CHAPEL HILL Its senior night for North Carolinas Dexter Strickland and the final regular-season game against the Tar Heels for Duke seniors Ryan Kelly, Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry.
First place in the ACC may not be on the line, but bragging rights are. While the seniors will have their say, this iteration of the rivalry may be decided by two freshmen whose seasons are going in different directions.
North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige has thrived since the Tar Heels went to a smaller lineup in the first game against Duke, while Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon has struggled of late.
How Paige fares against Dukes on-the-ball defensive duo of Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton will have a lot to say about the efficiency of the Tar Heels offense; whether Sulaimon can fight through his ups and downs to regain his early season scoring form will impact Dukes chances not only Saturday, but in the postseason.
He is like every freshman, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. Theres not one freshman in the conference who wouldnt fit that description. Some of them have had lows, and their highs havent been as high.
Theres not been a freshman in our conference that has just been consistently excellent every game. Its almost impossible for a freshman to do that. Thats part of growing up. As you go into March, you hope those lessons you learn in the regular season will help.
Since the Duke game, Paige has seen increases in his scoring average, assists per game and offensive rating, and saw his turnovers decrease until an eight-turnover game against Maryland on Wednesday. Three of his eight double-digit scoring games this season have come in the past three weeks.
Some of that is due to his adjustment to the college game and some of it due to North Carolinas new lineup, although coach Roy Williams said he saw improvement even before the change, and would have expected Paige to improve even if North Carolina had gone back to a more conventional starting five.
Having the small lineup gives me a little bit more room to drive and make plays, Paige said. But also Im starting to get more comfortable. Im playing better basketball. ... Its me growing as a player and having guys on the floor who complement my game.
With all the perimeter players on the court, Paige is setting more screens and getting more scoring opportunities when the ball returns to him in the flow of the offense, situations where Krzyzewski says hes particularly dangerous. Paige concurred.
Reggie (Bullock) always jokes at me that Im the perimeter guy who gets the best looks, Paige said. All my 3s are wide open.
Duke needs Sulaimon playing with the aggressiveness he showed in the home game against N.C. State when he scored on Dukes first three possessions or in his 27-point outburst against Boston College.
Thats too often been absent over the past month, and especially the past three games Sulaimon is 7 for 21 and has scored a total of 16 points against Virginia, Miami and Virginia Tech.
Hes obviously not consistent with his play and stuff like that, but youve got to go out there like hes going to get 25 and try to shut him down, North Carolinas Strickland said. You just have to give it your all.
Krzyzewski pointed out that Sulaimon almost always draws the opponents third-best perimeter defender. Against North Carolina, its likely to be Strickland, one of the Tar Heels better perimeter defenders. That only puts more pressure on Sulaimon to produce.
Hes not getting their best shot, Krzyzewski said. Seth is, and youve got to have someone on the ball. How do you take advantage of that?
Theres a lot riding on these two freshmen. As Austin Rivers can attest, the last time these teams met at the Smith Center, the outcome hinged on a freshman.