What a difference a year makes.

That’s the running theme in Chapel Hill, where the Tar Heels Redemption Tour of 2024 has churned out a 17-4 record through 21 games, the best mark for North Carolina to start a season since 2017, when the Heels won the last game played that March and with it, the program’s 6th NCAA Tournament championship. Keep playing like this, and talk of a 7th national championship hardly seems foolish.

The Tar Heels lost at Georgia Tech on Tuesday night, their first loss in 11 games and a bit of a stunning defeat considering the Yellow Jackets had won just 1 of their previous 9 and the Tar Heels had won 8 of their previous 9 by double digits. It’s hard to win on the road, though, and the reality ahead of the second half of ACC play couldn’t be clearer.

Everything Carolina dreams of remains in front of it, well within the team’s talented reach.

Everything starts Saturday in the Dean Smith Center, when No. 7 Duke makes the 10-mile trip to Chapel Hill.

Mention what’s coming to Armando Bacot, and the super senior big man almost gets a twinkle in his eye.

“We came back to finish our legacy, to write our own story,” Bacot told Saturday Road after the Tar Heels foiled Florida State’s upset bid last Saturday. “We came back for nights like next Saturday night. That’s what you work for, why you come to the University of North Carolina. That’s why you wear these colors.”

Bacot and the Tar Heels will carry a top 5 ranking and Final Four contender bona fides into Saturday night’s tilt with the Blue Devils.

Bacot, who doesn’t hesitate to suggest he’s “having more fun than I’ve ever had playing basketball,” has bought into the little things more than ever this season, even as his scoring numbers (13.6 ppg) have dipped well below where they were a season ago (15.9 ppg).

“It is about how he’s embracing everything else,” coach Hubert Davis told the media this week. “He’s putting up huge stats — the ones you don’t really see. He is setting physical screens, the best of his career. He’s playing defense at an elite level, protecting the paint without fouling. We don’t win our last two games, period, without Armando.”

Bacot’s embrace of the little things is about his admitted desire to finish his legacy, to write the final chapter he wants to his long, special Carolina journey.

The same can be said of RJ Davis, Bacot’s good friend and fellow senior who returned to school, as he told Saturday Road all the way back at ACC Media Days, “because he wanted to finish what he started and leave North Carolina on my own winning terms.”

Davis heads into his final Dean Dome Duke game playing better basketball than any guard in the country, and in a world where Zach Edey didn’t exist, he’d have a legitimate chance to win the Wooden Award as the nation’s most outstanding basketball player. Davis is averaging 21 points a game, collecting a career-best 1.5 steals a contest, and following Tuesday night’s loss at Georgia Tech, had moved into 17th place on Carolina’s all-time scoring list, passing Carolina legends Rick Fox, Rashard McCants, Billy Cunningham and George Lynch along the way.

But Bacot and Davis didn’t return to chase scoring records, be named All-Americans, or collect All-ACC honors. The duo have already won or will win enough individual accolades to fill up a half page of the North Carolina record books. What they want is the opportunity to chase championships.

To chase championships at North Carolina, you need to beat Duke.

A year ago, Bacot and Davis went 0-2 against the Blue Devils. The Tar Heels, as you may have heard, missed the NCAA Tournament entirely after being ranked number one in the preseason.

Two years ago, Bacot and Davis went 2-1 against Duke, beating Mike Krzyzewski in his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium and his final game, at the Final Four.

At North Carolina and Duke, you’ll be remembered if you win an ACC title or go to the Final Four.

You become a legend by winning the Carolina-Duke game.

“You win that game and sometimes, it feels more important than winning the league,” Roy Williams said in a 2013 documentary of the Carolina-Duke rivalry.

In a rare moment where the two sides agree, Mike Krzyzewski echoed the sentiment. “It’s the only game you can play in the regular season that feels like the Final Four and means as much to the people watching and the players competing. And of course, all your goals often depend on winning those games.”

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the numbers bear out that  Coach K is right, and Carolina-Duke is the most meaningful college basketball game played during the regular season. What might surprise some is how far any other regular-season game is from being remotely as meaningful.

Will the 49th top 10 meeting be an all-time classic?

While both teams enter playing solid basketball, it’s the defensive improvement of North Carolina, led by Bacot, and the star turn of Davis, that seems to give the Tar Heels a slight edge.

Bacot and Stanford transfer Harrison Ingram have helped the Tar Heels protect the tin, and Hubert Davis’ decision to switch less off the ball has played into that strength, reducing the number of times opposing offenses can attack mismatches and go at Carolina’s smaller guard duo of Davis and true freshman Elliot Cadeau, both of whom are just over 6 feet tall.

It may seem like a relatively simple concept, reducing the number of times a player has to guard more than one man in half-court defense, but it’s worked wonders for the Tar Heels, who started switching less after Davis saw the film of North Carolina’s 87-83 loss to Kentucky in mid-December, where Kentucky piled up 1.07 points per possession repeatedly attacking switching generated mismatches.

Since adjusting to a more traditional man-to-man, the Tar Heels had won 10 straight times before the Tech loss, ranking 2nd in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency during that stretch, per Bart Torvik. North Carolina enters the Duke game ranked 3rd nationally in KenPom Defensive Efficiency, a stark improvement for a team that hasn’t finished in the top 30 in that category under Hubert Davis (35th in 2021-22, 46th in 2022-23).

Duke, which will arrive at the Dean Dome ranked in the top 10 in KenPom Offensive Efficiency, has the size and electric interior talent to challenge the Tar Heels more than any opponent since Kentucky. But they also haven’t played a defense as well as the Tar Heels, and certainly haven’t done so on the road in an electric environment.

“They are a tremendous offensive basketball team, with talent all over the floor. It will be a challenge for us, to be sure” Hubert Davis said.

The type of challenge Armando Bacot and RJ Davis came back to North Carolina for, to be exact.