By Owen Kaelble | @OwenKaelble
Sports Capital Journalism Program
NEW ORLEANS — The North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils will meet for the 258th time in a series that has lasted for more than 102 years. From Frank McGuire to Dean Smith to Roy Williams for North Carolina and from Eddie Cameron to Vic Bubas to Bill Foster for Duke, each program has had a history of championship performance: 96 NCAA tournaments, 48 Final Fours, 22 national championship games and 11 titles. As the 83rd edition of the tournament reaches its climax, Duke or North Carolina have been among the last four standing for 57.8% of the history of the event.
But for all those years, there has never been more on the line than there will be Saturday night at Caesars Superdome when Duke and Carolina meet for a spot in the title game.
“It would always be important if it’s North Carolina,” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said on Friday, the day before what will be the next-to-last or last game of his 42nd and final season as coach of the Blue Devils. “It’s the most important because if you win you get a chance to play for the national championship. And that has to be your focus. That’s the focus.”
While North Carolina leads the overall rivalry in wins by an edge of 142-115, the Blue Devils have a 50-49 edge since Krzyzewski took over in 1980.
Each team presents a mixture of a storied history and an evolving present. The Tar Heels are led by Hubert Davis, who became the 10th person to lead a team to the Final Four in his first season as a college head coach, the first since Bill Guthridge, Smith’s successor, led Carolina to a 1998 national semifinal.
Davis, who played for the Heels from 1988-1992, is the second person to be a player and head coach in the Final Four for the same school. He joins Dick Harp, who played for Kansas in 1940 and coached the Jayhawks in 1957.
The roster features a balanced scoring attack, featuring junior Armando Bacot, who led the ACC in rebounding with 12.8 rebounds and averaged a double-double for the season with 16.5 points, good for seventh in the conference. The duo of sophomore guard Caleb Love and Oklahoma Sooner transfer Brady Manek add a perimeter threat, as the two have combined for 181 3-pointers.
Field goals and 3-pointers are not the only ways North Carolina can score, however. The Tar Heels are ranked number one in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a free-throw percentage of 76.5%, with Caleb Love adding 127 points from the stripe this season alone.
From the beginning of the season, Davis said, he felt that he had a special team.
“The first day of practice I put a picture of the Superdome in their locker,” he said on Friday. “And I talked about it at midcourt at our first official practice. I said there’s going to be a lot of hard work. We’ll have to prepare and play really well.”
The Tar Heels will face a Blue Devil squad that prides itself on both offense and defense. The team is ranked fourth in the nation in field goal percentage, shooting 49.4% from the field, and eighth in scoring offense with 80.1 points.
Duke also ranked second in the ACC in opponent’s field goal percentage (41.7%), as well as second in opponent’s 3-point field goal percentage (31.9%).
Recently named ACC Freshman of the Year, forward Paolo Banchero leads the scoring charge, averaging 17.1 points for the season, along with 7.7 rebounds, which also leads the team. Junior forward and North Carolina native Wendell Moore Jr. spreads the offense around, averaging 4.4 assists per game and creates havoc for opponents, racking up 53 steals to lead the team.
Defensively, the focus is on sophomore center Mark Williams, who was recently named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and is a finalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award. Totaling 110 blocks this season, along with 43 steals, the 7-foot-1 Virginia product has more than tripled the amount of blocks and defensive rebounds he had all of last season.
The opportunity to play with the conference’s number one ranked defender is not lost on his Duke teammates.
“Mark is the best defensive player I’ve ever played with,” said Moore Jr. on Friday. “It’s great because he makes my job easier guarding the perimeter.”
Banchero agreed, and explained Williams’ influence.
“He gets a lot of credit for the blocks,” Banchero said, “but I think more the effect that I see is just when – just the shots he changes and kind of the fear he puts in the offensive players.”
In the last matchup between the schools, on March 5 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Tar Heels had no fear. The event was Coach K’s last home game. The Heels stormed the party and walked out of the arena with a 94-81 victory. Bacot led the team in scoring with 23 points and Manek drained five 3-pointers to add to the winning effort.
The Blue Devils can respond on Saturday night, however, by not only sending the Tar Heels back home to Chapel Hill, but also securing a winning record for their head coach against their rival.
“We want to send him out the right way,” said Moore Jr. “That is what we all want to do.”