UNC Basketball: Why Showdown with Duke Is More Than a Rivalry Game for Heels

Todd SalemContributor IIIFebruary 10, 2014

Feb 8, 2014; South Bend, IN, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams and the North Carolina bench react in the first half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball has the New York Yankees vs. Boston the Red Sox. College football has Michigan vs. Ohio State. In the world of college basketball, there is no bigger rivalry than North Carolina vs. Duke.

The two teams face off against each other on Wednesday, February 12. It will be the first matchup between the two since the Blue Devils downed the Tar Heels last March, 69-53. However, this week's game is more than just a rivalry game for UNC.

Here's a look at the current ACC standings.

ACC Standings

North Carolina6-416-7
North Carolina State5-515-8
Florida State5-614-9
Wake Forest4-614-9
Georgia Tech3-812-12
Notre Dame3-812-12
Miami (FL)2-811-12
Boston College2-86-17
Virginia Tech1-108-15

North Carolina sits in fifth place. While it has the same record as the Clemson Tigers, UNC already beat Clemson head-to-head back in January.

The bad news is in regard to those top four schools in the conference. Thus far, UNC is a combined 0-2 versus the cream of the ACC, with losses at Syracuse and Virginia.

This Duke game marks the start of North Carolina's only chance to get back into the conference title hunt.

The benefit of a win is obvious. With a victory, the Tar Heels would be 7-4 heading into their tilt with Pittsburgh on February 15. They would be just a half-game behind Duke with the head-to-head advantage. The win would also make it six consecutive victories for coach Roy Williams and the Heels after a tumultuous beginning to their conference slate.

It is also easy to imagine UNC getting itself back into the Top 25 rankings with a victory over the Blue Devils. Not only would it mean six straight wins, it would also give North Carolina its fifth victory over a Top 50 team.

By beating Kentucky, Michigan State, Louisville and Duke, UNC would have beaten all four of the top four teams in this year's preseason rankings, which is simply remarkable.

In fact, those were the only four teams to receive even a single first-place vote in those initial rankings. The Heels' resume would rival anyone's in the country as far as upper-echelon wins are concerned.

However, the opposite outcome is just as impactful and important.

If North Carolina were to lose to Duke this week, the impact would be twofold.

First, the loss itself would slide UNC back down the standings. Right now, five different teams have either five or six conference wins. The middle of the ACC is bunched up enough where one loss can send a team down three or four spots in the standings by the time the next week rolls around.

Losing to Duke would, for all intents and purposes, prevent North Carolina from challenging for the ACC regular-season crown this year. The top will be out of reach. It would also set the Tar Heels back as far as the ACC tournament is concerned.

With 15 teams now in the conference, the playoffs are a bit unorthodox. The bottom six schools play in the first round. Nos. 5 through 9 receive a bye, and Nos. 1 through 4 essentially receive a double-bye.

Because of this, it is paramount to finish in the top four of the standings.

As indicated, a win over Duke would push Carolina to within a half-game of that fourth-place spot. A loss would be devastating, pushing the team three back in the win column.

The other outcome of a loss here is mental. North Carolina is playing so well and riding such a high that it probably feels unbeatable. A loss would send it spiraling back to earth. It might also open the players' eyes.

The team's current five-game winning streak has come against teams that are a combined 23-30 within the conference. Perhaps the Tar Heels aren't actually as good as their recent play has indicated and still not the team that managed those huge wins early in the season.

More than movement in the standings, a win over Duke can set the Tar Heels' minds at ease. They would be afforded the knowledge that they're one of the better schools in the country when putting forth their best effort.

The rivalry plays a major role in that. Although the game itself means more to the season than to the history between these two schools, losing to Duke would make everything so much worse.