CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Duke and North Carolina are not exactly sprinting into the first meeting of the season, but for one of the teams there will be the sense that much has been solved after Thursday night's game.
"Both teams are still all right. They're not putting us in the grave," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "Duke is still Duke."
This game won't determine the top of the pecking order in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but it still remains a major event on the college schedule.
While there has been recent slippage, both teams have occupied spots in the top 10 of the national rankings for much of the season.
"In February every year, we're working through issues," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "That's just part of it. Sometimes, one game can really help you if you're really good at some of these things (that have been troubling) and you win. ... Issues are there all the time. That's just part of your season."
The first Duke-North Carolina matchup of this season in this storied rivalry takes place at the Smith Center.
Across the past 100 meetings, each side has won 50 times. Duke won the most recent clash with an upset in the ACC tournament semifinals last March. North Carolina was unbeaten from then on, snatching the national championship.
No. 9 Duke (19-4, 7-3 ACC) is coming off an 81-77 loss to St. John's, which is the Big East Conference's last-place team, for its second setback in three games. No. 21 North Carolina (17-7, 6-5) has lost three of its last four games, with the lone victory during the stretch coming against last-place Pittsburgh.
This Duke-North Carolina game has a different complexion because unlike many times in the recent past, it's Duke that appears more dominant on the interior while North Carolina might have an edge in the backcourt.
"I always think rebounding the ball well and getting to the free-throw line more than the other team is always huge in our games against Duke," Williams said. "They're so much stronger around the basket with their inside game this year than they have been."
Krzyzewski said the Tar Heels' depth provides numerous scenarios.
"They can come out with a small and a big lineup," Krzyzewski said. "They're just really good. They'll be difficult to defend on Thursday."
Defense has generally been a bugaboo for the Blue Devils this season. Krzyzewski has tried various alignments, even with long stints in zone set-ups.
"We've been more of a halfcourt defensive team," he said. "We have to get better at it."
Duke's lineup is stocked with freshmen, with four of them in the starting lineup. If projections that they might be one-and-done prove accurate, this would be their only appearances on the North Carolina campus.
Duke freshman forward Marvin Bagley III leads the ACC in scoring (21.4 points per game) and rebounding (11.2).
North Carolina might have sophomore reserve point guard Seventh Woods available. Williams said Woods, who hasn't played since November because of a stress fracture in his foot, is on track to play in this game.
This is the 146th consecutive Duke-North Carolina meeting with at least one of the two teams in the national rankings. Yet this is the first time in six meetings that the Blue Devils are ranked higher than the Tar Heels when they face off.
Overall, North Carolina leads the series by a 135-110 margin.