Duke freshman Jared McCain got a taste of what the rivalry vs. North Carolina was like months before Saturday’s marquee top-10 showdown.
Shortly after moving cross-country from his home in Southern California to Duke last summer, McCain mistakenly found himself at a Target in Chapel Hill, near the North Carolina campus. The Duke superstar freshman hadn’t played a minute of college basketball, but his massive social media following of over 600,000 followers on Instagram and 2.1 million on TikTok made him easily recognizable.
McCain took an Uber to the store, and weas immediately greeted by a handful of UNC fans who let him know he wasn’t where he was supposed to be.
Some older people walked in and they just started booing,” McCain told CBS Sports. “I was like ‘What is going on?’ and I turned around and they’re doing the thumbs down at me. So that was kinda funny to see. Nothing crazy happened, but that was one of the funniest moments when I realized this rivalry is really, really real.”
His return to Chapel Hill this weekend may be less playful. No. 3 North Carolina and No. 7 Duke will meet for the 49th time as top 10 opponents and the winner will assume the driver’s seat in a wild ACC race. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils will meet a second time at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 9 to close out the regular season and could possibly meet again in the ACC Tournament next month if the stars align.
McCain is averaging 12.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists for No. 7 Duke. He is one of two players on the roster (Kyle Filipowski being the other) that started all 20 games. McCain nearly recorded his second career double-double in his last outing against Virginia Tech and finished with nine points and 10 rebounds.
The turning point
McCain is working himself into prestigious company at Duke. The Blue Devils’ sharpshooter is connecting on 40.2% of his 3-pointers on over five attempts per game. If McCain stays above both of those thresholds, he will become the third Duke freshman in the last 25 years to hit both of those marks. Gary Trent Jr. (40.2% on 6.5 attempts) and Brandon Ingram (41% on 5.4 attempts) both accomplished the feat during their first season.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing. During the first eight games of his college career, McCain eclipsed eight points only twice. The lowlight came during a loss to Georgia Tech in the Blue Devils’ ACC opener on Dec. 2. After being upset on the road and finishing with six points on 3-of-10 shooting, McCain returned home to Duke and watched the entire game back with Blue Devils coach Jon Scheyer.
The meeting was a turning point in his career and maybe Duke’s season.
“Throughout a freshman season, there’s always ups and downs,” McCain said. “Specifically, I remember after the Georgia Tech game, we sat down and watched the whole game. (Scheyer) told me he doubled-down on me and he’s going to continue to put trust in me and have that confidence to shoot those shots. … for him to give me the confidence, that’s all I needed. From then on, I’ve had that confidence of being able to play as myself. I’m super grateful for him. I’m glad our relationship is how it is right now. That’s my guy. I always love going to war for him.”
Since that loss to Georgia Tech, Duke has won 11 of its last 12 games and McCain has been among one of the best first-year players in the sport.and has found himself ranked inside the top 10 of the
“Jared just has this special belief about him,” Scheyer told reporters after the win over Clemson last week. “When things get tough, you just feel like Jared’s gonna make a play. It doesn’t matter that he’s a freshman; it doesn’t matter that he’s never been in a situation like this before. He just has a belief his team’s just supposed to win.”
McCain’s family connection
McCain moved to Southern California from his hometown of Sacramento, California, in the summer of 2018 for better basketball opportunities. It was around this time McCain started getting traction in the recruiting world, which resulted in him receiving his first scholarship offer from Eastern Washington shortly after his in-state move.
His older brother, Jayce, joined him in Southern California when he accepted a basketball scholarship at Division ll San Marcos in San Diego. Jayce McCain dealt with health issues during his high school career that caused him to never receive the same recruiting interest as his younger brother.
McCain’s recruitment blew up going into his junior year at Centennial (Corona, California) High School. He ended his recruitment by signing with Duke over the likes of Gonzaga, Kansas, Louisville, Houston, UCLA, USC and more. McCain finished ranked as the No. 14 overall player in the 2023 recruiting cycle and was Duke’s top-ranked signee for the No. 2 overall recruiting class.
Fast forward to the present day and McCain is once again back with his older brother. Jayce is a graduate assistant on the Duke coaching staff and their parents, Jina and Lance, moved to Durham, North Carolina, to stay close to their children.
It’s so nice to have that family environment out here, especially across the country,” McCain said. “My brother is the whole reason why I want to play this game and why I want to reach my goals. He wasn’t able to do it for himself, so I feel like (I have to) sacrifice all I gotta do to make it to the next level. That’s why I go out there on the court and play as hard as I can every single time. I’m always talking about kinda he’s my ‘why’ and obviously my whole family, but my brother is so huge for me. He will literally sacrifice anything for me. He’s the reason why I play.”
McCain’s play as of late has elevated him into the one-and-done conversion. If the Duke guard elects to declare for the 2024 NBA Draft, he would likely be mocked into the first round. The other alternative is returning to school for another season like his teammates Tyrese Proctor and Filipowski did last season. Both players were projected to go into the first round before they withdrew their names from draft consideration.
If McCain does return to school for his sophomore season, he would join a loaded incoming recruiting class. Duke signed the No. 1 overall player in the 2024 class, Cooper Flagg, and have pledges from five-star forward Isaiah Evans, five-star forward Kon Knueppel, four-star center Patrick Ngongba II and four-star forward Darren Harris.
The bottom line: If McCain keeps playing like this, he won’t have to think about the latter.
Stamping his name in the UNC-Duke rivalry
Some of the most iconic moments in the sport have come when North Carolina and Duke face off. One of those ever-lasting moments happened nearly 12 years ago inside the Dean E. Smith Center when Austin Rivers hit a 3-pointer at the horn to give Duke an 85-84 win.
Rivers, Seth Curry and JJ Redick are just a few of the former Duke greats McCain admires. The highlight of Rivers’ game-winner is something that McCain has seen frequently.
McCain will have his chance to leave his mark on the rivalry like those who came before him, but it won’t be easy. North Carolina is led by veterans RJ Davis, Cormac Ryan, Harrison Ingram and Armando Bacot. UNC was the last Power Six team to lose a conference game and was one of the hottest teams in the sport before losing on the road to Georgia Tech earlier this week.
The Tar Heels start one freshman. That would be point guard Elliot Cadeau, who reclassified from the 2024 recruiting class to join UNC one year early. The former No. 12 overall player in the 2023 class by 247Sports has helped elevate North Carolina to new heights. Cadeau has been playing his best basketball lately and averages a team-leading 3.7 assists. McCain played against Cadeau during a high school camp hosted by NBA star Chris Paul before arriving on their respective college campuses.
“He’s super fast,” McCain said of Cadeau. “Elite handle. Really good player. It’s going to be a fun freshmen matchup. I’m excited to get out there and compete.”
McCain will be reminded he’s in enemy territory by a relentless UNC crowd this weekend. The difference between his first outing and now is he knows what to expect from the rivalry because of what he witnessed on that North Carolina summer day.