NEW YORK — Theo Pinson finished with career-high 25 points, 11 boards and three assists and Cam Johnson chipped in with 13 points as North Carolina, the No. 6 seed in the ACC tournament, knocked off No. 3 seed Miami, 78-65, in the last quarterfinal of the ACC tournament late on Thursday night.
The story of the game, however, isn’t the game itself.
It’s what the game sets up: A matchup between Duke and North Carolina, the two Tobacco Road rivals, with so much more on the line than just a trip to the ACC tournament title game.
“I know about the rivalry. I’ve been here four years,” Pinson said. “It’s a big time game.”
It always is. It’s the best rivalry in the sport. Whether the game is played in the Dean Dome, in Cameron Indoor Stadium or in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, it is an event.
But what makes this iteration of the rivalry so interesting is the context. Just like last season, there could be a No. 1 seed on the line.
Here’s where the two currently stand: North Carolina is, according to Bracket Matrix, a website that tracks the consensus for all of the bracketologists, armchair or otherwise, the second No. 2 seed right now. Duke just so happens to be the first No. 2 seed, one slot in front of the Tar Heels and one spot behind Kansas, who is the fourth No. 1 seed as of today. Xavier and Villanova, who are on a track to face-off in the title game of the Big East tournament, are both slotted as No. 1 seeds as well.
“Everybody and their momma’s going to be watching the game tomorrow, I know that,” Pinson said. “And I’m going to be ready.”
At this point, the fourth No. 1 seed is probably Kansas’ to lose. If they win the Big 12 tournament, it’s hard to envision a scenario where they wouldn’t be a No. 1 seed. The same can be said for both Villanova and Xavier if they can get to Saturday’s Big East tournament title game. So this may all be for nought, but that shouldn’t diminish the game itself.
Duke is playing their best basketball of the season. Ever since they made the decision to go to a zone full time a month ago, they’ve played defense at a level that is on par with what Virginia, Cincinnati and Texas Tech have done this season. Grayson Allen has found his rhythm — and his confidence — again, which is to say nothing of the fact that Marvin Bagley III is back to being Marvin Bagley III; he had 33 points and 17 boards in Thursday night’s quarterfinal win over Notre Dame.
“One trend that I’m seeing that is a good thing for our team is our defense at the end of the year is the best that it’s been all season, and that’s the same thing that happened in 2015,” Allen said. “At the end of that year, by the time the tournament came around, we were one of the best defenses in the country.”
Just six days ago, these two teams squared off in Cameron Indoor Stadium, with the Blue Devils erasing a 10-point halftime lead to beat the Tar Heels.
They quietly have put together a season that is far more impressive that anyone is giving them credit for. Despite the fact that they lost the last two games of the regular season, North Carolina has the most Quadrant 1 wins of anyone this season with 12; Virginia and Kansas both have 10 after today.
We were in this same spot a season ago, too. UNC and Duke squared off in this same building, with Duke winning the semifinal matchup en route to an ACC tournament title that earned them the top No. 2 seed in the dance.
“Last year we lost this game that’s going to be played tomorrow,” Roy Williams said, before dropping in the dagger. “I think we kept playing. I think.”
“My memory’s not as good as it used to be.”
Duke lost in the second round to South Carolina.
North Carolina won the national title.
And tomorrow’s grudge match should have just as much as stake.