The Duke Blue Devils come off a loss to Miami and are on the outside of the Bracketology bubble looking in. The North Carolina Tar Heels come off a loss to Clemson, and though in seemingly better NCAA shape, sit several spots behind Duke in the key metric rankings systems including KenPom. Saturday’s matchup between Duke and UNC (6 p.m. ET, ESPN) is not your typical battle of championship heavyweights — this one is for far more than status on Tobacco Road. With that in mind, ESPN.com’s panel of college hoops writers sized up this week’s battle, some other key matchups on the Saturday slate and the topic of conference tournaments that hangs over the game’s collective head like an anvil:
This season’s first installment of North Carolina-Duke is meaningful in a way this rivalry usually isn’t — both teams actually need this game to bolster tenuous NCAA tournament cases. Who do you think should feel more desperate for a win here?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: Duke entered the week hovering around the mid-60s in the NET rankings. That’s not good, folks. I think the Blue Devils are the more desperate team in this matchup. A loss would be a bad omen for Duke, too. The Blue Devils still have to host Virginia, Syracuse and Louisville and they’ll end the season at Chapel Hill. And they’re not good enough to enter upcoming games against Notre Dame, NC State and Georgia Tech with tremendous confidence, either. If this weekend’s matchup is a lopsided loss in a rivalry game, we could look back a few weeks from now and recognize Saturday as the day Duke threw in the towel on a turbulent season and missed its shot at the NCAA tournament.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: Duke is at risk of dropping to .500 with a loss, so the Blue Devils should be far more desperate. North Carolina really struggled earlier this week against Clemson, but entering the game, the Tar Heels had won six of their previous seven games and were fairly comfortably in the NCAA tournament field. Duke, meanwhile, is some distance from feeling comfortable about its Selection Sunday chances. Fortunately for Coach K & Co., the game is at Cameron Indoor; even without fans and the usual energy that comes from playing at home, that should matter.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: Duke needs this win more than the Tar Heels. The game’s in Durham, and a loss would leave the Blue Devils at 7-7 overall and 5-5 in the ACC. Not to mention if the season ended today UNC would likely make the field of 68 (my esteemed colleague Mr. Lunardi pegs the team as a No. 11 seed), while Mike Krzyzewski’s guys would almost certainly find themselves on the wrong side of the cut line. Duke has to play its way into the tournament, and a win against North Carolina would help that effort.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: Both teams are desperate from an NCAA tournament perspective, but Duke is genuinely teetering. The Blue Devils have fallen just off the bubble in Bracketology and simply cannot afford to lose the Cameron Indoor Stadium stop of this home-and-home. Duke would be a .500 team — both overall and in the ACC — with a loss to the Tar Heels. That would put the Devils in further danger of missing the NIT (if that even takes place).
Who will be the most important single player on the court in UNC-Duke on Saturday, and which team do you have winning?
Borzello: I think it’s Caleb Love. Entering the season, I pegged the North Carolina freshman point guard as one of the noteworthy newcomers in the country, a potential first-round pick who would be handed the keys to the Tar Heels’ offense from day one. Well, Love was handed the keys — and the car struggled to start. Turnovers have been a huge issue for Love in particular (and Carolina in general), and he has had more turnovers than assists in seven games so far this season. He’s coming off a game where he had nine points, shot 2-for-10 from the field and turned it over four times while making one assist. Not surprisingly, the Tar Heels lost by 13.
When Love is good, Carolina is good. During the three-game winning streak that preceded the loss to Clemson, Love averaged 14.3 points and 4.3 assists — while turning it over nine times in three games. Still high, but manageable when he’s producing in other areas and initiating an efficient offense. He needs to limit the turnovers against Duke while also staying in attack mode and keeping the Blue Devils on the back foot.
Gasaway: I’m with Mr. Borzello. Roy Williams has been giving a remarkable vote of confidence to Love, and now’s the time for that to start paying off for the Tar Heels. Consider this list: Cole Anthony, Coby White, Harrison Barnes, Wayne Ellington, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants. Those are the guys who’ve received enough of a green light from Williams to attempt at least four 3s per game as freshmen. Now Love is part of this rather impressive group, and the returns to this point have been somewhat uneven. The received analytics wisdom suggests that a 77% shooter at the line like Love will at some point start hitting his 3s. If that happens now or soon, it would give a lift to this UNC offense.
Lunardi: Duke forward Matthew Hurt is the best player on the more desperate team, and he needs to lift the Blue Devils to an urgent victory. Hurt is shooting a lusty 60.0% from the floor this season, but is just 3-for-14 beyond the arc in his past three starts. The Devils need the 40.3% career 3-point shooter to return, and I believe we’ll see that and a season-saving win (for now!) for Duke.
Medcalf: I’ll go with Jalen Johnson because I think Duke’s only shot in this game is attached to a monster effort by the freshman. Although Johnson has been inconsistent in some elements of his game, he also has connected on 61% of his shots inside the arc since returning from injury. The mock drafts that have him in the top 10 of this summer’s NBA draft are judging his ceiling. But he hasn’t put together that convincing stretch of basketball yet. Saturday is a big opportunity on a giant stage for Johnson.
North Carolina can probably play good basketball and win. Duke has to be great and the Blue Devils can’t be that unless Johnson is strong on both sides of the floor. Johnson plays like a lottery pick? Duke has a shot. Anything less than that and UNC should win. That’s why I think he’ll be the most important player on Saturday. Overall, I’ll pick North Carolina to win. Just too many factors in their favor to bet against the Tar Heels.
There are three matchups of ranked teams scheduled for Saturday — No. 10 Alabama at No. 18 Missouri, No. 23 Kansas at No. 17 West Virginia and No. 19 Wisconsin at No. 12 Illinois. Which of these contests do you consider most meaningful, and why?
Borzello: I’ll go with Alabama at Missouri (12 p.m. ET, ESPN), mostly because I have questions about both teams, and I want some answers! The Crimson Tide were the talk of college basketball a couple of weeks ago, running off a 10-game winning streak before losing to Oklahoma last weekend. But the vaunted offense that was carving up opponents has slowed down. The Tide are 22-for-72 (30.6%) from 3 the past three games and they’ve scored fewer than one point per possession in each of those games.
I don’t generally buy into the “live by the 3, die by the 3” mantra, because teams are always going to struggle when their biggest strength gets taken away — regardless of what it is — but it remains to be seen if Alabama can beat a good team without making 40% or so of its outside shots. And Missouri is very good at taking away the outside shot; no opponent has made more than nine 3s in a game against the Tigers, and only five have shot above 40%.
De’Vion Harmon scores a game-high 18 points and Elijah Harkless adds 14 points of his own to help No. 24 Oklahoma end Alabama’s 10-game win streak.
Missouri has been a weird one for me all season. The Tigers’ résumé is very good, but I’m just not sure they match that in terms of quality on the court. Cuonzo Martin has done a tremendous job this season, but they were a woeful shooting team before the past couple of games, and some of their big wins (at Arkansas, at Tennessee) look slightly less impressive now. But a home win over Alabama would eliminate some of my concerns.
Gasaway: My alma mater Illinois notwithstanding (show them the love, Lunardi!), I vote for KU at West Virginia. A loss for the Jayhawks would drop them to 12-7 on the season, a record where that projected No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament begins to look a bit shaky. Not to mention the matchup between the Mountaineers’ offense and the Kansas D is just plain interesting. Contrary to every stereotype about Bob Huggins’ teams, West Virginia this season is struggling mightily in the paint in Big 12 play but shooting the lights out on 3s. Perceptive KU fans have been waiting patiently during the conference season for opponents’ 3-point accuracy to “regress” to normal, but an opposing offense that’s connecting 42% of the time from beyond the arc in league play can wreak some havoc just by being “average.” Should be a good one.
Lunardi: Alabama has made its first all-time appearance as a No. 1 seed in Bracketology and would distance itself a bit with a win at Missouri. Can you imagine winning the national championship in Division I football and basketball in the same year? Rece Davis might never come back to earth. But that is the most impactful game for me, and I expect the Crimson Tide to prevail and remain undefeated in the SEC.
Ayo Dosunmu meets Kofi Cockburn in the air as they connect for the two-handed slam.
Medcalf: All great answers. But I’ll go with Wisconsin-Illinois, the game that will impact the logjam atop the Big Ten. Right now, KenPom has five Big Ten teams projected to win 12 or more conference games. Lunardi’s bracket lists the teams on that list (Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan) anywhere from a 1-seed (Michigan) to a 3-seed (Wisconsin). Saturday’s matchup between Wisconsin and Illinois could offer advantages for the winner in both the NCAA tournament field and the Big Ten title race.
We don’t know what to expect in this one-site NCAA tournament. But we watched the Miami Heat KO the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference and the L.A. Clippers lose to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference, both exiting prior to the semifinals. Weird things could happen in this “bubble” too. A win for Illinois boosts its chances to move up to the 2-seed convo and a loss for Wisconsin could help send the Badgers into some wild opening-round matchup against a hot mid-major in empty Mackey Arena.
I think Ayo Dosunmu could emerge from the next stretch as Illinois shows it’s the most dangerous team in the country outside the top two. He has the chance to lead his squad to wins over Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota (on the road) in the next two weeks. That’s a potential edge in the Big Ten title race and a higher seed in Indianapolis if Illinois can pull it off. Wisconsin, however, has to find a way to get through an upcoming slate that includes matchups against Purdue, Michigan and two games apiece versus Iowa and Illinois. Ugh. Saturday could start a free fall for the Badgers.
Geno Auriemma said something on Tuesday that you have to wonder whether a lot of stakeholders on the men’s side are thinking too, in respect to the risk of COVID-19 and conference tournaments: “Me, personally, if we didn’t have a tournament, it wouldn’t bother me one iota,” Auriemma said. “With the understanding that if something happens — which there is no guarantee that it won’t — a team that has already assured themselves of a spot in the NCAA tournament, now gets shut down.” Could you live without conference tournaments? What are the implications for not having them?
Borzello: The goal of this entire season has been to have an NCAA tournament. Whatever we have to do to get there, we need to have an NCAA tournament, right? We started the season late, but we still had nonconference games because it was a key data point for the committee. Cancel games, postpone games, play an uneven amount of conference games, it doesn’t matter as long as we have an NCAA tournament. So why would conference tournaments be the one piece of the puzzle that can’t be touched during this pandemic-impacted season?
I can live without them for a year, and I’m not sure I see huge implications if they were canceled across the board. Give the automatic bids to the regular-season champions and pick the at-larges from there. I actually think the implications of having incomplete conference tournaments are more noteworthy. If Gonzaga and Houston don’t want to play in their tourneys, suddenly the WCC and AAC are two-bid leagues when they might not have been otherwise — which dramatically impacts the state of the bubble.
Medcalf: The NCAA tournament is where the money is made. Every conference in America is a beneficiary, but the leagues that don’t have Power 5 football can’t afford to lose the financial gains of the NCAA tournament, a year after the payouts were significantly reduced when the event was canceled. The NCAA has already solidified its plan to move forward. It has also made it clear that a few stumbles aren’t going to stop the ship. No team in America wants to risk getting left behind. If that means sending the regular-season champions from the leagues that don’t host a conference tournament, then do it. That gives those teams more time to prepare for Indianapolis and an opportunity to isolate their Tier I group to meet the NCAA’s testing requirements.
The good news is that each league has been promised its fair share of NCAA tournament revenue, which takes some pressure off the leagues that were concerned about being left out, especially if the NCAA had proposed a smaller field. The risk attached to conference tournaments isn’t worth the possible penalty, it seems. Let’s just get to March. Please. Even if that means we miss this year’s conference tournaments.
Gasaway: I can live without conference tournaments this one time if that’s what we need to do to play a full-scale NCAA tournament in 2021. But if there’s any way the conference tournaments can be saved, I’m all for it. We know from past history that shocking upsets occur a reliable percentage of the time in these events, and bid thieves are a regular feature of the March landscape. Particularly in conferences where it looks like there’s just one surefire at-large team (like, say, the American this season), the league tournament can be a really suspenseful watch. Champ Week is one of the best weeks of the whole season, and I hope we can do it this year.
Lunardi: Since I’m a bracketologist and not an immunologist, my thoughts tend to be from a competitive balance perspective. With limited non-league schedules and in most cases uneven schedules within the leagues, conference tournaments — at least in theory — seem the fairest option for determining a champion. For the vast majority of teams, it will also be their only postseason (as it’s hard to be optimistic about the NIT or other invitational events). And the cynic in me says, if health and safety really are the major concerns, wasn’t the bigger risk playing the season at all?