This is certainly one of the most, if not the most, anticipated college basketball game of the regular season.
Tonight at 8 PM, the No. 13 North Carolina Tar Heels will face off against the No. 4 Duke Blue Devils at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, with the ACC regular season title on the line. The Tar Heels and the Blue Devils are tied at 13-2 in ACC play this year, and the winner of this game will secure the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament.
The Blue Devils were the favorite to repeat as ACC Champions this year, entering the season as preseason No. 1 in both major polls and considered a favorite to contend for the National Championship once more.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, were coming off their worst season in the Roy Williams era, having been relegated to the NIT and finishing the season with a 20-17 record. This debacle included a 5-11 showing in ACC play, all while watching their hated rivals win their fourth National Championship.
With hot-shot recruits Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall alongside junior Tyler Zeller leading the way, the Tar Heels have overcome early season woes, injuries and player departures to rise to the top of the ACC.
After a 79-73 loss to Duke earlier this year in Durham, in which the Heels led by 14 points at the half, UNC will look to exact revenge at the Dean Dome and return to their old form.
This will be a night of basketball battle, with two extremely talented teams renewing the greatest rivalry in college basketball. When all is said, I believe the Tar Heels will reign supreme in the ACC and gain a huge momentum boost heading toward the Big Dance.
Let's look at how they'll do it.
It seems that through good times and bad, the North Carolina Tar Heels have always played well at home, especially since the move to the Smith Center in 1986.
At the beginning of this year, they held an all-time record of 282-56 at home, and are undefeated in Chapel Hill this year. Even during the trying times of last season, UNC was 13-5 at home. Ever since Sam Cassell called the crowd at the Smith Center a laid-back, "wine-and-cheese" crowd, the crowd has gone from one of the quietest to one of the loudest in the nation.
This year, Duke is the only team that has a legitimate shot to beat North Carolina at home, but with this being the biggest game of the year, all 21,750 in attendance tonight will be rocking the building. This will definitely have an effect on Duke's game, who will have a much tougher go than last year's trip to Chapel Hill, in which they won 74-64.
With the Heels back in ACC contention, the crowd will be more energized than ever, definitely making for some frustration on the part of Duke.
For all of the offense prowess the Tar Heels have shown this year, from Kendall Marshall's ability to run the offense and create scoring opportunities to Harrison Barnes' improved shooting (especially in the clutch) to Tyler Zeller's great post strength, the biggest weapon for this year's North Carolina squad has been their defense.
The Tar Heels enter the game as the best rebounding team in the country, pulling down an average of 42.7 rebounds per game. They've allowed an average of 66.5 points per game, and have effectively shut down opponents' ability to shoot and move the ball.
Despite their relinquishing of a 14-point halftime lead against Duke back in February, the Heels gave the Blue Devils fits in the first half, with only Nolan Smith (34 points) and Seth Curry (22 points) providing significant scoring for Duke.
Look for the Tar Heels to clamp down on Duke's outside shooting and get Nolan Smith rattled early. This will be the biggest to-do for the Heels tonight. Once Smith is shut down, you can slow their offense and prevent ball movement.
Coming into the 2010-11 campaign, Kendall Marshall's arrival in Chapel Hill was overshadowed by Harrison Barnes, the No. 1 recruit in the country in the 2010 recruiting class. Not only that, he played off the bench for much of the early going, with Larry Drew II acting as starting point guard.
However, after a 78-58 loss to Georgia Tech in which the Heels committed 18 turnovers, Drew was yanked from the starting lineup in favor of Kendall Marshall. Since then, the Heels have won all but one game, and they've shown greater ball control with Marshall at the helm.
Although still somewhat turnover-prone, Marshall is quickly becoming the valuable member of this team that we thought he would be, creating more opportunities for scoring than Drew ever could.
It may be early, but I see a lot of Rajon Rondo in Marshall. His quick, agile style, the way he distributes the ball and his ability to evade defenders certainly means he's a star in the making. He will give Duke more problems now that he's had time to develop as a player and a leader.
He was the No. 1 high school player in the country in 2010, and Tar Heel fans everywhere rejoiced when he chose North Carolina. He was selected as the first freshman pre-season All-American since 1986-87, and expectations for Barnes were astronomically high from the onset.
However, for the first half of the season, Barnes' performance was underwhelming. He struggled to find a rhythm, and was nowhere near as productive as people thought he would be. Some were already proclaiming that Barnes was a bust, and that North Carolina would be forced to suffer another underwhelming season.
Then, it seemed, something clicked.
Barnes' production has been up in ACC play, averaging 15.8 points per game in 15 conference games so far. He appears far more confident now and less reckless, now using better shot selection to make him more effective.
He's also shown up in the clutch as well. On January 26 against Miami (FL), Barnes sunk a three-pointer with 6.6 seconds left to give North Carolina a 74-71 lead, sealing the victory against the Hurricanes.
This past Wednesday, Barnes won it for the Tar Heels once more. With the Heels down 70-69 against Florida State in Tallahassee, Harrison Barnes got the ball in his hands with just a few seconds left. He skillfully took the ball out near the logo, drove on his opponent, pulled back, and sunk the go-ahead three-pointer with three seconds left, giving the Heels a 72-70 win over the Seminoles.
Harrison Barnes will have to be at his best tonight, and will go up against a Duke defense that will look to take him out of the game early. Barnes knows what Duke has to do, and he'll find ways to get around it. Barnes may very well play his best game of the season tonight, and will be a huge factor for all 40 minutes.
For much of this season, the Tar Heels have been dogged with questions and adversity. After struggling to a 2-2 start, fans began to prepare themselves for another sub-par season, as the team seemed unable to coalesce as a unit.
Soon, however, North Carolina began to roll. With only one bad loss all season (to Georgia Tech, 78-58), the Heels sit at 23-6 overall, and 13-2 in the ACC. After last season's 20-17 showing, the Heels had to prove that they were still in the elite, that they could come back and keep winning.
They desperately want to beat Duke now, after February's close-but-no-cigar loss, and last season's 82-50 embarrassment to finish the regular season. North Carolina wants revenge, and I'm sure they'd love to get it in Chapel Hill. Being at home they'll have the crowd on their side, and they'll be ready to play.
They've grown as a team since the loss to Duke, and they've shown they can hang with the best in a hostile environment. The last thing they need to do is show that they can beat the best.
This team plays with a ton of talent and a whole lot of heart, and they want to show that they're for real heading into the Big Dance. It would be the ultimate comeback; after almost no one (including your's truly) expected the Tar Heels to be this successful. They are on the verge of returning to the top of the ACC.
A win tonight would give them the regular season title, which in my opinion means so much more than a conference tournament win. They've outlasted most of their competition and all they need is one more win.
With so much riding on this game, this team is ready to step it up and prove they're ready for the big time.
North Carolina 83, Duke 79