Duke and North Carolina engaged in one of the all-time classics in the storied history of their rivalry on Feb. 8, a game won by the heavily favored Blue Devils in heart-stopping fashion. With the setting shifted to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN), will we get another nail-biter, or will Coach K & Co. engineer the blowout many expected of them a month ago? ESPN.com’s panel of experts weighed in on that scenario, among other top-of-mind topics on the final week of the 2019-20 college basketball regular season.
We’ll ask this question the same way we asked it last time: How surprised would you be if a North Carolina team in the midst of a historically dismal season figures out a way to beat Duke on Saturday?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I wouldn’t be surprised. We saw what happened in the first game, and that North Carolina squad was in the middle of a seven-game losing streak. Over the past five games, North Carolina has averaged 114 points per 100 possessions with Cole Anthony on the floor, while making 39.1% of its 3-point attempts and 52.1% of its shots inside the arc, per hooplens.com. Meanwhile, Duke played its first complete outing in weeks against NC State, which followed a 1-3 stretch for the Blue Devils.
These two went to overtime the first time. And this UNC team is probably better than that version of the Tar Heels. We’re not sure if the current Duke squad has improved since then. Could create fireworks on Saturday.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I’d still be pretty surprised, even though Carolina took Duke to overtime in early February and has won three in a row since its seven-game losing streak ended. The Tar Heels are clearly playing better on the offensive end over the past few weeks, scoring more than 1.25 points per possession in each of their past two games. They’re making 3s, they’re crashing the offensive glass and they’re getting to the free throw line.
That said, Duke seemed to flip a switch in the second half against NC State on Monday and had a lot of success with a smaller lineup featuring Wendell Moore Jr. at the 4 and Vernon Carey Jr. as the lone true frontcourt player on the floor. After tinkering with his lineups and rotations throughout ACC play, Mike Krzyzewski might have found a finishing lineup he could use late in games.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: Not surprised at all! North Carolina is just as good as we expected the Tar Heels to be … um, if you only started watching Roy Williams’ team three games ago. Who knows what Williams did to make this happen, finally. He threw a switch or tweaked a scheme or said the ceiling is the roof or something.
All we can say is that, starting with the win over NC State, the Heels have ripped off 1.23 points per possession in their past three victories. Don’t bother with any of that “small sample size” skepticism, either. The next 40 minutes against the Blue Devils qualifies for that same category and, anyway, Garrison Brooks has put up 81 points in those three wins. Nor has Duke been an unstoppable juggernaut lately in its own right. Expect a game.
Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: I’d be stunned, and remember, I was all-in on the Heels when they hosted Duke last month. To be sure, Carolina has been better of late, winning three consecutive games and discovering its first real offensive rhythm of 2020. But Duke — with a school record five 30-point wins in the ACC — is an entirely different animal at Cameron.
Carey, who went for 18 and 6 in the Dean Dome, continues to perform at an elite clip, showcasing a rare blend of size, quickness, dexterity and a soft touch out to 16 feet. I think fellow freshman Moore — injured for the first meeting — is a real difference-maker as well. He doesn’t produce the gaudiest numbers, but the Devils missed his activity, length and defensive prowess. I expect Moore to affect this game and for Carey to put up another big number at home en route to a relatively comfortable Duke win.
A number of conference regular-season races are coming down to the wire this weekend. Which race for regular-season conference supremacy are you most excited to watch play out?
Borzello: Of the top seven leagues, only the SEC has been decided so far, which should make for an unbelievable weekend. I’ll go with the Big East, simply because it has the best title-deciding game on the docket: Seton Hall at Creighton. The Pirates had a chance to clinch the outright title on Wednesday, but they fell at home to Villanova. They still hold a one-game lead on both Creighton and Villanova, but need a win to avoid sharing the title. Creighton won the first head-to-head meeting against Seton Hall, so Saturday’s showdown would give them a season sweep.
Meanwhile, Villanova has to go to Georgetown in the season finale and the Wildcats need a win and some help from Creighton to forge a tie. The special thing about the Big East is the double round-robin schedule, where every team plays each other twice. The regular-season champion is the true champion; unbalanced schedules aren’t a factor.
Gasaway: You can find me watching the homestretch of the Pac-12 race with a voluminous tub of popcorn. How amazing would it be if Mick Cronin went from written off on social media (usually omniscient and as trusty as the sun) as the wrong hire in early February to outright conference champion? I’ll answer that one, pretty dang amazing. It could happen. A Bruins win at USC will give the program a shot at its first outright Pac-12 regular-season title since 2013. Granted, UCLA was so thrilled with that title seven years ago that the coach was fired. Never mind, that won’t happen this time.
Medcalf: For me, it has to be the Big Ten. Like, how did we even get here? There was a significant stretch where it seemed as if Maryland would run away with the league crown. A few weeks ago, I pitched a piece to our boss Tony Moss that would be anchored by Maryland, which had seemed to find a way to actually live up to the hype the program had amassed over the last month. But he warned, “Maryland could still mess this up.” And here we are: Maryland’s 1-3 slide has opened the door to a possible four-team Big Ten title pie, which would be the perfect way to end this wild season. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Illinois and Maryland could all share this thing. But that’s not guaranteed, either. It’s chaos at the top of this league.
Schultz: You can’t go wrong here, but I’ll take the Big Ten too. Four teams — Maryland, Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin — all have six losses. Maryland has probably been the most consistent out of the bunch, but hasn’t been all that consistent and gets a very hungry Michigan team (ranked 25th) in College Park come Sunday. Cassius Winston-led Sparty was a preseason favorite to win it all, but has underachieved. Will this be another trademark Michigan State squad that makes a deep run and perhaps fetches Tom Izzo his second title? The Spartans will take on 19th-ranked Ohio State (winners of three straight) at the Breslin Center on Sunday.
Both the Illini and Badgers have been pleasant surprises. I love Illinois freshman center Kofi Cockburn (13.6 PPG, 9 RPG), as do plenty of NBA teams. The Badgers don’t have a star, but they get it done with precise execution and one of the top defensive units in the league. Who’s to say either Illinois or Wisconsin can’t win the Big Ten and make a run in March?
You may remember that last season Oregon was a middle-of-the-pack Pac-12 team presumably headed to the NIT before it got hot, won the conference tourney and didn’t stop winning ’til it got tripped up (barely) by eventual national champion Virginia in the Sweet 16. Who’s your candidate, from any of the multi-bid leagues, to be this season’s version of the Ducks?
Borzello: I’ve been riding with Florida all season; why stop now? I still think the Gators have the pieces to win a couple of games in March and they’ve already shown they can go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the SEC. Would it shock me if Mike White’s team went on a run at the SEC tournament and then advanced out of the first weekend? Not at all. There’s still plenty of talent on the roster and White has won at least one game in each of the past three NCAA tournaments. I also think Michigan is a good bet to win a game or two in March, and I think Texas Tech — assuming they get into the tournament — is a nightmare opponent for pretty much any 1- or 2-seed.
Gasaway: Purdue is the new Oregon. We don’t know if the Boilermakers will make the NCAA tournament, and a 16-14 record indicates how close this question is likely to be. But a team that swept Iowa, throttled Wisconsin by 19, crushed Michigan State by 29 and dismantled Virginia in Charlottesville by 29 is fit to be feared if it does make it into the bracket. Put those large margins in the victories together with that underwhelming record and listen to what the hoops gods are trying to tell us about Purdue. Matt Painter’s team likes to force turnovers, and when it works it is remarkably effective. When it doesn’t work, well, you get a 16-14 team. This group is a high-variance time bomb.
Medcalf: I’m on the Ed Cooley train. Providence is doing some Oregon-like things after winning five in a row and seven of its past nine. All in the Big East, one of America’s best conferences. Check out that dude Luwane Pipkins, who has scored at least 23 points in the team’s past three games. Since Feb. 1, Providence is ranked ninth in overall efficiency on barttorvik.com. And those numbers include wins against Seton Hall and Villanova (road). They’re not playing the Topeka YMCA. Providence is Oregon. Or maybe that Auburn team that won every game from Feb. 27, 2019, until last year’s Final Four.
Schultz: They’re not in the position that Oregon was a year ago, but in terms of Pac-12 teams not being mentioned as big March favorites, the Arizona Wildcats come to mind. Losers of three straight — including a home loss to last-place Cal — it’s the perfect time to buy low on Sean Miller & Co. The freshmen trio of Nico Mannion (third-best assist percentage in the conference), Josh Green (1.6 SPG leads all Pac-12 freshmen) and Zeke Nnaji (16.2 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 57.8% FGs) has given opponents fits all year with quickness, scoring punch and special defensive prowess from Green and his 6-11 wingspan.
A top-20 defensive team, per KenPom, the Wildcats are at their best when they can run and turn you over. The Pac-12 tournament in Vegas should provide ample opportunity. Mannion’s decision-making (32.5% assist percentage is tops of all Power 5 freshmen) will ultimately be the difference for the Cats. If he can control the game without turning the ball over, we’re talking about an Arizona team capable of advancing out of the first weekend and scaring anyone in the Sweet 16.
ESPN.com expert picks for this weekend’s top games
(Lines, when available, from Caesars Sportsbook. Predictors do not have access to lines when making score predictions.)