Duke, UNC settle ACC regular season title tonight

Regular-season title, potential No. 1 NCAA tournament seed at stake

jdaly@newsobserver.comMarch 3, 2012 

— As often is the case for seniors playing their final game in the Duke-North Carolina series, Miles Plumlee's senior day will either be one of the more fantastic evenings of his Blue Devils career or it will be so distasteful he will try to purge it from his memory bank.

On the one hand, No. 4 Duke (26-4, 13-2) could beat No. 6 North Carolina (26-4, 13-2) today at Cameron Indoor Stadium (ESPN, 7 p.m.), clinching the ACC regular-season title in the process and giving the Blue Devils an edge in the quest for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Or, on the other hand, the Blue Devils could lose.

To North Carolina.

On Plumlee's senior day.

If that weren't calamitous enough, a Duke loss would take away all of the things a win could provide and give them to the Tar Heels.

"I've got nothing but great things to look back on, and I'm trying to make one more push for another unbelievable thing to look back on," said Plumlee, summing up the implications of tonight's game for himself.

For the second straight season and seventh time overall, Duke and North Carolina will face off in the regular-season finale with the ACC's regular-season championship on the line. The Tar Heels won last year's matchup, beating the Blue Devils 81-67 behind Harrison Barnes' 18 points.

UNC also won in 2008 when the teams faced a similar scenario, beating Duke 76-68 in a game that will forever be remembered for Danny Green's dunk over Greg Paulus.

Neither team has lost since the Blue Devils stunned the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill on Feb. 8 by rallying from a 10-point deficit in the final two-plus minutes. That was the start of a seven-game winning streak for Duke; UNC has won all six of its games since.

While the Tar Heels have been involved in only one game closer than nine points during that stretch - UNC beat Virginia 54-51 in Charlottesville last Saturday - Duke has had a number of nail-biters, going to the wire in victories over N.C. State, Florida State and Virginia Tech.

Yet even with all of the close games, the Blue Devils have a better record at this point in the season than the 2010 team had before it went on to win the national championship.

With that fact in mind, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked Thursday if this season's team was as good as what it had accomplished.

In other words, is it as good as the 2010 team?

"I don't know, but how else do you measure a team except by accomplishment?" Krzyzewski said.

Because there's still a sense the Blue Devils are an unfinished product, Krzyzewski implicitly warned against viewing tonight's game through an end-all, be-all prism.

"For me, the game (tonight) is a great chance for us to get unbelievable experience going into Atlanta (and the ACC tournament) and then going into March," he said. "We want to win the regular season, there's no question about that.

"The game itself, though, is a tremendous opportunity to learn more about ourselves. We're constantly learning more about ourselves whereas that national championship team (in 2010) - you still were learning some, but they were older (and) pretty much (it was), 'This is what you were going to get, and hopefully it's better than the other team has.' "

While the Blue Devils can be accused of being inconsistent, one would have a hard time making the argument they haven't risen to big occasions this season.

Duke beat Michigan State for Krzyzewski's 903rd win, passing Bob Knight for first place on the all-time list among Division I men's coaches. The Blue Devils won the Maui Invitational, defeating Kansas and Michigan in the process. They rallied from 20 points down in the second half to eclipse N.C. State at home.

And, of course, there was the win at UNC.

It goes without saying that the Tar Heels' players have a different relationship with that game than Duke's.

Tyler Zeller, for instance, had an outstanding first half before suffering a nightmare final two minutes. UNC's senior center missed free throws, tipped a Duke shot into the basket and failed to contest Austin Rivers' game-winner as closely as he could have.

For Zeller, the most notable thing about tonight's matchup is its title implications, not the opportunity for atonement.

"It's definitely a big game, but I think even when you're playing for a championship, it becomes a bigger game," Zeller said. "So it is something that I'm trying to focus more on that than the frustrations and disappointment I had last time. So I think just trying to go out and win a championship is something that we're all looking forward to."

The feeling is mutual at Duke.

"They're going to be ready to play because of what happened last time, but so are we," Rivers said. "I just look at it as an opportunity for us to win a regular-season championship. The stakes are high, but we're not worried about that. ...

"This is a fun game. This is a game we've all dreamed of playing when you're little. I'm just ready to have fun and play the game."

Daly: 919-829-4954

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