CHAPEL HILL — After everything a dominant stretch of victories against a difficult non-conference schedule, the loss of Ryan Kelly and his successful return Duke will enter the Smith Center tonight to play a team not much unlike its own.
And after everything a stretch of embarrassing losses in November and December, a late lineup change that proved to save its season North Carolina will enter the Smith Center tonight to play a team not much unlike its own.
Duke and North Carolina have long grown accustomed to this: playing each other on the final weekend of the regular season when the stakes are high. And so it will be again tonight in Chapel Hill. Yet rarely have both teams traveled such divergent paths to find themselves in roughly the same place.
As usual, both teams began the season amid high expectations. Then they went their own ways.
We definitely went through some dark times starting the season off, Reggie Bullock, North Carolinas junior guard, said on Friday. A lot of things changed from the beginning of the season to now.
While the Tar Heels lost in November and December against the likes of Butler, Indiana and Texas, Duke won game after game against the likes of Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State. While North Carolina dropped out of the national rankings, the Blue Devils ascended to No. 1.
Months later, here they are, together again. Just one game in the ACC standings separates Duke and North Carolina, and with a victory tonight the Tar Heels would tie the Blue Devils for second place in the ACC.
It would mean a great deal to win the game, to beat Duke, to finish tied for second, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. But if we dont and Sunday morning you hear that I jumped off the top of a building have that investigated. I did not jump.
Williams, after all, has made it this far. His team was humbled in Maui in November, when Butler led the Tar Heels by 28 points before a late rally made the loss seem more respectable. The Tar Heels experienced embarrassment, too, in Bloomington, Ind., and Austin, Texas.
Williams kept his belief. His team would improve, he kept saying. It finally did after what was perhaps the lowest of the Tar Heels lows a 26-point loss at Miami in early February. It was the third-worst loss of Williams head coaching tenure at North Carolina.
We got killed, Williams said. And Im sitting in the locker room, and Ive got to do something at Miami. That was the bottom line.
Thats when Williams decided to insert P.J. Hairston, the sophomore guard, at forward in the starting lineup. It was an unconventional move for Williams, whose best teams have been defined by dominant post players, but it was a move he committed to from the beginning.
North Carolina debuted its four-guard starting lineup at Duke on Feb. 13. The Tar Heels lost, but gained confidence because of how well they played. Something else changed, too: the Tar Heels began playing with more urgency and intensity.
Hairston described himself as North Carolinas most intense player.
I want to bring energy to the game, he said. I want to get my teammates going Ive always played with that intensity. Especially in big games, I always have this different intensity, and my adrenaline is always going. So Im always super hyped for big games.
Since that defeat at Duke in mid-February, UNC hasnt lost. The six-game winning streak is the Tar Heels longest of the season, by two games.
Up the road a ways in Durham, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has watched North Carolina and been reminded of some of the teams hes coached.
They remind me of some of the teams weve had here in the past 20 years when we went small and opened it up, shooting 3s, Krzyzewski said. They have a lot of offensive weapons. Hairston has played great. Not good, hes played great.
While Williams made a change that saved his teams season in early February, Krzyzewski and his team were still forging on without Kelly, the senior forward who suffered a broken foot in early January.
If North Carolina and Duke shared any similarities in January, it might have been that the Tar Heels were still trying to identify the best combination of players to maximize their potential, while the Blue Devils were still adjusting to the loss of Kelly.
He returned last week and scored 36 points in the Blue Devils 79-76 victory against Miami a win that earned the Blue Devils the No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament. Williams described Kellys performance against Miami as ridiculous. Krzyzewski called it one of the best performances ever for a Duke player in Cameron Indoor Stadium. More importantly, Kellys return has allowed the Blue Devils more flexibility.
The roles we had without him changed for everybody, Krzyzewski said. But we have him this time. We can experiment a little bit before the NCAA tournament and see how it goes.
Duke and North Carolina have played once but Duke hasnt played this Tar Heels team, and the Tar Heels havent played this Duke team. The Blue Devils are far different with Kelly, and North Carolina is much improved since debuting its smaller lineup.
After the loss at Duke, the Tar Heels postseason hopes were in doubt. Toward the end of the Blue Devils victory, some in the student section serenaded North Carolina with chants of N-I-T.
Williams recently referenced those chants and others. After everything his team went through all the turmoil and early-season losses it finds itself with a chance to finish with the same ACC record as its rival.
Laura Keeley contributed to this story.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter