The last time Duke and North Carolina met, Tar Heels post players Tyler Zeller and John Henson dominated early as UNC built a 14-point halftime lead.
But Duke guards Nolan Smith and Seth Curry combined for 40 second-half points as the Blue Devils rallied for a 79-73 win
That Feb. 9 game in Durham followed a trend in the series that can be expected to continue when No. 13 North Carolina (23-6, 13-2 ACC) hosts No. 4 Duke (27-3, 13-2) today at 8 p.m. (WRAL). With the No. 1 seed to next week's ACC tournament on the line, it seems likely that Duke's backcourt will have to outperform North Carolina's big men for the Blue Devils to win on the road.
By the same token, Zeller and Henson probably will have to carry the Tar Heels and outpace Duke's guards if they are going to finish their resurgent regular season in first place in the ACC standings.
"The key to this game," said North Carolina guard Dexter Strickland, "is just denying and limiting [Duke's guards'] touches, really."
The recent pattern of Duke's guards and North Carolina's big guys dominating doesn't jibe with this rivalry's history, however.
North Carolina has had plenty of dominating guards. Michael Jordan, perhaps the best guard in the history of basketball, played at North Carolina in the 1980s. Phil Ford's point guard play for the Tar Heels was legendary in the 1970s, and North Carolina has two more recent former point guards [Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson] on the same team in the NBA, the Denver Nuggets.
Meanwhile, the leading scorer in the history of the NCAA tournament, Christian Laettner, was a post player for Duke. From Art Heyman in the 1960s, to Danny Ferry in the 1980s, to current NBA players Carlos Boozer and Shelden Williams, an assembly line of successful big guys have played for the Blue Devils.
But over the last seven seasons, Duke's guards and North Carolina's big men have been the leading players in this rivalry. Beginning in 2004-05, his junior season, guard J.J. Redick led the Blue Devils to three straight wins in the series.
Redick averaged 22 points per game and shot 15-for-39 (38.4 percent) from 3-point range in his last four games against North Carolina. But a freshman who would emerge as the next dominating figure in the rivalry ruined Redick's senior night at Cameron Indoor Stadium in 2006.
Center Tyler Hansbrough, who surpassed Redick as the ACC's career scoring leader, helped North Carolina post six wins in Hansbrough's final seven games in the series.
Hansbrough almost always played well against Duke, averaging 20.1 points and 10.8 rebounds in eight games.
"He was such a force inside," Smith said. "He could score, and he definitely drew a double team as soon as he touched the ball. He also made his teammates better."
Then Hansbrough graduated after leading the Tar Heels to the 2009 NCAA championship, and since he left, North Carolina is 0-3 against Duke.
The Blue Devils' backcourt has regained control of the series since Hansbrough's departure.
Jon Scheyer led Duke with 24 points in last season's 64-54 win at Chapel Hill. Scheyer and Smith each scored 20 points while the Tar Heels' starting guards totaled three points in the 82-50 rout at the end of the 2009-10 regular season in Durham.
On Feb. 9, Smith scored 34 points, and Curry added 22 in Duke's comeback win in Durham. North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Smith was "ferocious" in the way he attacked the Tar Heels' defense in that game.
"It was one of the most impressive performances I've ever seen," Williams said. "And I tell you another thing: Seth Curry was big in that game, too. That one stretch where they got the lead, I think it was Seth that scored two or three baskets."
But Zeller and Henson showed in the first half that they are capable of controlling a game in this series.
Zeller scored 13 points with 10 rebounds, and Henson added 10 points and six rebounds before halftime as North Carolina raced to a 43-29 lead at the intermission.
"[Henson] plays with a great motor and a great energy," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "And when you have a big guy playing that way, then you have a special player. And Zeller has been as efficient a big man as you could have. They really complement one another, and they always seem to be right on their game."
There is one other personnel factor that could come into play in this game. Small forwards Kyle Singler of Duke and Harrison Barnes of North Carolina play on the perimeter and in the lane for their respective teams.
Singler has had big games against North Carolina, scoring 19 and 25 points in the two games last season. Barnes' late surge and penchant for making key baskets in the closing minute have been a key factor in the Tar Heels' improvement this season.
But Singler and Barnes neutralized each other in the last meeting. Singler was held to 3-for-17 from the field, and Barnes shot 3-for-8.
"I did a decent job on him," Singler said. "I tried to limit his touches. They might tweak some things, but I'm going to keep on playing defense the way I've been playing."
If Singler and Barnes cancel out each other again, it will be up to the big men from North Carolina and the guards from Duke to win the game for their respective teams.
Staff writer Robbi Pickeral contributed to this report.
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