Barry Jacobs

Jacobs: UNC, Duke basketball play unexpected games

CorrespondentNovember 26, 2013 

A sudden outbreak of a familiar contagion shaped results the other day for two North Carolina basketball teams.

Louisville, then ranked third in the polls, had won 21 straight over two seasons before facing an unsettled North Carolina squad in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament championship game in Connecticut. But it was the short-handed, youthful Tar Heels who played inspired ball in a 93-84 victory, while the Cardinals, trailing a whiff of entitlement, looked overmatched.

That was the most points scored against Louisville during a regulation game since February 2003.

Coaches love to preach that defense, like rebounding, is all about effort and pride. Against UNC, Louisville’s customarily stifling defensive pressure was largely absent. The Heels happily ran their transition offense, recording more assists than turnovers and hitting 51.7 percent from the floor.

UNC also controlled the interior, holding Louisville to 38.8 percent shooting, and Louisville had more more turnovers than assists. The overconfident Cardinals were forced to attempt five times as many 3s as their perimeter-challenged opponent (31 vs. 6), 50 percent more than their previous per-game average (20.2).

UNC sophomore guard Marcus Paige scored a personal-best 32 points. He is 17-of-32 from beyond the arc this season while the rest of the team is 2-of-16.

Following the decisive defeat, Louisville coach Rick Pitino referred to a season-ending run to the 2013 NCAA title to measure his team’s performance. “To win 16 games in a row, you have to have great humility, not get stuck on yourselves,” he said. “And this type of defense, it was a lack of humility.”

The turn of phrase was particularly striking given the words “Pitino” and “humility” don’t ordinarily appear in the same sentence.

Then there was No. 6 Duke, at home against a 1-4 Vermont team expected to provide a workout equivalent to, say, the football Tar Heels’ 80-20 rampage the previous day against Old Dominion at Chapel Hill.

Instead the unperturbed Catamounts, starting five seniors, operated with aplomb. For much of the second half, with the result in doubt, they matched the Blue Devils basket for basket. They shot 64.8 percent overall, scored 50 often-uncontested points in the paint and committed a mere six turnovers against 21 assists before falling 91-90.

“We played like there’s no pressure on us,” said a pleased Vermont coach John Becker. He meant game pressure but later acknowledged the absence of the Devils’ expected defensive pressure was equally notable.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had a somewhat different take on the proceedings. “They were terrific and we were awful. Them being terrific made us look worse,” he said. “As a unit, it’s all of us. This was an unacceptable performance.”

Vermont was on the schedule because, much like Belmont, which won at Chapel Hill the previous weekend, it’s a solid mid-major with a recent NCAA tournament appearance to its credit (2012). Coming off five straight 20-win seasons, Becker’s team was picked to finish atop the America East Conference.

The Catamounts arrived at supposedly intimidating Cameron Indoor Stadium on a three-game losing skid. Yet they found themselves within a hair’s breadth of ending Duke’s 105-game home nonconference winning streak, a result that would have ranked among the more stunning upsets in recent college history.

Krzyzewski, who has sat the bench through 962 victories and 298 defeats in his head coaching career, returned to a favorite theme to lend perspective to his team’s effort against Vermont.

“When you’re playing this game, you should respect every opponent,” he said of Vermont. “One, they’re worthy of respect. They’re a really good program.

“But more than that, you should always respect the game. If you respect the game, and you give your effort, preparation, fight, night in and night out, then you can look at anybody no matter what happens and say, ‘Look, I respect the game, and I gave my best.’

“We can’t say that tonight.”

The favored coaches’ messages on Sunday brought to mind comments made two months earlier, when East Carolina’s football team visited Chapel Hill and thoroughly dominated in a 55-31 victory. Afterward UNC senior A.J. Blue saw “complacency” in his team’s approach to facing its Conference USA opponent.

As both penetrating observation and convenient excuse, the comment would have done any coach proud.

“It was hard for me to find something positive out of that from the sideline,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said after witnessing an effort most notable for his defensive unit’s parade of missed tackles. “I know this: You’ve got to play the game with passion. You’ve got to play it with enthusiasm. You’ve got to play with energy, no matter what happens.”

Unfortunately, teams that take winning for granted are prone to lack such verve until they’ve been slapped in the face. By then it may be too late.

As things turned out, a good UNC squad might have played its best ball and still fallen short against ECU, a team far more formidable than anyone realized on Sept. 28. Ruffin McNeill’s Pirates are now 9-2, tied with once-lowly Duke for the best mark among the state’s major-college teams as the football regular season approaches its final weekend.

No one is apt to take either team for granted now.

Nor are the basketball players at Duke and Louisville likely to look past supposedly lesser opponents for a while. It’s far better to partake of the holiday season by eating turkey, rather than to play like one.

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