UNC embraces 'huge opportunity' against No. 8 Duke

acarter@newsobserver.comFebruary 11, 2014 

— There have been postgame victory dances, impassioned speeches and other signs, large and small, that North Carolina coach Roy Williams might appreciate the highs more this season than in others.

“Well, we needed them,” Williams said, speaking of memorable moments that followed victories earlier this season against the likes of Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky. “I guess that was the big thing – that for several months, there (were) some lows that were quite low.

“And I think the celebrations and the good feelings that we had in the locker room after that stuff was very special.”

The “weird thing,” Williams said, is how fleeting those moments are. They happen and then they’re history, and then the focus is on the next game – in this case, one against No. 8 Duke on Wednesday night at the Smith Center.

The Tar Heels have beaten two top-10 teams already this season, and they have defeated the three teams that began the season ranked among the top three in the country. A victory against Duke, though, might trump those earlier triumphs.

“It’s going to be a huge opportunity,” James Michael McAdoo, UNC’s junior forward, said Tuesday. “We dug ourselves in a hole. Got back somewhat where we’d like to be now.

“But we definitely want to go and get a lot better than what we are now, and (Wednesday) is a huge game against Duke, against anyone. But it’s definitely going to be an opportunity for us to see just how far we’ve come.”

UNC dropped out of the national rankings amid its dreadful start to conference play. The Tar Heels lost their first three ACC games, and four of their first five, but they haven’t lost since. In Duke, though, UNC is facing the program against which it’s most measured.

For the 14th consecutive time, Duke enters a game against UNC ranked among the top 10. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, have been unranked now for three consecutive games against Duke.

“In the back of my mind, yeah, it kind of does eat at me because it is Duke, and we’re North Carolina,” UNC sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto said. “So with anybody, whether it be a player or a diehard Heel fan, it’s going to get to them. But honestly, rankings don’t mean a thing for this game.

“It’s whoever wants it more; that’s what it comes down to.”

Duke has recent edge

Whether it has been a result of want-to or not, Duke has been the rivalry’s superior team in recent years. The Blue Devils have won seven of the past nine games against UNC, and they’ve been ranked – usually in the top 10 – in every weekly Associated Press top 25 poll since the start of the 2007-08 season.

The Tar Heels haven’t achieved the same level of consistency, though the cyclical nature of the series suggests it’s only a matter of time before their frustration ends against the Blue Devils. Even so, for now the Blue Devils appear to have created some separation with UNC, which as an unranked team last beat Duke in 2003.

“We had a good run there for a while and they’ve had a good run here recently,” Williams said. “And I hope to live long enough to have another good run for us. But I don’t really focus on those kinds of things. I focus on this game, our North Carolina team this year, against Duke’s team this year.”

It’s still Duke vs. UNC

On a larger scale, not much has changed in the rivalry. It’s still one of the most anticipated college basketball games of the season, one that will be broadcast to a national audience and hyped and promoted like it always is.

Yet the dynamic of the rivalry has changed a bit, too, because for the fifth time in the past five seasons, an unranked UNC team is playing a top-10 Duke team. These games have become something of a proving ground for the Tar Heels, and it hasn’t gone well for them.

As an unranked team, UNC has lost its past four games against Duke, which has won those games by an average of nearly 17 points. That number is skewed because of the Blue Devils’ 32-point victory in Cameron Indoor Stadium in 2010.

Marcus Paige, the UNC sophomore guard, said he didn’t believe the notion that Duke had put some figurative distance between itself and its closest rival.

“I don’t think it’s very true,” he said. “Obviously the rivalry, it’ll go in cycles. They’ll win a couple, we’ll win a couple. … You can’t say one team separates from another because maybe next year, a year from now, we’ll win five in a row or something like that. And then, are we separating from them?”

Between March 2005 and March 2009, the Tar Heels won seven of their nine games against Duke. Since then, the Blue Devils have done the same against UNC.

A Tar Heels victory, then, would end their recent misery against their rival. Williams and his players might appreciate it more, too, given what they’ve endured this season: the early-season drama that surrounded former guard P.J. Hairston and led to the end of his time at UNC, and the 0-3 start in the ACC.

McAdoo, the Tar Heels’ forward, said he could tell how much some of UNC’s best victories meant to Williams – how they might have meant more. McAdoo could tell, he said, because of “some of the comments that he did make after those games, just being so enthusiastic – and saying how much those wins meant to him.”

The Tar Heels struggled after those games, though, and Williams challenged his players’ desire and intensity. They’ve found it in recent weeks, it appears, in time for the kind of challenge that brought out UNC’s best in November and December.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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