Earlier in the season, it appeared that the twin battles between age-old rivals Duke and North Carolina would barely make a ripple on the national college basketball scene. Duke was spiraling to the lower reaches of the Associated Press Top 25, while the maddeningly inconsistent Tar Heels could only dream of ranking anywhere in said poll.
Fast forward one month, and the latest Top 25 poll sees Duke back in the nation's Top 10 and North Carolina receiving one vote (thanks, Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque [N.M.] Journal). Since Jan. 11, Duke has won seven of eight, while UNC has taken six of seven.
The "Greatest Rivalry in College Basketball" will be relevant, and for that, ESPN is grateful.
For its part, Duke has excelled thanks to the rebirth of star freshman Jabari Parker. After a rough introduction to ACC play, the Chicago native has his sea legs and is pummeling conference foes the same way he did the likes of Alabama and Eastern Michigan.
Parker has scored at least 14 points in each of his last seven games, averaging exactly 20 per night and topping that mark four times. He's come a long way from a seven-point conference debut, an increasingly inexplicable loss to Notre Dame that saw Parker riding the bench during crunch time.
While it's unlikely that Parker will be a spectator in the late going against Carolina, the Tar Heels do have a roster that could give him unfortunate flashbacks to that Saturday afternoon in South Bend, Ind.
Bleacher Report covered Parker's issues against Notre Dame last month but didn't make note of North Carolina as a team equipped to make the youngster's life difficult. At that point, no one was quite sure of what the Tar Heel rotation would look like in February. UNC was still adapting to life after P.J. Hairston's official dismissal.
Plus, there was that foreboding loss to Wake Forest that opened conference play. Surely a team that allowed 16 points to Wake's Travis McKie would offer little resistance against the gifted Parker, right?
Eh, not so fast.
While it's unlikely that UNC coach Roy Williams will follow the lead of ND's Mike Brey and throw some zone at the Blue Devils, the makeup of his roster does make it possible for the Heels to mimic the Irish's committee approach to stopping Parker.
Freshman Kennedy Meeks' 290-pound bulk will leave him hard-pressed to shadow Parker for any length of time. However, he can certainly wear the Duke star down if he's able to find and box out Parker when shots go up.
Long, lithe sophomore Brice Johnson can contest Parker's shots much like Austin Burgett did for the Irish, while 6'6" swingman J.P. Tokoto is more than quick enough to chase Parker around the perimeter.
No single player matches up well with Parker, but no one did for Notre Dame, either. It remains to be seen if Williams will try to use his manpower to keep Duke's top scorer off-balance.
Burn Him at Both Ends
In ACC play, North Carolina has settled on a tight seven-man rotation prominently featuring the 6'9" trio of Meeks, Johnson and James Michael McAdoo.
McAdoo in particular has become a more consistent producer than in past seasons, putting up at least 11 points in each of his 10 ACC games. He's shot 50 percent from the floor in conference play after struggling through 43 and 44 percent seasons as a freshman and sophomore.
Johnson has become more aggressive in his last four games, averaging 11.8 points on eight shot attempts per game after producing only 6.3 on 6.3 in his first six conference outings.
One of the three should nearly always be guarded by Parker, and it will be incumbent on the UNC offense to take the action right at him.
While Duke has plenty of options in its backcourt, the frontcourt minutes will be largely divided between Parker, Amile Jefferson, the dinged-up Marshall Plumlee and the oft-invisible Josh Hairston. The Blue Devils frontcourt can survive foul trouble about as well as a scarecrow can survive a brush fire.
North Carolina has averaged 13 free-throw attempts in its four ACC losses. In their six wins, the Heels have attempted 27.2 foul shots per game. Aggressiveness has been UNC's friend, and the same is likely to hold true against Duke.
Even without widespread foul trouble, Notre Dame was able to attack the rim and force Parker to help on the penetrators. He often came up a step slow, which is the primary reason coach Mike Krzyzewski yanked him for the final four minutes.
UNC lacks the perimeter options to spread the defense from the beginning, but good ball movement can go a long way. The Heels get assists on more than 57 percent of their baskets, ranking in the nation's top 60, according to Ken Pomeroy (subscription required).
That same Wake Forest team that tripped up Carolina in January got blown off the court by Duke last week. Parker produced a career-high 29 points and 16 rebounds. He's not the same player he was against Notre Dame.
By the same token, North Carolina's not the same team it was last month, either. Games against Boston College and Notre Dame didn't result in shocking losses akin to the Belmont and UAB defeats. Of course, UNC couldn't upset Syracuse or Virginia the way it did Kentucky or Michigan State.
Nearly everyone who will take the court at the Dean Smith Center Wednesday night has improved through the three-month learning experience we call the college basketball season. If Jabari Parker has taken his lesson better than the North Carolina big men, Duke should emerge with the win.
After all, the Devils have enough weapons to outgun anyone in America, even if Parker's playing a decoy role.
If Parker comes in overly excited by the atmosphere, however, forcing the action and falling into foul trouble will make it a long night for player and team.
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