Creature vs. Creature: Duke, UNC Battle for ACC Supremacy

Nathan BitnerSenior Analyst IFebruary 9, 2009

For one night, throw the national rankings out the window.

Take the RPI to the garbage can. Send strength of schedule to the shredder. Kick Pomeroy to the curb. Overall record? Please.

When North Carolina (21-2, 7-2 ACC) travels eight miles up Highway 15/501 to meet Duke (20-3, 7-2 ACC), a rivalry will be renewed that remains not only the greatest in college basketball, but perhaps in all of sport.

Though always special, this game will mean even more on Wednesday night, because the winner takes sole possession of first place in the toughest conference in college basketball. Perhaps more importantly, the victor will have local bragging rights, at least until the Mar. 8 rematch in Chapel Hill.

Duke has dropped two of its last four games, albeit it to strong contenders Wake Forest and Clemson, both on the road. The Devils needed overtime to dispatch with Miami on Saturday, though Greg Paulus excelled in a starting role for the first time since the beginning of the season.

North Carolina shocked its supporters and critics alike by dropping its first two conference games to Wake and Boston College, but the Heels have righted the ship in style, winning seven straight ACC games by an average of 16 points.

Bleacher reporters Travis Miller (Duke) and Nathan Bitner (UNC) break down the rivalry in a roundtable discussion.

Why does the Duke/UNC rivalry mean so much to you?

Travis: The matchups with UNC are always the most significant games of the season. It's impossible to gauge the skill of the team or success of the year without taking in the results of the Tobacco Road clashes. Regardless of record, the game is always heated and the probability of a special finish is sky high.

My least favorite example is the 2003 battle in which an NIT-bound Carolina team edged a top-10 Blue Devils squad 82-79 in Chapel Hill. Duke went on to win the ACC Tournament and advance to the Sweet 16, but for the gentlemen down the road, this was their National Championship.

Similarly, in 1995, Duke pushed a Final-Four bound Tar Heels squad to double OT, clawing back from 17 down. Duke was 10-9 at the time, without Coach K, and headed to their worst season in recent memory.

Bottom line? All stats are thrown out the door when these two teams meet, and anything can happen. Cliche, cheesy, true.

Nathan: This isn't just a battle between two great teams: It's a clash of two cultures. Eight miles may separate the universities, but the two schools couldn't be more different in nature.

One is the flagship state school; one is an elite, private, Ivy League school of the South. One is located in "the Southern part of Heaven," while the other is in a city that stands as a unique mix of gritty, hardscrabble blue-collar workers and upscale socialites.

Every man, woman, and child in the state of North Carolina has picked a side, except for those poor folks still hoping for a N.C. State revival. If UNC loses, your Duke coworkers will harass you incessantly; your Duke friends will leave you calling AT&T to unregister your number.

If UNC wins, you can remind your Devil buddies that they're paying roughly 25 times more for that piece of paper they get after (hopefully) four years. You can ask them if they've officially changed their name to the State University of New Jersey at Durham.

You can remind them that this pill won't be nearly as bitter to swallow as the loss they have coming on Senior Day in Chapel Hill.

Going 2-30 on the season is just fine, as long as those two wins are against Duke.

What is your most memorable moment from the Duke/UNC rivalry?

Travis: If I had to choose just one, it would be Feb. 28, 1998 when Duke was down double-digits with only 10 minutes to go. UNC missed four free throws when they counted most, and Mike Krzyzewski earned his 500th win as Duke clinched the regular-season ACC title.

A close second is the Feb. 5, 2004 matchup when one of my favorite all-time Duke teams came back late in regulation to force OT and beat one of my least favorite Carolina teams (Sean May and company) in Chapel Hill, thanks to Chris Duhon's game-winning reverse layup.

Nathan: It's not always when they play each other. For sheer emotion on Franklin Street, I have to go with a single night (Mar. 25, 2000) in which Duke lost a game to Florida that would have advanced them to the Elite Eight, immediately followed by a UNC victory over Tennessee, as they won on their way to another Final Four. Both were stunning upsets.

An elderly man played the UNC fight song (including the commonly improvised ending of "Go to Hell, Duke!") for hours on his trumpet, and the streets were filled with revelers well past 2 AM.

How will a win affect the rest of your season?

Travis: Doubt may be starting to creep into the minds of Duke critics, which could start leaking to the fan base with another loss.

This season is supposed to be different than the disappointments of the last few years, when toughness and deep postseason runs have eluded us. Earning this win would reinforce, if not restore, confidence in the Devils and their fan base that Duke can beat a top team.

Though many games remain in conference play, it's never too early to think about ACC and NCAA tournament seeding, and a win would give the Devils an early advantage. Sending the Heels home in second place will be a huge step in the right direction.

Nathan: Travis laid it out pretty well. It's all about confidence. Duke plays outstanding defense and while UNC has notched some impressive wins, none would instill more confidence than a win over the uniquely challenging Blue Devils.

A No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament team (for either or both teams) likely means two games in Greensboro, NC, a huge advantage in making the Sweet 16.

What are some keys to your team winning the game?
Travis: First and foremost, Duke needs to make the most of its home-court advantage. The Heels will not be intimidated when they step on Coach K court.
Gerald Henderson needs to put the ball on the floor and either draw fouls on UNC's forwards or dish the ball to open up the outside game. Duke has a virtually unmatchable strength when they are clicking from behind the arc, but their defensive intensity may be even more important against UNC.
Now that Jon Scheyer has found his stroke and Kyle Singler got his Luke Harangody impression (5-for-23 from the field) out of the way against Miami, they and the key reserves all must contribute. Duke must impose its will upon Carolina early and do its best to control the tempo.
Turnovers must be kept to a minimum, because competing with the Heels in transition is like wearing that disgusting baby blue...just not a good idea.

Nathan: The keys are virtually the same for any UNC game. They need to play from inside-out, not outside-in. Find Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson inside and let Lawson penetrate before finding Danny Green and Wayne Ellington from outside. They have to establish the inside game against the shorter Blue Devils.
Duke also rebounds very well for a team with size issues, but UNC should be able to dominate the boards. If not, they could be in for a long night. Finally, the young but talented Tar Heel reserves (Ed Davis and Larry Drew II) can't be cowed by the situation or the deafening Cameron crowd.

What do you dislike most about your "evil" opposition?
Travis: It has to be the hideous shade of Carolina blue and the fact that the team refuses to play defense. Hansbrough's celebratory high-stepping after hitting the game-winner against Virginia Tech in the 2008 ACC tourney was incredibly annoying.

Nathan: Well, there's Coach K's infamous whining to the referees. Squealing, some might call it. No.s 2 through 4 have to be Greg Paulus, Gerald Henderson, and Greg Paulus. UNC fans are still smarting from Henderson's elbow to the schnoz of Hansbrough last season. Henderson hit him so hard that he left a black eye on Tyler's Student ID card.

Okay, you have to say something nice about the opposition. What is it?
Travis: Despite the loss of key players, UNC remains a top team in the country. The Heels are athletic and know how to play the game. I loved watching Hansbrough vs. Harangody, and I'd love to see him tear apart Hasheem Thabeet, too. You want tough? Psycho T is your guy. I respect the man.

Nathan: Honestly, previous words aside, Coach K is as good as they come. His teams are intense on defense, a direct offshoot of their Hall of Fame coach. Cameron is the most exciting place to play a game, the Dean Dome included.

At last...the prediction?
Travis: The contest should be fast-paced, but UNC has gotten too comfortable during their winning streak, whereas the Blue Devils have fought through adversity and stayed on their toes of late. Duke fans would love a Greg Paulus floor-slap, as long as he doesn't re-aggravate his wrist.
Duke 84, UNC 78, in regulation.
Hansbrough won't bleed, but hopefully he cries.

Nathan: It won't be easy but in the end, Hansbrough, Davis and Thompson will prove too much for Duke's smaller defenders. Lawson will continue to exhibit his outstanding assist to turnover ratio and UNC will get the pace they want. But is it really UNC-Duke if it doesn't go to overtime?
UNC 90, Duke 87, OT.
Ellington hits the game-winning three, leaving the Devils to battle for second in the ACC with Clemson and Wake Forest, two teams to whom they have already lost.

Until we meet again...


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