Wednesday night's meeting in Chapel Hill marks the 11th time in the history of the storied rivalry that the teams will meet with both ranked among the top five in The Associated Press poll.
The Blue Devils (19-1, 7-0) sit second in the polls and first in the ACC. The Tar Heels (21-1, 6-1) are third in the polls, second in the conference.
This is the 224th meeting between the powers. UNC leads 127-96, but Duke has won six of the past nine at the Dean Smith Center.
The biggest story surrounding this meeting is the health of Tar Heels point guard Ty Lawson, a 5-foot-10 sophomore who suffered a sprained ankle early in UNC's overtime win at Florida State on Sunday. Coach Roy Williams said Monday on the ACC teleconference that "I don't feel real good about him playing."
His absence would be a major blow. Lawson averages 13.6 points, 5.7 assists and 1.9 steals. He is a top-notch decision-maker, and he takes good care of the ball. Without him – and already having lost backup point guard Bobby Frasor to a season-ending knee injury – the Heels have serious questions at the point. The probable starter is third-stringer Quentin Thomas, a heretofore little-used senior.
Here's a closer look at the Blue Devils-Tar Heels matchup, assuming Lawson is unable to go:
No. 2 Duke (19-1, 7-0) at No. 3 North Carolina (21-1, 6-1)
Paulus, a 6-1 junior, is a heady, steady player for the Blue Devils. He's fourth in the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio, averages 10.3 points, and he's on a tear from 3-point range recently (11-of-21 in the past three games). Thomas, a 6-3 senior, will be thrust into the limelight. A career backup who never has averaged more than 12 minutes per game in a season, he played 36 minutes Sunday against FSU and came up with nine points, six assists and two turnovers.
Each of these prospects is a 6-4 sophomore who was a five-star recruit coming out of high school. Henderson has shown marked improvement in his second season. He's second on the Blue Devils in scoring (13.5 points per game) and has scored in double figures in seven consecutive games. Ellington is coming into his own. He's second on the team in scoring (16.2 points per game), though he has slumped recently. He is shooting just 39.7 percent (27-for-68) and averaging just 11.3 points over the past six games.
Singler, a 6-8 freshman, is another five-star player for the Blue Devils. He's averaging 13.3 points and 5.7 rebounds, and he can play inside or shoot from long range (26 3-pointers). Hansbrough, a 6-9 junior, won't be taking the ball outside. He leads the ACC in scoring (21.8 points per game) and rebounding (10.4).
Thomas, a 6-8 sophomore, adds some size for the Blue Devils, but he's not much of a factor. He has played more than 20 minutes in only one ACC game, and he averages just 4.2 points and 2.9 rebounds. Thompson, a 6-8 sophomore, has been effective inside - especially in conference play. He has a higher scoring average in conference games (11.4 points) than he does overall (9.3).
Nelson, the 6-4 senior captain, has been the glue for the Blue Devils this season. He has been Duke's best player on both ends of the floor, leading the team in scoring (15.3 points) and rebounding (5.9). He is second on the team in assists (3.1). Ginyard, a 6-5 junior, is first and foremost a terrific defender. He averages 7.1 points and 4.5 rebounds.
The Blue Devils have a couple of reliable outside shooters coming off the bench, including sixth man Jon Scheyer. The 6-5 sophomore averages 10.5 points. They also will call on Taylor King, a 6-6 freshman who averages 8.1 points and shoots 42.7 percent from 3-point range. Danny Green, a 6-6 junior, is the main weapon off the Tar Heels' bench; he averages 12.1 points and 5.1 rebounds.
How do you choose between these two guys? The one who is doing the best job this season is Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. No one expected the Blue Devils, virtually devoid of a post presence, to be this good. They're playing hard, a Coach K trademark for sure, and they're moving the ball and finding the open man. They also play much better defense (third in the ACC in scoring defense at 65.9 points per game) than the Tar Heels (10th in the ACC at 71.8 points per game). Williams will be tested without Lawson in his backcourt.
If Lawson is unable to play, that swings the pendulum to Duke. Not only is he an extremely valuable player, but his backup is out for the season, too. The Tar Heels are fortunate this game is at home. That factor, plus Hansbrough's presence, gives them a fighting chance. But they've given up at least 80 points in four ACC games already, and that makes it hard to pick them here.
Duke 77, North Carolina 74
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.