Amid all the pageantry of Coach K's final Cameron Indoor Stadium appearance as head coach of the Duke Blue Devils on Saturday, there will be a rather important basketball game as well (6 p.m. ET, ESPN). The North Carolina Tar Heels will make the short journey to Cameron as a team trying to strengthen its position on the NCAA tournament bubble and also avenge a thoroughly one-sided 87-67 loss to its hated rivals in Chapel Hill on Feb. 5.
Having already clinched the ACC regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in next week's conference tournament in Brooklyn, New York, Duke could strengthen its position for a top seed in the NCAA tournament with a victory. (The Blue Devils might also have an interest in sending their Hall of Fame coach out with a win on the court that bears his name.) With that in mind, ESPN's college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and John Gasaway made their score predictions for Saturday's Sonic Blockbuster matchup, also weighing in on what has surprised them most about this Duke team.
The Blue Devils cruise to an 87-67 victory over the Tar Heels in Mike Krzyzewski's last game coaching at Chapel Hill.
What has surprised you most about a Duke team that has claimed its first outright ACC regular-season title since 2005-06?
Medcalf: I'm surprised it was this easy for Duke. The Blue Devils have lost three ACC games (Miami, Virginia and Florida State) by four points combined. They are, by a healthy margin, the most efficient offensive and defensive team in the league. We knew this was their title to lose, but with a weak ACC, we didn't see some of the drama that would have made for a cool ending in the inevitable Coach K 30 for 30. The Blue Devils have won 12 of their 16 league games by double digits. And they haven't lost to the two teams behind them in the standings (Notre Dame and North Carolina). Saturday's game would have been more fun with an ACC title on the line. But this talented group wasn't gonna allow any of those theatrics in their legendary head coach's final season.
Borzello: I'm most surprised at how bad the ACC has been this year; there's not another NCAA tournament lock in the group. It's allowed a young Duke team that showed some signs of collectively hitting the freshman wall in late January and early February to still waltz to the title in fairly convincing fashion.
The biggest surprise to me has been AJ Griffin. He was a highly touted recruit coming out of high school, but he dealt with injuries late in his high school career, then got hurt again in the preseason. All indications coming out of Duke in October were that Griffin was behind the eight ball a little bit entering the season, and it might take some time for him to figure things out. And that turned out to be the case; Griffin played more than 16 minutes just once in the first month of the season. But once he found his footing, he's been terrific. He's shooting nearly 50% from 3-point range, and since becoming a starter 16 games ago, he's averaging 13.2 points and 4.4 rebounds.
Gasaway: At the risk of sounding too obvious and straightforward, I am surprised by just how good Duke is. It seems like word kind of isn't getting out on that front because lately the Blue Devils have been dominating the soft midsection of this year's "down" ACC. Still, even when one makes due adjustments for the opponents, Duke has been really impressive. We're a long way from the team that was criticized for poor defense after losing at home to Miami.
Then again, maybe I shouldn't be so surprised. Coach K's final team is all of 13 points away from being 30-0 right now. Then we'd be carrying on about Banchero, Griffin and Moore the way we did last March about Timme, Suggs and Kispert. We shouldn't underestimate Duke just because this group really hasn't had a worthy ACC foe on the order of your "usual" Virginia or North Carolina teams.
North Carolina was beaten soundly when these teams met in Chapel Hill. Do you have any reason to expect the Tar Heels to hang around longer this time?
Medcalf: Yep, but not because of anything tangible. Yes, North Carolina has displayed a more high-powered offense and a Roy Williams-like approach to offensive rebounding in recent outings. But a team led by Lunardi, Gasaway, Borzello and myself might have just as much of a shot at struggling Louisville, NC State and Syracuse -- three of the teams UNC has defeated during a four-game winning streak.
The history, however, will be why UNC hangs around longer this time. Hubert Davis and Co. were embarrassed in the first matchup and I think they will have a greater sense of urgency in this one (see: Selection Sunday implications). Plus, average UNC/Duke teams have beaten good UNC/Duke teams in the past. In his third and final season, Matt Doherty's Tar Heels entered their season finale in 2003 against Duke with a 5-10 ACC record but still found a way to beat J.J. Redick's Blue Devils that night. Weird things happen in this series. I expect a little drama on Saturday.
Medcalf score prediction: Duke 79, North Carolina 71
Borzello: I don't think Carolina will win and there's no reason to really expect a tight game on paper. But it's Duke and Carolina, and the last game was decided by 20 points, so I can't imagine the Tar Heels get run off the floor again. It's Coach K's final game at Cameron Indoor, so the environment is going to be unlike anything we've seen in this rivalry, but I also think Carolina will come out playing pretty freely. The Tar Heels are not necessarily desperate for a win, especially after pulling one out over Syracuse earlier this week, to notch 10 wins in their last 12 games. The Tar Heels don't have many (any?) quality wins, but their metrics and overall résumé are probably good enough to get a bid at this point.
If Carolina is to keep it close and actually make it a game, it's likely going to come down to Caleb Love. He played really poorly for most of regulation against Syracuse, but hit a couple of big shots late in the game to force overtime and then help the Tar Heels pull away in overtime. Love is actually playing some of his best basketball of his Chapel Hill career, averaging 18.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.2 assists over his last six games. He did have some really good performances against Duke last season, but he will have to take care of the ball, limit ill-advised shots and make good decisions against the Blue Devils on Saturday.
Borzello score prediction: Duke 84, North Carolina 74
Gasaway: Yes, I expect the Tar Heels to make a better showing, in part because the previous game was just so extreme. I don't know how many times I've been told "Duke and North Carolina have played since (forever) and the total combined score is within one point," or some such. Well, the previous meeting did not reflect that kind of balance. Plus, Myron's on point as usual: UNC really has been playing better on offense. In fact, the Heels had to win an honest to goodness shootout to get a victory on their home floor against Syracuse. North Carolina scored 88 points in an overtime game that was played at a slower-than-usual pace for 45 minutes. Armando Bacot hauled in nine offensive boards.
No, Duke's not as vulnerable on the defensive glass as the Orange, but the Blue Devils aren't impervious there either. I expect to see a better contest this time.
Gasaway score prediction: Duke 76, North Carolina 68