DURHAM, N.C. (AP)—There’s a reason North Carolina and Duke meet every year in the regular-season finale: the Atlantic Coast Conference championship always seems to be on the line.
For the fifth time in series history, the ACC title—along with the top seed in next week’s league tournament—goes to the winner when the No. 1 Tar Heels visit the sixth-ranked Blue Devils on Saturday night in the latest renewal of college basketball’s fiercest rivalry.
“It’s March. There’s a month or so left in the season (and) I have to be the most excited that I’ve ever been,” Duke freshman Kyle Singler said Friday. “Each game is the biggest game to this date.”
The Tar Heels (28-2) and Blue Devils (26-3) bring identical 13-2 conference records into their final regular season game. The Tobacco Road rivals, separated by an 8-mile stretch of U.S. highway, have staged plenty of memorable matchups during the past 88 years, with ACC championships, high tournament seeds and bragging rights having been decided on one of the most unique landscapes in the sport.
At least a share of the league title has been at stake in the finale 11 times, with four previous winner-take-all meetings. The most recent of those came in 1991, when Duke claimed the crown with an 83-77 victory and went on to win coach Mike Krzyzewski’s first national championship by beating a Kansas team led by current North Carolina coach Roy Williams.
For many reasons, this one has the potential to join those. That’s why those rowdy Cameron Crazies have been camping out in the patch of grass known as Krzyzewskiville for months and perhaps why Super Bowl MVPs Peyton and Eli Manning were spotted at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Friday and are expected to attend.
“It kind of carries a different vibe to it because it is for an ACC championship,” Singler said.
Duke and North Carolina are meeting as top-10 teams for the second time this season; the Blue Devils won 89-78 last month in a No. 2-vs-No. 3 matchup, but the Tar Heels didn’t have speedy point guard Ty Lawson in that one. Lawson, the catalyst of North Carolina’s fast-paced offense, is looking to rediscover his rhythm after missing six games with a sprained left ankle.
“Ty Lawson at 80 percent is pretty doggone good, and Ty Lawson at 80 percent is extremely important to our team,” Williams said.
Lawson’s ability to generate points in transition and work the ball inside to the 6-foot-9 Hansbrough could give the bigger Tar Heels an advantage over a Duke team that stakes its reputation on being able to create mismatches, drive the lane and kick it out for open looks from 3-point range. The Blue Devils sank 13 3s in last month’s victory, and not even Hansbrough’s 28-point, 18-rebound performance could save the Tar Heels when outside threats Danny Green and Wayne Ellington combined to hit just 4-of-24 shots.
“They can have two Tyler Hansbroughs out there, and if we fight, scrap and just do the little things all night long, and execute on the offensive end, we’ll be fine,” Singler said.
Nobody at Duke has forgotten the last time the Tar Heels visited for Senior Day: In the final game at Cameron for J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams, then-freshman Hansbrough helped North Carolina shock the top-ranked Blue Devils.
“I felt really bad for him, because of how important he was. … We couldn’t give him that win on his night,” said captain DeMarcus Nelson, the only scholarship senior on Duke’s roster. “That’s something I’ve actually thought about.”
More importantly, the winner would seem to have an inside track to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and might even claim another potential perk—the privilege of staying inside the state’s borders until the Final Four. Both the conference tournament and NCAA’s East Regional are in Charlotte, with an NCAA subregional in Raleigh the weekend in between.
“Yeah, it’s for a conference championship, and you can make a scenario where it’s worth a whole lot more,” Williams said. “Push comes to shove guys, it’s Duke versus North Carolina, and that’s all it’s got to be.”