College Basketball: Duke Game Looms Larger Than Any in Recent UNC Memory

Cliff PotterCorrespondent IFebruary 7, 2011

UNC and Duke hit floor in their games with regularity.
UNC and Duke hit floor in their games with regularity.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

For those used to the 15 miles (more or less) commuting between your residence on the UNC Tar Heels campus and the residence of your best friend who just happens to a Duke Blue Devils fan—or worse, your girlfriend on that other campus—you could have one big advantage.

When it comes time to get into the stands at your girlfriend's campus to see the Duke-Carolina basketball game, you are in heaven—once a year in the Smith Center's Blue Heaven and once a year in that old Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Two games. Two rivals. And two times they either sit apart or together. But four tickets they might not otherwise get. Visitor tickets.

During the year, each team fights for supremacy. Over the last few years, UNC and head coach Roy Williams have been considered second best. No attention paid to the fact that last year was one of the two worst years in recent memory.

UNC had managed to beat Duke in Matt Doherty's last year as coach of the Tar Heels, something UNC failed to do last year. And of all the important goals, just as it was Lovie Smith's first goal to beat Green Bay when he joined the Chicago Bears, so it is among the most important things to do in a North Carolina season to beat Duke.

The big deal for last year was the fact that UNC got trounced by about the same margins as occurred in Doherty's penultimate season. If there was anything that made the Carolina faithful look askance at Roy Williams it was his failure in the middle of the disaster of last season not only to beat Duke. Even worse, the last game was such a shellacking it brought back painful memories of Doherty.

So it was with great concern that the team lost five games this year. Sure, the teams that beat Carolina were pretty good. And sure, the teams were not that even from a maturity standpoint. As is now obvious, Larry Drew II was a problem from a personnel management standpoint as well as from his talents when compared to the current starting point guard Kendall Marshall.

Indeed, despite the lowered expectations after realizing that Preseason All-American freshman Harrison Barnes was not yet an All-American, the real problems were team unity evidenced in part by the horrible problems in Williams' management of his own attitude and tongue.

But as the team matured this year, it became obvious that this was at least a top 25 team if not one that deserves to be back in its preseason top-10 placement. 

No lesser a light than Mike Krzyzewski, head coach of Duke's basketball program, began wondering publicly whether Duke was really the best team in the ACC. And so it begins with what some might see as head games and others see as a statement of the truth especially coming as it did after Duke lost its premier point guard to injury for the season.

Yet, results matter. And so far, despite the lowered expectations for all the ACC, the results have not been that bad. The ACC lost by only one game in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. And the ACC's results have been no worst than many seasons in which it retained its higher overall ranking, perhaps based on past history more than reality.

So we come to this Wednesday's game between these two perennial college basketball superpowers. Leave aside the player match-ups. What wins these games is grit, usually of the charge-taking variety, with rough, physical play usually marking Duke's play.

Years ago, Digger Phelps was known for his rebounding drills making his players get really physical under the basket. Mike Krzyzewski does the same thing. Indeed, at times the play of some of his players became clearly dirty. The way many Carolina players get forearmed and elbowed in the face is far from accidental replays appear to say.

Just ask Tyler Hansbrough about those "accidental" elbows and forearm shivers he got as a player, how many times his nose was broken, and why this seemed to happen to him with regularity. The answer was not his and the rest of the Duke apologists. It is that they are and will be intentional as long as Coach K coaches Duke. 

Yet, somehow, Duke players continue to be able to manhandle Carolina on their home court with impunity.

It is unclear what will happen this year. For most of his tradition-laden history, Carolina was a finesse team, and the league was too. Then, when Mike Krzyzewski came on-board Duke he brought Big Ten type basketball, refereeing transformed into the Big East-Big Ten brawls one sees in those conferences, and finesse went out the window.

This was a huge shame. College basketball was better before physical play became necessary. And while Mike Krzyzewski was not single-handedly responsible for it coming to the ACC, for the teams had to learn how to be physical as the college game changed, he was a leading proponent of this play.

So, we will see what happens in Cameron Indoor Stadium this year, as Coach K turns up the building's heat and gets his fans into a frenzy. How the Tar Heels react could affect the rest of the year. For this reason alone, this is a huge game for both teams. Bigger than most in recent history.

If, as suspected, Carolina proves feeble against the physical attacks of the Duke players, it will be a long night. Look for Carolina to have at least one huge blow to the face in the first three minutes. If, as is always the case, the referee either calls no foul at all, or calls some minor foul and the Carolina players take the injury in stride never striking out on their own, the game is lost. For of all teams in the past, this one cannot dish it out too well.

Yet, there seems to be a team emerging that takes inside play in stride. Both John Henson and Tyler Zeller seem capable of mixing it up inside, and while Carolina continues to believe that illegal hits are against the rules and not acceptable, making their overall play more timid and proper, if Duke finds itself with a blow to the face itself, the game will be joined and no thirty-two point blowout will occur this year.

And if that happens, it seems likely that Mike Krzyzewski was right. Duke may not be the best team in the ACC. Especially with Drew out and Kendall Marshall leading the way with a freshman assist record in the last game and apparently a new attitude arising in the wake of the Drews' self-centered righteousness.  


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