Duke hasn’t been able to pull away for a big lead in the ACC. Shockingly, North Carolina isn’t one of its top competitors.
Holding on to a slim conference edge, the eighth-ranked Blue Devils seem to have an excellent chance to end their struggles against the floundering Tar Heels on Wednesday when the arch-rivals meet at Chapel Hill.
Duke (19-4, 7-2) has a half-game lead over Maryland and a one-game lead over Wake Forest atop the ACC heading into its final eight contests of the regular season. North Carolina (13-10, 2-6), which finished ahead of the Blue Devils the past two seasons, isn’t even in the picture.
The latest edition of this heated rivalry appears little more than an easy chance for Duke to maintain its conference lead. Though the Blue Devils have lost three straight and six of seven in the series, the Tar Heels are struggling through their worst stretch under coach Roy Williams.
Defending national champion North Carolina has lost three straight and six of seven. The storied program appears headed toward the NIT after earning a No. 6 preseason ranking and entering the season as an ACC co-favorite along with Duke.
“At times, I feel we are getting better and at other times, I see us regress,” Williams said. “That has been difficult to handle.”
Coming off a 92-71 loss at Maryland on Sunday, the Tar Heels figure to have their hands full again as they try to stop perhaps the nation’s premier scoring trio.
Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler have Duke believing it can make a strong push in March. Scheyer (18.9 points per game) ranks second in the ACC in scoring, Smith (18.1) is tied for third and Singler (16.6) is seventh.
“We ideally would like to have balanced scoring, but it’s not really how it is,” Singler said. “The responsibility that Jon, Nolan and myself has,—we don’t necessarily look at it as pressure because we have each other to help each other out.”
Scheyer and Nolan had 21 points apiece in the Blue Devils’ 66-63 win over Boston College on Saturday. Singler, who scored a season-high 30 in an 86-67 victory over then-No. 21 Georgia Tech on Thursday night, was held to 12 points while shooting 4 of 14.
“The way we have set up our team, those three guys have to be put in prominent positions to score and they’ve come through pretty well in doing that,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
The trio could be set for a big performance against a Tar Heels team that ranks 10th in the ACC in 3-point defense, with league opponents shooting 36.4 percent.
Duke, meanwhile, has made a league-best 39.0 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc.
North Carolina is averaging 80.0 points, but has been limited to 69.8 over its last seven games. Tar Heels leading scorer Deon Thompson has been held under 10 points three times during that span.
The senior forward is averaging 14.4 points on the season, but has been hindered since suffering an ankle injury last month.
Having a tough time giving Thompson help, North Carolina is in danger of losing four in a row both at home and overall. A loss to the Blue Devils would give the Tar Heels their longest home losing streak since a five-game skid during the 2001-02 season.
North Carolina beat Duke 79-71 at the Dean Smith Center on March 8, taking a 130-97 lead in the all-time series.