The latest entry in the Tobacco Road rivalry between the North Carolina Tar Heels and No. 3 Duke Blue Devils takes place on Saturday night in Chapel Hill. For the unranked home team, it will be critical to emerge victorious against their archrivals in order to improve positioning for the impending NCAA tournament.
After starting off 6-5 in Atlantic Coast Conference play, the Tar Heels have roared back at the end of the season, winning their past six games in the conference. The slimmest margin of victory in those contests was nine points, which happened twice.
UNC is always loaded with talent, and this year is no exception. Roy Williams' squad seems to be jelling at just the right time, especially with P.J. Hairston back in the lineup and excelling. A victory over a quality opponent is very necessary at this juncture.
The bounce back from a horrific 26-point loss to Miami (FL) and the subsequent hard-fought defeat in the unfriendly atmosphere of Cameron Indoor at Duke has been impressive. What hasn't been is the level of competition.
That isn't to say the ACC isn't a strong basketball conference, because it is. However, the Tar Heels have posted a record of just 2-6 against teams in the RPI Top 50 (h/t ESPN), and none of the victories occurred within the team's current winning streak.
Such a record certainly won't help the Tar Heels' cause on Selection Sunday, but a win against Duke—the top-ranked team in the RPI—definitely would.
The aforementioned first matchup with the Blue Devils this season ended in a 73-68 loss. North Carolina couldn't capitalize on a four-point halftime lead, made just 13-of-23 free throws and shot less than 38 percent from the field.
Typically, the Tar Heels are much more efficient offensively than that. Led by big man James Michael McAdoo's 14.6 points, North Carolina is a very balanced team that shares the ball extremely well.
Reggie Bullock stuffs the stat sheet and is the second-leading scorer. Guards Dexter Strickland and Marcus Paige each average over four assists per game, and the Tar Heels rank second in the nation with 17.6 assists per contest as a team.
For some reason everything doesn't quite click when it comes to facing elite opposition.
As noted by The Daily Tar Heel's Brooke Pryor, though, UNC's recent strong form has been keyed by Williams' switch to a smaller, four-guard lineup.
ESPN analyst Dick Vitale sees it the same way.
Dick Vitale @DickieV
Since L to Duke UNC has been on fire with smaller lineup. - key 4 UNC to win - need 3 ball to fall from Bullock & Hairston #RIVALRYTHEBEST2013-3-8 14:16:55
And it's worth pointing out that the Tar Heels haven't faced the highest level of competition since Williams implemented that clutch tactical change.
In the latest AP poll, UNC is ranked just outside of the Top 25, which would likely leave them with a fifth seed in the tournament based on their program's makeup and presence in a power conference.
Given that a 12-over-5 upset happens nearly every year in March Madness, it would be ideal for a team like the Tar Heels to avoid that spot at all costs. Registering a sweet, vengeful victory against the Blue Devils would be the perfect way to do that.