Latest Duke-UNC clash lacks luster, but stakes couldn't be higher
For only the second time in 13 meetings, neither Duke nor UNC is in the top five
The Tar Heels, who have lost six of seven, face a must-win to salvage the season
No. 8 Duke is the heavy favorite, which is exactly why the Blue Devils must win
No, this is not your typical Duke-North Carolina game. For the first time in seven years, one of the participants (UNC) is unranked. For just the second time in the past 13 meetings, neither team is ranked in the top five (Duke is eighth in the latest AP poll).
Must-see TV this is not.
One could argue, however, that this game is actually more important to the two participants than in recent years. Both teams obviously want to win, but this year, it's a must-win.
Consider the circumstances.
Roy Williams' Tar Heels (13-10, 2-6 in the ACC) are reeling. They've lost three straight (including a humiliating 92-71 defeat at Maryland on Sunday) and six of their last seven. They must win this game to have any hopes of salvaging their season, and with the home crowd on their side -- on an emotional night when the school is retiring Tyler Hansbrough's jersey -- an upset is hardly out of the question.
"If you tell me we're going to win, then yeah, [this game] comes at a great time," joked Williams. "I don't know if you've lost six of [seven], playing Duke the next game is a very good thing, but we should get [our players'] undivided attention and their undivided effort."
Mike Krzyzewski's team (19-4, 7-2 in the ACC) goes in the heavy favorite, which is precisely why it must win as well. The Blue Devils haven't found themselves in this position very often of late. Coming into the season, the Tar Heels had won six of the past seven meetings, and Williams has won two national titles (2005 and '09) since the last time Krzyzewski's team reached the Final Four ('04).
"It's been frustrating for us, especially as a senior class," said Blue Devils center Brian Zoubek. "They've just had some really talented and experienced guys."
The perception coming into this season was that Williams' program had firmly seized the balance of power in the rivalry, both on the court and in recruiting. While Krzyzewski spent much of his recent summers shoring up USA Basketball, Williams was purportedly busy procuring the nation's top recruits. Last fall, Harrison Barnes, Rivals.com's No. 2 recruit in the class of 2010, opted to sign with UNC over Duke, yet another supposed sign of the Heels' budding Tobacco Road takeover.
But then they started playing the games -- and it turns out the current crop of Tar Heels simply aren't very good.
While some drop-off was to be expected following the loss of four NBA draft picks (Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green), who would have foreseen such a drastic implosion? Starting with a stunning loss at College of Charleston on Jan. 4, North Carolina has lost seven of nine, notching its only subsequent wins against Virginia Tech on Jan. 10 and N.C. State on Jan. 26. Apocalyptic fans and media who less than a year ago were lionizing Williams for hoisting another banner are suddenly questioning the direction of his program.
"Our massage therapist told me, 'You know, coach, what happened in Haiti is a catastrophe. What you're having is a disappointment,' " said Williams. "I told her that depends on what chair you're sitting in. It does feel like a catastrophe to me, because it is my life."
UNC has offered the Blue Devils a window of opportunity -- and perception-wise, they best take advantage. As one Duke fan told me on Tuesday: "If Duke loses in Chapel Hill tomorrow, it's a very bad sign for Duke and its ability to turn around the rivalry. I am terrified."
The Blue Devils' coaches and players know better than to overlook the Tar Heels.
For one thing, most believe this North Carolina team is far more talented than it has played. Forward Ed Davis, who has been slowed by an ankle injury the past few weeks, is a projected lottery pick. Forward Deon Thompson and guard Marcus Ginyard are former starters who made solid contributors to the Hansbrough-era teams. Point guard Larry Drew II showed star potential last year as a freshman.
All have struggled, as UNC has displayed two very un-Williams like qualities -- it struggles in transition defense and isn't nearly as aggressive down low as it was with Hansbourgh -- but then again, this is the same team that beat top-15 teams Ohio State and Michigan State early in the season. There's still the sense the Heels could turn things around if only they were to get a boost of confidence. Beating their rival -- a top-10 team -- could certainly do that.
"They have a really good blend of veterans and a lot of talented young players," said Krzyzewski. "Obviously they represent a program that's proud, and they have one of the best coaches of all time, so I think we'll have a hell of a game on Wednesday night."
Of course, Coach K has to say that. In reality, the Blue Devils have an advantage at nearly every position. Scoring guard Nolan Smith (18.1 points per game) should be able to attack counterparts Drew, Ginyard and Dexter Strickland. Jon Scheyer (18.9 points, 39.5 percent on three-pointers) and Kyle Singler (16.6, 36.4) have the ability to light it up from outside just like Maryland's Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes did Sunday, when they hit a combined 10-of-16 from beyond the arc. And big men Miles Plumlee, Lance Thomas and Zoubek give Duke a rare size advantage over the Heels (who are missing injured 7-footer Tyler Zeller).
"Scheyer attacks defenses and really makes great decisions. Nolan is the same way and Kyle Singler as well," said Williams. "When you try to help ... they have a knack for throwing the ball up around the basket and one of their big guys getting it and dunking it."
But this Duke team is hardly dominant, especially on the road. That much was made clear two Saturdays ago in Washington D.C., when Georgetown's athletic guards shredded the Blue Devils in a 89-77 rout. In January, Duke lost 88-74 at N.C. State (14-10), which is currently tied for last in the conference standings. Last Saturday, it gutted out a 66-63 win at 12-11 Boston College.
Regardless of UNC's record, a win in a hostile environment against a heated rival would be a valuable confidence-builder for the Blue Devils. A loss to such a vulnerable Tar Heels squad would be highly troubling both for this season and the future, which is precisely why this is a must-win for Krzyzewski's team. For UNC, meanwhile, the result will serve either as its last hope for redemption or the final dagger in a rapidly deteriorating season.
One team (Duke) is hungry. The other (UNC) is desperate. It may not be a Final Four-caliber matchup, but don't be surprised to see the two rivals play as if the Final Four were at stake.
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