This result almost completely depends on Zion Williamson and there’s no reason to bet it before his status is declared. As of Wednesday, he was “unlikely to play.” Without Williamson, it’s been a bit sketchy for Duke outside of the Miami Game. It already lost at Virginia Tech and only came back against Syracuse because Alex O’Connell had his most productive Game of the season. Duke’s inabilities once again showed up against Wake Forest on Tuesday, barely escaping one of the worst teams in the ACC.
As for North Carolina, it still has a chance for a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament, but also a share of the ACC regular-season title. The Tar Heels have oddly lost both of their ACC Games at home, but if Williamson doesn’t play, it’s hard to see the road team stealing the rematch.
With Williamson, everything changes. He not only gives the Blue Devils someone to defend LUke Maye and others in the paint, but also another offensive piece, which they’ve lacked in almost every Game without him. RJ Barrett is a great player, but he’s often been left to do it all for Duke since neither Tre Jones nor Cam Reddish have improved their scoring. Reddish is always a threat and he had 27 points in the first meeting, but that was his best performance of the season and Duke was still handled easily. Jones should Scoremore than the three points he had in the first meeting, but he’s not a guy that’s going to catch fire and bang in a bunch of threes. Without Williamson, Duke simply doesn’t have enough offensive pieces against good teams, as Marques Bolden, O’Connell and Jack White are all inconsistent.
As for the Heels, Maye should once again have an edge if Williamson can’t play after putting up 30 points and 15 boards. Coby White will have trouble getting past Jones, but that doesn’t matter if Duke doesn’t have anyone that can stop Cameron Johnson, who went 11-for-13 inside the arc in the 88-72 win at Cameron Indoor. The Heels also get a slightly more healthy Nassir Little, who is another boost off the bench, while Garrison Brooks can consistently win his matchup against Bolden and Javin DeLAurier.
If Zion doesn’t play, it’s hard to see Duke winning, that’s as simple as it gets. Duke doesn’t have the defense nor the scoring to keep up without him. The hope for the Blue Devils would be that Barrett gained a few pounds and bodies up Maye down low, but that’s not going to happen. If Duke throws Bolden on Maye, that will leave Brooks with an easy matchup even though he’s not much of an offensive force. That could make things interesting, but no matter what the Blue Devils do, they’ll still be at a disadvantage, especially since White and Johnson can shoot over the zone, as well.
With Zion, everything is different. He could lock down Maye, but also, UNC doesn’t have anyone to guard Zion on the other end. He would feast against Maye and be too athletic for Brooks. That would at least throw in another wrinkle to this matchup. Otherwise, the absence of Zion doesn’t leave many opportunities for a Duke win unless it can play perfectly and get a little something extra out of guys like Bolden and O’Connell.
Our Pick – NC -4