#9 Duke vs. #21 North Carolina Preview & Prediction: Which Struggling Team Gets A Needed Win?

The North Carolina Tar Heels will host the Duke Blue Devils in the first of two regular-season matchups between these two huge rivals, but this isn't the typical UNC-Duke matchup. Both teams are struggling mightily - Duke has lost two of their last three games and is coming off a huge upset loss to St. John's, while Carolina has lost three of their past four games. Who will draw first blood in the rivalry and pick up a needed win in the process? Here's our full preview and prediction:

Game Info:
When: 8:00 p.m. EST
Where: Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill, NC 
Spread: UNC (-1)
O/U: 165

Projected Starting Lineups
(21) North Carolina Tar Heels (17-7, 6-5 in ACC)
G Joel Berry II (Sr.) – 17.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg
G Kenny Williams (Jr.) – 11.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg
G Cam Johnson (Sr.) – 12.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg
F Theo Pinson (Sr.) – 8.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 4.4 apg
F Luke Maye (Jr.) – 18.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg

(9) Duke Blue Devils (19-4, 7-3)
G Trevon Duval (Fr.) – 11.3 ppg, 6.0 apg
G Grayson Allen (Sr.) – 14.5 ppg, 4.4 apg
G Gary Trent Jr. (Fr.) – 15.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg
F Marvin Bagley III (Fr.) – 21.4 ppg, 11.2 rpg
F Wendell Carter Jr. (Fr.) – 14.4 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 2.1 bpg

What they're saying about the North Carolina Tar Heels:
Tar Heels face tall task against bigger Blue Devils (Tar Heel Times)
There’s a twist to the Duke-UNC basketball rivalry this season (News & Observer)
UNC Basketball: Big Baller Brand reaches out to Nassir Little, Rechon Black (Fansided)

What they're saying about the Duke Blue Devils:
Duke senior Grayson Allen talks about his final trip to Chapel Hill (News & Observer)
Duke's Krzyewski likes the 'brotherhood' of former players (News & Observer)
Duke, North Carolina renew storied rivalry (ESPN)

Keys to the game:
Which defense stinks less?

Duke's defensive struggles have been well documented this season (especially early) and they rank only 69th in the country in the adjusted defensive efficiency. However, on the flip side, North Carolina has also been just as bad. While the Heels rank 27th in AdjD, they are only 311th in the country in opponent's three-point percentage and opponents are getting nearly 43 percent of their points - more than anyone else in the country - from beyond the arc. 

The Blue Devils haven't been as lethal from the three-point like as they have been in years past but still have a team capable making threes in the bunches, headlined by Gary Trent Jr. and Grayson Allen. Duke's ability to exploit that weakness, or UNC's ability to improve in that area, will be a big factor in the win.

How will UNC handle Duke's bigs?

Despite not having a true big man in their starting lineup and one of the smaller teams of the Roy Williams era, North Carolina still leads the country in rebounding and rank third in offensive rebounding rate. Then there's Duke, who is second in the country in rebounding and first in offensive rebounding rate with a much taller (third-tallest team in the country), more athletic front line in Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr.

UNC obviously puts more team emphasis on rebounding but Duke's two bigs rank in the top three in the ACC in rebounding (Luke Maye is also in that group) and appear to be matchup nightmares for Carolina. Maye isn't tall or athletic enough - or a good enough post defender - to handle Bagley or Carter on the block, and Theo Pinson doesn't have the size at 6-foot-6.

As such, they'll likely rely heavily on freshmen big men Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks against Bagley and Carter. Limiting those two Duke stars will be key to UNC's chances.

Prediction: Duke wins 93-86
Since both defenses stink, offenses should run rampant in what I expect to be a very high-scoring game. Duke's offense is one of the best in the country and have been markedly better than UNC's offense, and given their advantage in the frontcourt, I expect the Blue Devils to come out with a narrow victory. Look for Bagley to have a monster game.

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