While Duke was winning the national championship in 2010, about six years ago now, North Carolina coach Roy Williams was watching “Dancing With the Stars” with his daughter.
“I like my daughter more than I do cheering for Duke,” Williams said simply on Tuesday.
And yet he found himself watching some of the Blue Devils’ victory against Wisconsin in the national championship game a season ago. It was Duke’s second national championship since the Tar Heels most recently won their own in 2009, and Williams admitted the moment made him a bit envious.
“I guess it makes you jealous,” he said. “I mean, let’s be honest.”
The two old rivals meet again on Wednesday night at the Smith Center and, as it always seems to be, the game will provide both programs an opportunity to measure themselves. Duke, led by a sophomore and a freshman, will have a chance to test itself against the ACC’s most experienced team.
UNC, which began the season with national championship aspirations, has an opportunity to win on the kind of stage, amid the kind of pressure, that will surround the Tar Heels the deeper they go in March. The rivalry feels different for UNC, too, given it finds itself in the role of the favorite.
“This is probably the first one I’ve gone into with most people picking us to win, as the higher-ranked team,” Marcus Paige, UNC’s senior guard, said on Tuesday. “But I’ve also been in a lot of battles where we weren’t expected to do much.”
Duke and UNC have taken contrasting journeys to arrive at the same intersection.
The Blue Devils lack depth and are most reliant on youth. At one point they lost four of five conference games – a stretch that was met with surprise nationally.
UNC, meanwhile, exudes depth and is led by Paige and fellow senior Brice Johnson. The Tar Heels won their first eight conference games – their best ACC start under Williams. And yet the teams are perhaps more similar than different in mid-February.
Both UNC and Duke have shown bursts of potential amid otherwise challenging stretches. And both teams had to win games recently without their head coaches.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski stayed home amid health concerns, missing his team’s 80-71 victory at Georgia Tech on Feb. 2. A week later, on Feb. 9, UNC rallied at Boston College while Williams missed most of the second half after experiencing a particularly debilitating vertigo attack.
Another similarity: Both UNC and Duke are attempting, still, to find themselves and reach their potential with less than three weeks remaining in the regular season.
“You know, it’s funny,” Paige said, “because the ( Sunday victory against Pittsburgh) was one of our best defensive efforts of the season, and we got killed on the boards. So it’s like, we finally put together one part, but we left another part behind, and rebounding is usually one of our strengths.”
Except rebounding wasn’t a strength against Pitt, which finished with 19 offensive rebounds to the Tar Heels’ one. Afterward, Williams said he couldn’t recall even watching a game – let alone coaching in one – that featured that kind of rebounding discrepancy.
At Duke, Krzyzewski has encountered things he didn’t anticipate seeing this season, either. Such as an injury to one of his two established post players.
After Duke’s Dec. 15 win over Georgia Southern, Krzyzewski chose to try to make light of a bad situation. The Blue Devils easily dispatched the Eagles, but Krzyzewski knew that result was fool’s gold. It in no way indicated how difficult it would get for Duke without senior forward Amile Jefferson, who had broken his foot three days earlier.
“We have to keep the ship afloat, man, while he’s gone,” Krzyzewski said. “Tune in for the next episode. We can start a series right now of ‘what the hell is happening with the Blue Devils.’ ”
The series has had a flair for the dramatic. A stretch that included four losses in five games reached a crescendo Feb. 2 at Georgia Tech when Krzyzewski was forced to stay behind and watch the game as an inpatient in the heart wing of Duke hospital.
But right at that moment, there was a plot twist and reversal of fortunes. Assistant coach Jeff Capel scrapped Duke’s ineffective defensive game plan and led Duke’s man-to-man revival, turning a 40-36 halftime deficit into an 80-71 win.
And win is all the Blue Devils have done since.
“I love my guys,” Krzyzewski said for the first time this season after Duke’s last-second 63-62 win over Virginia on Saturday. “See, you guys don’t enjoy them as much because you try to make them like another Duke team. You should just enjoy them as this Duke team, like I am, and you will see a lot of really neat things.”
It has been a process to get to this point.
In retrospect, Duke was probably never in as bad of shape as it might have appeared in the midst of the losing streak. It was always going to take time for the Blue Devils to re-find their identity after Jefferson’s injury turned them into a six-man unit with four guards and one post player always on the floor.
And their three losses to Clemson, Notre Dame and Syracuse – all teams in the top half of the ACC standings – came by a combined 11 points, all three featuring a chance for Duke to tie or take the lead in the final seconds.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett watched tape from all of those games and saw Duke firsthand Saturday. He didn’t see any dramatic changes.
“You’re never that far away,” he said. “It’s such a fine line, playing good basketball, quality basketball. Some of these young guys are getting comfortable and making plays. When a guy can, for a stretch, take over a game like (Brandon) Ingram can, that’s impressive. That helps. They played all man, they’re good at home, and it’s close. That’s what this league is about. It’s not that far either way.”
The Tar Heels can relate. They had chances to win games during the second half at Louisville and at Notre Dame, but UNC faltered throughout the second half in both. After the defeat at Notre Dame on Feb. 6, Williams did something he often has in recent seasons: He questioned his team’s toughness.
Several other times, he has criticized his team for failing to do enough of the little things well: coming up with a rebound, fighting through a screen, setting a proper screen to provide a teammate some space.
Paige said he was “a little bit” surprised that Williams keeps having to remind his players to solve the same old issues. The only solution, he said, was consistency.
That’s something Duke has found recently during its four-game winning streak. Duke’s three contributing freshmen – Ingram, Luke Kennard and Derryck Thornton – have all earned praise from Krzyzewski for their recent improvements.
Thornton has played like a lockdown defender of late (especially against Virginia’s London Perrantes, and he did an admirable job in the first half of the last N.C. State game against Cat Barber). Kennard is the type of scorer that can score 30 points in a game, as he did against Notre Dame. And Ingram has taken over critical stretches offensively in Duke’s last two wins against Louisville and Virginia.
It’s all added up to smoother sailing of late for Duke, which has now had 16 games to adjust to life without Jefferson. And the dramatic wins, especially Saturday’s over the Cavaliers, have still made for must-see TV.
Which is what Wednesday night is expected to be, as always, when these teams meet at the Smith Center. Duke doesn’t much resemble the team it was last season, at least not when it comes to personnel, but the Blue Devils are still the reigning national champions.
Duke has also more often than not had its way against UNC lately. Justin Jackson, the Tar Heels’ sophomore forward, was watching the N.C. State-Virginia game on Monday night when a graphic appeared during the broadcast that showed Duke had won 10 of its past 16 games against UNC.
“That motivated me,” Jackson said. “Because that’s not how we want it to be.”