Even if ESPN sold you on the “new rivalry” a bit back as ACC newcomer SU and Duke squared off in upstate New York, the first part of the true dog fight among arch rivals in the conference comes up tonight as North Carolina (16 & 7 ~ 6-4 in ACC) hosts #8 Duke (19 & 5 ~ 8-3 in ACC) at the Dean Dome. The game tips off at 9:00 p.m. EST, and due to the weather it sounds like Carolina officials might open up the doors to the venue if it gets as bad as the forecast indicates. On the other hand, if you can not make it to Chapel Hill, the game will be televised on ESPN and the ACC Network.
A bit like the football season, when things did not go as planned at the beginning, UNC meets Duke riding a five game winning streak. In the gridiron version things did not go as well as the could have. In the hardwoods one in order for the Tar Heels to come out with a win several things will have to work out for head coach Roy Williams‘ squad.
First off, it’s two leaders, sophomore combo guard Marcus Paige and junior power forward James McAdoo, have to have good games, if not better. Not good spurts, not good halves, they must play forty minutes of good basketball. And they must do it on both sides of the ball. This means that Paige can not have the “Mr. Second Half” label in this one and that McAdoo can not get into foul trouble while guarding Jabari Parker. I have said time and again, this North Carolina squad is an emotional one, and if the duo of Paige & McAdoo can get the rest of their tea mates going anything is possible.
Secondly, whomever is playing in the middle, which will be a mix of sophomore Brice Johnson, sophomore Joel James and freshman Kennedy Meeks, must make the most of it against Duke. The Blue Devils are not well stocked in the paint and in order for the Heels to win tonight they must get the points in that area of the court. Offensive rebounds would be a great added bonus, while controlling their own board is a must for UNC.
Thirdly, keeping the many Duke three point shooters from getting wide open shots. Meaning that senior shooting guard Leslie McDonald and sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto will have to contribute on offense, taking shots that they can hit when available, but more so, they have to be a force to be reckon with on the defensive end. Especially for Tokoto, who is going to have to guard Rodney Hood, this game is a must when it comes to locking down the opponent.
With all that has gone on with both these programs this season this game is a must win for both. For North Carolina, who started off 0 and 3 in the ACC, winning today would put them one game behind Duke, and with the possibility of getting into the top four spots of the conference, which would mean not having to play an extra game in the ACC Post Season Tournament. For Duke, who was marked as the favorite to win the conference, losing any more games would probably mean they would not be winning the ACC Regular Season this year. For UNC, who has three great wins during the out of conference part of the schedule, but also so not-so good losses, a win against Duke would make them rise higher and higher in the seeds of March Madness. For Duke, there are seven games left, three with teams that will go to the NCAA Tournament (2 vs UNC and 1 vs SU), losing this one would mean they would have to win the other two in order to end the season in a positive way. Add to that, if Syracuse was to beat Pittsburgh in the game before Duke/UNC, and the Heels were to take care of the Blue Devils, Carolina would be sitting 1/2 a game back of fourth place having to play both teams just above them. For North Carolina a win tonight would probably put them back into the Top 25, while for Duke a W in Chapel Hill will solidify their stance as one of the top teams in the nation.
In many ways these two programs are much different. But there is one thing that both these teams have in common, they both have two very strong leaders, whichever pair plays the best tonight is going to go a long way in determining who takes the W tonight. And when you think about it, even their two leaders in some ways are much different, as the ones from Durham might be here for one game in Chapel Hill, while most probably, the pair of Tar Heels will be back next year for this rivalry game.
In the end, if both teams come out with the same energy and mentality, this should be a close one between these programs that have played 236 times in this rivalry. The Vegas insiders have Duke as a two point favorite, and I think it is going to be that close, but I am going to favor the home team in this one, seeing North Carolina take it 78 to 75.