Duke looking to prove all its haters wrong with date at North Carolina
Losses to Florida State and Miami at home have put a damper on Duke's season
Duke's Ryan Kelly, Plumlee brothers will likely be outmatched by UNC's front line
Could a change in the starting lineup give Duke the boost that its been looking for?
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- It's a glorious time to be a Duke-hater.
The Blue Devils have lost two of their last three at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The first defeat, to Florida State on Jan. 21, looks fairly respectable in light of the Seminoles' recent hot streak. The second, to Miami on Sunday, looks awful. A frustrated Mike Krzyzewski seemed at a loss to explain how his team could sleepwalk for 24 solid minutes. "A Duke team should play with energy for 40 minutes," Krzyzewski said. "You go outside right now and look at the banners, there are quite a few up there, and they were not won without energy, without hunger and without people really wanting it. We've wanted it a lot and we've won a lot. We are supposed to play hard and with energy all the time, those are givens."
Meanwhile, one of the authors of a new book, Duke Sucks: A Completely Evenhanded, Unbiased Investigation into the Most Evil Team on Planet Earth, gloated to the Raleigh News & Observer that the book's publisher had to order a rush reprint last week because the tome keeps flying off the shelves.
To make matters worse, Duke will traverse the eight miles between Durham and Chapel Hill on Wednesday to face a North Carolina team that, on paper, seems like a terrible matchup. Duke's front line of Ryan Kelly and Mason and Miles looks overmatched by the Tar Heels' John Henson and Tyler Zeller. Duke may have to match up either Austin Rivers or Andre Dawkins -- both 6-foot-4 -- on 6-8 North Carolina wing Harrison Barnes.
These developments must delight the not-insignificant portion of the hoops-loving public who despise every floor slap and who revel in every Duke loss and every Krzyzewski scowl. But the Duke haters shouldn't celebrate prematurely. It's only Feb. 8, and the Blue Devils aren't dead yet.
Remember, it was Feb. 13, 2010 when Krzyzewski decided to insert seven-footer Brian Zoubek into the starting lineup against Maryland. That team was 20-4 at the time, and it didn't have the look of a national champion. Zoubek was considered strictly a bit player, but his elbows-out, garbageman approach changed the mentality of that team. The lineup shake-up produced the chemistry necessary for a deep NCAA tournament run. Does Krzyzewski have any magic lineup changes in his pocket? That remains to be seen. Bringing Rivers off the bench against Wake Forest last month lit a fire under the freshman, but Rivers quickly returned to the starting five.
Perhaps the Blue Devils simply needed a wake-up call. Florida State, the team Duke and North Carolina chase in the ACC standings, didn't evolve until after a humiliating loss at Clemson and a soul-baring team meeting in the locker room at Littlejohn Coliseum. Maybe the Miami loss rang the alarm bell for the Blue Devils. Remember, Duke's losses to Florida State and Miami were one-possession losses. A different bounce, another free throw, and this is a story about two national championship contenders squaring off at the Dean Dome. In our league," Krzyzewski said, "we're two possessions from being undefeated or two possessions from being 4-4."
For North Carolina, the stakes seem different. The Tar Heels seem to have the manpower to compete for a national title, but anyone who watched Kentucky destroy Florida on Tuesday can see the bar for national title contention has been raised. The Tar Heels have won 14 of 15, but that loss was a 33-point beating at Florida State that raised concerns for North Carolina coach Roy Williams that sound similar to the ones Krzyzewski expressed after the Miami loss. Williams bemoaned his team's lack of effort in Tallahassee, but he had seen warning signs in practices. Those practice effort issues have been corrected. "We've had much better practices," Williams said Monday. "Earlier, I didn't think we were doing the job in practice every day, so I kept telling them, 'How do we expect to do the job in the games if we're not doing it in practice?' And we are practicing much better now."
Of course, none of this blather may matter when the ball is tipped. ACC p.r. man Mike Finn threw out a fascinating statistic Monday. In the past 75 meetings of the series, Duke has scored 5,858 points; North Carolina has scored 5,857. The Duke haters may be having a moment now, but history suggests that moment could end Wednesday no matter how mismatched the teams appear. "I just know that it's North Carolina against Duke," Williams said, "and we've got to play our best game of the year, regardless of where we're playing or what time the game is."