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Duke vs. North Carolina a battle between scuffling programs fighting to make the NCAA Tournament

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In this most unusual season of constant interruptions, empty arenas and teams playing shorthanded because of something most had literally never heard of a year ago (contact tracing), it’s fitting that millions of people will watch the most unusual Duke-North Carolina matchup in decades on Saturday.

May the better OK team win.

“We have some wounds,” UNC coach Roy Williams said Thursday. And though he wasn’t necessarily speaking for both his Tar Heels and Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils, if you’ve been following along this season, you know he very well could’ve.

Neither team has been good.

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Neither team is a lock to make the NCAA Tournament.

If you look at a Top 25 college basketball scoreboard, and scroll to Saturday, you’ll see Iowa State-Oklahoma, Alabama-Missouri, Virginia Tech-Miami, Kansas-West Virginia, Florida-LSU, Drake-Valparaiso, Wisconsin-Illinois, Our Lady of the Lake-Houston, Texas-Oklahoma State, Texas Tech-Kansas State, Pitt-Virginia, Northwestern-Purdue, Creighton-Marquette, Tennessee-Kentucky and UCLA-USC. Add it up, and there are 15 games with at least one ranked team involved scheduled to be played Saturday. But North Carolina-Duke, widely regarded as the greatest rivalry in the sport, won’t be one of them because both the Tar Heels and Blue Devils are unranked.

This is a rare happening.

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The last time it happened, in fact, was Feb. 27, 1960. Mike Krzyzewski was 13. Roy Williams was 9. North Carolina won the game, 75-50. The Super Bowl did not exist.

So the obvious question is … why?

Why are Duke and UNC, both of which were ranked in the top 20 of the preseason AP Top 25 poll, down in the same season to this degree for the first time in more than 60 years? Answer: COVID-19.

Because of the pandemic, most freshmen from coast to coast did not arrive on campus as early as they normally would, and none of them got as much offseason instruction as usual. There were no scrimmages or exhibitions to improve development. Schedules were condensed. So it really shouldn’t be too surprising that teams relying heavily on freshmen have had a rougher go of it than teams relying on players who were in the program pre-pandemic.

Which brings me back to Duke and UNC.

Three of Duke’s top four scorers are freshmen — DJ Steward, Jalen Johnson and Jeremy Roach. And four of North Carolina’s top six scorers are freshmen — Caleb Love, Day’Ron Sharpe, R.J. Davis and Kerwin Walton. Now contrast that to the nation’s two best teams, Gonzaga and Baylor. Six of Gonzaga’s top seven scorers are non-freshmen, four of whom were in the program last season. And each of Baylor’s top seven scorers are non-freshmen who were in the program last season.

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This is not a coincidence.

Teams with experienced talent (like Gonzaga and Baylor) are doing well this season while ones that are heavily reliant on first-year players (like Duke and North Carolina, not to mention Kentucky) are largely struggling, and the way the pandemic impacted their development is the biggest reason why.

“There’s no question about it,” ESPN college basketball analyst LaPhonso Ellis told me Thursday. “They didn’t have the summer to work out together, to build chemistry with one another. So teams that rely … heavily on newcomers have been effected by COVID and the inability to have summer, the fall, and then exhibition games to learn how to play with one another, to built continuity. … And I think that’s why we’ve seen … those guys really struggle, because they didn’t get that opportunity to gel.”

Given that theory, perhaps this is exactly what Duke and North Carolina need right now, which is to say, a game against another struggling team heavily reliant on ill-equipped freshmen. Because that’s exactly what Duke and North Carolina are right now — struggling teams heavily reliant on ill-equipped freshmen. 

Either way, let’s go!

It’ll be unranked North Carolina vs. unranked Duke on Saturday.

May the better OK team win.

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