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Duke-North Carolina Preview: Small-ball vs. front court strength will determine this game

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The debate will rage on as long as the four programs involved are among the nation’s elite.

Which is the better rivalry: Kentucky vs. Louisville or Duke vs. North Carolina?

Kentucky-Louisville is clearly the more vitriolic of the two. The hatred between those two fan bases runs deep, and a win in the one game they play annually is the kind of thing that can save an otherwise disappointing season and provides year-long bragging rights. Those games always end up being the dogfights that set the tone for the commonwealth’s internal war.

But Duke-North Carolina will always be the “better” rivalry in my eyes, for two reasons.

1. They play home-and-home every year, meaning that we get a game in Cameron Indoor Stadium and a game in the Dean Done each and every season.

2. But more importantly, those games carry more meaning. Duke and North Carolina are always going to be competing for ACC titles, and more often than not, these games will play some role in who will be the ACC’s regular season conference champion and who, if anyone, will get the No. 1 seed that so often comes out of the conference.

That’s not different this season.

North Carolina is going to head into Cameron on Thursday evening sitting all alone in first place in the ACC regular season standings. Florida State and Virginia are a game off the pace while Duke is sitting tied with Syracuse and Louisville two games in back of the Tar Heels in the loss column. Put another way, Duke’s hopes of making a miracle run to the ACC regular season title will come to an end with a loss at home to the Tar Heels.

And while it seems crazy to think that the Blue Devils, who went through more issues during the month of January than any team in college basketball, could win the ACC title, it’s not that far-fetched, is it?

Duke made a fundamental change to the way that they play three games ago. They’re fully embracing small-ball. Jayson Tatum starts at the four. He plays near all of his minutes at the four. Amile Jefferson starts at the five, Harry Giles III spells him when he needs a rest and Marques Bolden’s time as a contributor for Duke seems to be over, at least for the time being. This puts Duke in a position where they can play Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Tatum together while still having another floor-spacer on the floor, and this has made them a nightmare to defend.

The key to that lineup, however, is Tatum. More specifically, the key to that lineup is Tatum’s ability to defend and to rebound the ball. He’s going to be outsized by just about every opponent that Duke faces, and if he is able to keep from getting run over by bigger, more physical post players while holding his own on the glass – he had 14 rebounds last week against Notre Dame – this four-out, one-in look will be lethal for Duke.

That’s where Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks come into play. They may not be the best front line in the country, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a stronger, more experienced pair anywhere in college hoops. Throw in Tony Bradley, and that trio averages 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds. They post 33 points and 20 boards combined per game and will give Tatum by far his toughest challenge to date.

Justin Jackson has been sensational for UNC this season, by far their most consistent perimeter player. He’s turned into a 39.3 percent three-point shooter and a go-to scorer that’s unafraid to take and able to make big shots. There’s an argument to make for him as the ACC Player of the Year. But he’s not the guy that makes the UNC offense go. That’s Joel Berry II, who has been equal parts terrific and inconsistent this season. When he’s on, the Tar Heels are as good as anyone in the country, but he’s been prone to dreadful games. He was 0-for-8 from the floor with a technical foul in the loss at Miami. He was 3-for-13 from the floor in both the losses at Georgia Tech and Indiana.

UNC certainly needs him to show up, but he’s not UNC’s x-factor.

Theo Pinson is.

An athletic defender that can rebound and provide another playmaking presence, Pinson is the perfect counter to Duke’s myriad of soon-to-be NBA wings. He can guard Tatum, he can guard Allen and he can guard Kennard, but he’s also dealing with a foot injury that just won’t go away and it’s unclear yet if he’s going to play.

PREDICTION: While the matchup with the bigger Tar Heels worries me, I think Duke is going to win this game because A) Cameron and B) if Pinson is out or banged up, I’m not sure how UNC slows down all those perimeter weapons. Give me Duke (-2.5).

VIDEO: Jay-Z’s nephew posterizes nation’s No. 1 recruit Marvin Bagley III

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Nahziah Carter is an unsigned 6-foot-6 wing in the Class of 2017.

He’s also Jay-Z’s nephew, and he just so happened to posterize Marvin Bagley III — the clearcut No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2018 — while Hova was in the stands watching him.

NCAA denies extra-year request by NC State guard Henderson

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The NCAA has denied North Carolina State guard Terry Henderson’s request for another year of eligibility.

Henderson announced the decision Friday in a statement issued by the school.

The Raleigh native played two seasons at West Virginia before transferring to N.C. State and redshirting in 2014-15. He played for only 7 minutes of the following season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.

As a redshirt senior in 2016-17, he was the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.8 points per game and made a team-best 78 3-pointers.

Henderson called it “an honor and privilege” to play in his hometown.

SMU gets transfer in Georgetown’s Akoy Agau

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SMU pulled in a frontcourt player in Georgetown transfer Akoy Agau, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com. Agau is immediately eligible for next season as a graduate transfer.

The 6-foot-8 Agau started his career at Louisville before transferring to Georgetown after one season. Spending two seasons with the Hoyas, Agau was limited to 11 minutes in his first season due to injuries. He averaged 4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game last season.

Coming out of high school, Agau was a four-star prospect but he’s never lived up to that billing in-part because of injuries. Now, Agau gets one more chance to make a difference as he’s hoping to help replace some departed pieces like Ben Moore and Semi Ojeleye.

South Carolina loses big man Sedee Keita to transfer

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South Carolina big man Sedee Keita will transfer from the program, he announced on Friday.

The 6-foot-9 Keita was once regarded as a top-100 national prospect in the Class of 2016, but he never found consistent minutes with the Gamecocks for last season’s Final Four team.

Keita appeared in 29 games and averaged 1.1 points and 2.0 rebounds per game while shooting 27 percent from the field.

A native of Philadelphia, Keita will have to sit out next season before getting three more seasons of eligibility.

Although Keita failed to make an impact during his only season at South Carolina, he’ll be a coveted transfer thanks to his size and upside.

Mississippi State losing two to transfer

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Mississippi State will lose two players to transfer as freshmen Mario Kegler and Eli Wright are leaving the program.

Both Kegler and Wright were four-star prospects coming out of high school as they were apart of a six-man recruiting class that is supposed to be a major foundation for Ben Howland’s future with the Bulldogs.

The 6-foot-7 Kegler was Mississippi State’s third-leading scorer last season as he averaged 9.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Kegler should command some quality schools on the transfer market, especially since he’ll still have three more years of eligibility after sitting out next season due to NCAA transfer regulations. Kegler’s loss is also notable for Mississippi State because it is the second consecutive offseason that Howland lost a top-100, in-state product to transfer after only one season after Malik Newman left for Kansas.

Wright, a 6-foot-4 guard, was never able to find consistent minutes as he was already behind underclass perimeter options like Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters and Tyson Carter last season. With Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary’s four-star brother, also joining the Bulldogs next season, the writing was likely on the wall that Wright wasn’t going to earn significant playing time.