fourth seed. Duke will have the second seed, but still has a chance to share the regular-season league title.
Here’s the breakdown of scenarios for UNC entering Saturday:
If the Tar Heels win, they will tie Duke for second place in the regular-season conference standings, and be the No. 3 seed in the tournament. (Tiebreaker explanation: Duke and UNC split their series during the regular season, and the second tiebreaker is based on winning percentage against the top seed. Duke split its series with Miami, while UNC went 0-2 against the Hurricanes.)
If the Tar Heels lose and NC State beats Florida State on the road Saturday, then UNC and the Wolfpack would tie for third place -- but UNC would drop to the No. 4 seed in the tournament. (Tiebreaker explanation: The teams split with each other during the regular season, and neither beat top seed Miami. But NCSU went 1-1 against second-seeded Duke, while UNC would have finished 0-2.)
If the Wolfpack lose to the Seminoles, UNC gets the No. 3 seed in the tournament no matter the outcome against Duke.
And here's the breakdown of scenarios for Duke entering the game:
If the sixth-ranked Hurricanes win at home against Clemson on Saturday, they win the regular-season title outright.
If Duke beats UNC and Miami loses, the Blue Devils and Hurricanes tie for first place in the conference standings, but the Blue Devils get the second seed in the ACC tournament. (Tiebreaker explanation: The teams split, and both swept UNC, but Miami has a better winning percentage against both NC State and Virginia.)
If Duke loses to UNC, the rivals tie for second place in the league standings, but the Blue Devils earn the second seed in the ACC tourney (as explained above).