On Thursday night, the North Carolina Tar Heels (18-7, 8-4 ACC) will take on the Duke Blue Devils (20-5, 9-3 ACC) for the first time this season. After a 1-4 start to UNC's ACC season, it appeared this game would mean nothing more than bragging rights.
However, the Tar Heels are currently riding a seven-game winning streak, which has them just a game behind their rivals for the third-place spot in the conference.
Taking down the No. 5 team in the country won't be an easy task for the Heels, though. It will take some serious guts and one of their most complete games of the season to do so. Sticking to these five keys just might earn them a victory over one of the nation's top teams—and North Carolina's greatest rival.
With all the publicity Jabari Parker has received this season, it's easy to assume that containing the freshman sensation would be the ultimate key to taking out Duke. It would certainly be helpful, but putting too much emphasis on Parker could lead to a troubling night on the perimeter.
The Blue Devils rank fourth in the nation, shooting 41.1 percent from downtown. What's scarier is the fact that four players with more than 40 attempts on the season are shooting better than 44 percent. That's downright nasty.
Taking that threat away, as difficult as it may be, will stymie an offense that relies too heavily on the three-ball.
Duke jacks up 23 three-pointers a game, which amounts to 39.9 percent of its field-goal attempts. Threes have also accounted for 34.8 percent of the team's total points on the season.
The Tar Heels will need to play some serious lockdown defense to prevent a barrage of treys. Staying in front of their men will be key because help defense will only open up one of Duke's many weapons on the outside.
Shooters like Andre Dawkins, Rodney Hood, Tyler Thornton and Rasheed Sulaimon don't need much space to torch a help-happy defense.
No matter how hard the Tar Heels guard the perimeter, though, it's going to be tough to keep the threes from raining down. One way UNC can counter that is by dominating the glass—something it has done very well over this seven-game winning streak.
The Heels rank eighth in the nation—and first in the ACC—in this category, ripping down 41.1 boards per game.
Over the last seven games, they've averaged 41.9 rebounds per contest and out-rebounded the competition by an average of 8.2 boards a night. They're also hauling in 15 offensive rebounds a game over that span while holding opponents to 11.3.
On the flip side, Duke ranks 15th in the ACC with an average of 35 rebounds per game. All the opponents UNC has faced during its current winning streak rank higher than the Blue Devils in this facet of the game.
That tends to happen when a team relies on outside shooting.
As long as the Tar Heels play with the energy and desire they have shown over this last month, they should be shining glass all night long.
When looking at the box score of Carolina's 81-75 win over Florida State, the first statistic to draw your attention would probably be Kennedy Meeks' career-high 23 points.
What the box score won't tell you is how he got those points.
Four of the freshman big's 23 points came off offensive rebounds, while another 14 were off assists from four different Tar Heels.
Once they realized jumpers simply weren't falling, everyone started attacking the paint, resulting in one of the gutsiest and most impressive comebacks of the season—with James Michael McAdoo on the bench for 27 minutes due to foul trouble.
Marcus Paige was driving to the basket more frequently than I think we have ever seen him do, dropping beautiful dimes to the Carolina bigs. Meeks was the greatest beneficiary of Paige's fury, as four of his seven assists went to No. 3.
J.P. Tokoto added another five assists, including two perfect passes in a row to a cutting Brice Johnson for four of his 14 points. Tokoto also slithered his way through the defense to reach double figures in the scoring column.
Even Leslie McDonald passed up a deep, open jumper to take it to the heart of the defense.
When all was said and done, the Tar Heels finished with 16 assists and 50 of their 81 points came in the paint. If they can continue that trend and punch the Blue Devils defense in the gut, they'll get considerably easier shots and could neutralize weapons like Parker through foul trouble.
Getting the Blue Devils in foul trouble is one thing, capitalizing on free throws is another.
I'm not breaking any news here in saying the 2013-14 Tar Heels are the worst free-throw shooting team in program history at 62.2 percent. It's been well-documented with every game.
The last contest was no exception, as they were only able to convert 12 of 20 free throws against FSU.
Though 52.5 percent isn't the lowest percentage on the team, James Michael McAdoo has been the worst offender because he has shot 85 more free throws than anyone else. It looked like he might be coming around with a 6-of-6 performance against Notre Dame, but he followed that up with a 2-of-7 showing against Pitt.
That's just the way it has been all season for the Tar Heels as a whole. Every time it looks like they're going to turn it around, a great free-throw performance is followed up by another poor one.
There is no clear-cut answer to their shooting woes at the charity stripe. They have proven they can win regardless of how they do from the line, as long as they play with every bit of their hearts.
However, having a solid night at the stripe on Thursday would make winning a lot easier.
In any game—especially against your greatest rival—you never want to have any regrets. You have no control over shooting slumps or the referees' whistles, but when you lace up those shoes and slip on those Carolina blue threads, you have a duty to give it everything you have and leave it all on the floor.
This North Carolina squad isn't stocked with shooters, truly dominant back-to-the-basket post players or 2014 NBA lottery picks. It is, however, stocked with very talented players of high character that understand what it means to be a team.
They're coming to understand what it means to be a Tar Heel too.
Since McAdoo tossed his razor in the trash, his play has been every bit as grizzly as the sides of his face. There is no loafing down the court or watching potential rebounds soar over his head. The junior has been going at it as hard as he possibly can on each and every play—and showing the emotion of a true leader.
McAdoo's transition has truly been something to behold.
I had been preaching all season long that just one person needed to step up, become the emotional leader on the floor and turn this season around in the absence of P.J. Hairston.
I never thought that player would be McAdoo, but the unleashing of this formerly tamed beast has been exactly the shot in the arm the rest of the Heels needed.
You can point to a lot of reasons the Tar Heels are riding a seven-game winning streak heading into the Thursday night matchup with their most heated rival, but nothing has been more instrumental than the shift in McAdoo's game.
Sure, there have been some times—especially over the last three games—where it has appeared that the Heels were turning back in the wrong direction. Somehow, they've continued to dig deep enough to punch their way to a win.
That effort has shown in the box score with the Tar Heels' rebound margin and their average of 12.4 forced turnovers over the last seven contests.
If that effort doesn't continue against Duke, none of the other four keys will even matter.
Tune in to WCHL 97.9 FM at 8:20 a.m. EST this Friday, as Rollin Yeatts joins Ran Northam for a recap of the UNC-Duke game.