The No. 22 North Carolina Tar Heels have lost four of their last six games to follow up an eight-game winning streak. All 14 results came in ACC play and followed an 0-3 start in the conference.
So the Heels have known both success and struggle this year. Bouncing back from an 0-3 start by winning the next eight was particularly impressive. Then came the slip-ups to Louisville, which is still a very good team despite not living up to sky-high preseason expectations, and Syracuse, which was the “last team in” in ESPN’s Friday Bracketology. Their two losses since were both very close: in overtime to projected No. 7 seed NC State and on a buzzer-beater to No. 9 Virginia Tech.
The Heels failed to take care of business against lower-projected seeds in Louisville (No. 6 seed), Syracuse and NC State, but all those games were on the road. Then, they lost to one of the best teams in the country at home. All in all, it was a rough stretch, but North Carolina can still salvage its season and gain momentum heading into the ACC Tournament by beating the No. 11 Duke Blue Devils on Sunday in Durham (12 p.m., ACC Network Extra).
The Heels of course beat the Blue Devils 61-56 on Jan. 19. Since then, Duke has has a lot of low-scoring, close wins as well as losses to Florida State and Virginia Tech. The exceptions have been their amazing 68-27 domination of Boston College and the win they are coming off: 77-62 over NC State. The Blue Devils would rather win in blowout fashion, like they did against the Eagles, and by scoring a good amount of points, like the 77 they managed against the Wolfpack.
But if it can’t manage to blow out its opponents, Duke can still rely on its defense to make it a national championship contender. The Jan. 19 loss was in Chapel Hill; expect the Blue Devils to have the edge at Cameron on Sunday. With that being said, North Carolina does know what it takes to win.
No. 22 North Carolina Tar Heels (19-9, 10-7 ACC) vs. No. 11 Duke Blue Devils (24-4, 14-3 ACC)
When: Sunday, Feb. 26 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC
Key to the matchup: Duke’s offense. Duke has the advantage in most categories, but scores fewer points per game than North Carolina. The Blue Devil offense is decent at shooting the three (33.3 percent, 90th in the nation), but not great, and doesn’t take great care of the ball for a team ranked as high as No. 11 (15 turnovers per game, 118th). If the Blue Devils can be efficient from beyond the arc to keep up with UNC, who is less efficient but makes more shots from out there, and win the turnover margin, which is one of the few areas where the Heels have an advantage, they should be in good shape.