Duke vs. UNC Preview & Prediction: Who Wins The First Matchup Of The Season?

The best rivalry in college basketball resumes on Thursday night with the Duke Blue Devils set to host the North Carolina Tar Heels in the first of two matchups this season. Duke is looking for a marquee win to prove they're the title contender they were expected to be before the season started, and UNC needs to win to maintain sole possession of first place in the ACC. Who will make a statement tonight? Here's a complete preview and prediction:

Projected Starting Lineups
(18) Duke Blue Devils (18-5, 6-4 in ACC)
G Grayson Allen (Jr.) – 15.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.0 apg
G Luke Kennard (So.) – 19.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg
F Jayson Tatum (Fr.) – 15.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg
F Harry Giles (Fr.) – 5.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg
F Amile Jefferson (Sr.) – 12.0 ppg, 9.2 rpg

(8) North Carolina Tar Heels (21-4, 9-2)
G Joel Berry II (Jr.) – 14.9 ppg, 4.0 apg
G Kenny Williams (So.) – 6.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg
F Justin Jackson (Jr.) – 18.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg
F Tony Bradley (Fr.) – 7.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg
F Kennedy Meeks (Sr.) – 12.6 ppg, 9.4 rpg

What to watch for:
Can Duke match Carolina on the glass?

North Carolina is the best rebounding team in the country, leading the nation in every major rebounding category. However, the most important to their success is their offensive rebounding, where they also rank first in offensive rebounding rate (41.8 percent). That allows them to get more second-chance points than anyone else, and their defensive rebounding prowess keeps their opponents from making up that advantage. 

UNC is able to do that because they have as much size as anybody and have five players averaging over 4.8 rebounds per game (led by Kennedy Meeks' 9.4), though that will take a big blow with usual starting power forward Isaiah Hicks out for the game with a hamstring injury. However, Duke may have the size to match them for the first time in a while. Amile Jefferson (9.2 rpg) and Jayson Tutum (6.9 rpg) are their major contributors on the glass with freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden providing even more size.

Giles and Bolden have been limited this year due to injuries, but both have recovered and are getting more and more playing time. This game may be determined by how much those two are able to contribute and if they can match UNC's rebounding production.

Can UNC shake their road woes?

Three of Carolina's four losses this season have come on the road, but that is to be expected in college basketball. However, they have played much worse on the road all year long, especially in conference play. They are 3-2 on the road in the ACC with those wins coming over Boston College, Clemson and Wake Forest, who are a combined 10-25 in the ACC. Making matters worse is that all of those games were decided by eight points or less - and Clemson took them to overtime - while both losses came by at least 12 points. Those numbers don't signal great things for them in an atmosphere like Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Prediction: Duke wins 82-80
This game will be another classic between these two storied rivals. I expect a back and forth game throughout, but with Duke seeming to find their rhythm again (winning three games in a row) and UNC's struggles on the road, the Blue Devils will find a way to pull it out late. I also expect Giles and Bolden to have a big impact on this game and will be the reasons why Duke wins.

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Related Topics: NCAA Basketball, Duke Blue Devils Basketball, ACC Basketball, North Carolina Tar Heels Basketball