When North Carolina squares off against Duke this Wednesday night in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels have the perfect opportunity to jump back into the national rankings.
A win against their Tobacco Road foe would give them short-term local bragging rights. More importantly, they would write another remarkable chapter in their unusual season.
Early on, UNC posted thrilling victories over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky. However, the unpredictable Heels also lost infuriating games to UAB, Miami and Wake Forest.
Recently, head coach Roy Williams' squad has won six of its last seven games. In a matter of weeks, the team has moved from dead last in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings to its current fifth-place spot, one game behind Coach K's crew in the loss column.
Earlier this month, Williams spoke highly of his team's resurgence, per Lauren Brownlow of Fox Sports Carolinas:
I do think it says a great deal about the character of the kids that we have that they didn't get down when it was 0-3 or 1-4, they didn't start pointing fingers at anybody else, they accepted the coaching that we were trying to do and they are getting better.
Three months into the season, the Blue Devils are No. 8 in the AP Top 25 and the Tar Heels are currently unranked.
What does Carolina have to do to get a W this week? Here are three keys for the Tar Heels to pull off an upset against their archrivals.
Stay in Attack Mode
This Carolina team is at its best when it attacks the basket and persistently pounds the ball inside.
The Heels play more confidently when they take it to the hole, draw fouls and go to the line.
In their big win against Kentucky back in mid-December, the Heels shot an amazing 45 free throws. Even though UNC struggles at the line (62.4 percent as a team and No. 344 in the nation), the team is far better off when it gets there often.
The opposite is also true.
When the Heels lost to UAB and Wake Forest, they only shot 11 free throws in each of those games. When they were throttled by Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, UNC only attempted nine freebies.
Marcus Paige needs to be relentless in getting into the lane. He is both a great facilitator, and he can knock down free throws (90.5 percent and tied for No. 13 in the nation) with the best of them.
A big showing by this trio will make it a long night for the Blue Devils at the Smith Center.
Smother the Arc
Duke is one of the most deadly teams in college hoops at scoring from beyond the arc (42 percent and tied for No. 1 in the nation). The Blue Devils are not only accurate, but they also make a lot of shots (9.7 three-point field goals per game, ranking No. 5) from downtown.
They don't just have one sniper; they have four players in their main rotation who each shoot at least 45 percent from deep.
Because the Devils have so many long-distance shooters, the Tar Heels must be extremely active in getting out and challenging every shot.
When Duke lost to Arizona, the Blue Devils only connected on four of 14 (28.6 percent) threes. When the Devils went down at Clemson, they only made eight of 25 shots (32 percent) from beyond the arc.
If UNC can effectively contain Duke's three-point scoring, the Tar Heels will take away one of Coach K's most potent weapons.
Control the Glass
North Carolina is a very good rebounding team. Duke is an average rebounding team.
|ORebs/Game (Rank)||DRebs/Game (Rank)||OReb% (Rank)||DReb% (Rank)|
|UNC||12.8 ORPG (T-7th)||25.4 DRPG (T-18th)||36.7% (T-17th)||71.4% (T-139th)|
|Duke||10 ORPG (T-112th)||22.1 DRPG (T-171st)||31.9% (T-101st)||71.3% (T-142nd)|
On paper, the Tar Heels should be able to out-muscle the Blue Devils on both ends.
They not only have more size on the court (with McAdoo and Meeks) to start the game, they can also bring one big man after another off their bench. Johnson, Desmond Hubert and Joel James are all more than capable of dominating the boards for short spurts.
If Carolina can consistently limit Duke to one shot (or less) per possession, the Tar Heels will be able to slow down one of the most potent offensive teams in college basketball.
This rivalry game is must-see action every time these legendary programs play. This week's game means a lot to both teams, but it would be huge for UNC's NCAA tournament resume if it pulls off the upset.
Carolina has proven that it can compete with the elite teams in the nation. If the Heels take care of business at the free-throw line, on the boards and beyond the arc, they will win the biggest game of their season.