Battle of the Blues: Struggling UNC still a concern for Blue Devils

North Carolina will need to contain Duke center Vernon Carey to have a chance at upsetting the No. 7 Blue Devils on Saturday at Smith Center. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

DURHAM — This year’s first meeting of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry will make history.

UNC will enter the first matchup with the Blue Devils at 10-12, the first time the Tar Heels have had a losing record for the Duke game since the 8-20 season of 2001-02. It’s also the most losses UNC has had for its first Duke game in school history. The Heels have only been in double digits in the loss column twice when they played Duke for the first time in a season: 10 losses in that fateful 2001-02 season and 10 in 2009-10.

In fact, UNC and Duke have only combined for 12 losses twice in the last 10 years: 2013-14, when 18-7 UNC met 21-5 Duke, and 2009-10, when UNC was 13-10 and headed to the NIT, while Duke was 19-4 and on its way to a national title.

The Tar Heels’ struggles have been widely publicized and analyzed as the season has worn on, but make no mistake: UNC still presents a danger to the favored Blue Devils in the big showdown for a number of reasons.

Throw out the record book

The old cliché says that anything can happen when rivals meet. With hopes of an at-large bid fading, UNC will look at the two games with Duke as its proverbial Super Bowl, hoping to salvage a disappointing year by upsetting the Dukies.

It happens. In 1989, a UNC team headed for an eight-seed in the NCAA Tournament swept a Final Four-bound Blue Devils team by 19 and 12 points. In 1994, a Duke team that would finish 13-18 and 2-14 in the ACC took UNC to double overtime in one of the best games of an epic series.

The last two times UNC has been seriously down, however, Duke has made sure to head off any chance of an upset by putting the games on ice early. In UNC’s 8-20 season in 2002, Duke won by scores of 87-58, 93-68 and 60-48. In UNC’s NIT year in 2010, Duke won 64-54 and 82-50.

Stone Cole

Cole Anthony could present a problem for the Blue Devils. The high-scoring point guard returned from a knee injury last week and immediately put up 26 against Boston College. While the Tar Heels have lost both games with Anthony back in the lineup, he will be a major matchup issue for Duke.

While Tre Jones is one of the best on-ball defenders in college basketball and has a large collection of scalps from high-scoring opposing points that he’s shut down, Duke has shown a vulnerability to driving point guards this season. When the Blue Devils have struggled, it’s been largely because point guards get into the lane and either score at the rim or dish to shooters.

Perhaps in preparation to attack Duke’s perimeter defense, UNC’s Andrew Platek, normally a spot-up shooter, has also been driving the ball to the rim in recent games. Christian Keeling, KJ Smith and, if healthy, Jeremiah Francis give the Heels a collection of guards who can pressure Duke by getting the ball into the paint.

Bodies on Carey

Vernon Carey Jr. broke out with back-to-back 26-point games in the last week, but prior to that, he’d gone the entire ACC season without a double-double as he tried to adjust to conference teams sending armies of bigs to double team and roughhouse him whenever he got the ball.

UNC’s frontline post players — Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot — likely can’t handle Carey on their own, but the one place where the Tar Heels have plenty of depth is in the post. UNC can send Walker Miller and Brandon Huffman out to use their five fouls and lean on Carey.

Ol’ Roy can coach a little bit

The Tar Heels entering the Duke game facing a talent mismatch is nothing new. Jabari Parker went 1-1 against the Tar Heels. Brandon Ingram went 1-1. Jayson Tatum went 1-1. Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. went 1-2, while RJ Barrett and a mostly injured Zion Williamson were swept in the regular season before salvaging an ACC Tournament win.

Time after time, Roy Williams has come up with a way to take Duke’s most athletic scorers and NBA prospects out of their game and come away, more often than not, with a win. Granted, he usually has more experience and talent on his roster than he’s working with this season, but the old coach will still find a way to throw a curveball at the fellow Hall of Famer on the other bench.

One thing is certain, from tight games to blown-out shoes, you can expect the unexpected when these two teams meet up. And for the team that’s favored on paper, that’s reason enough to be concerned.