Duke and North Carolina have played for a lot over the years: Pre-eminence, not only locally but often nationally. Pride. Bragging rights. Revenge.
Not many times have they played for legitimacy.
That’s what’s on the line Wednesday night. Is Duke the legitimate national-title contender without Ryan Kelly that the Blue Devils were with him? By the same token, is North Carolina good enough to win a big game like this one?
These aren’t the questions usually being asked in the first edition of this rivalry’s two, and occasionally three, annual iterations. They’re a product of Duke not being as good as it was at the beginning of this season and North Carolina not being as good as the Tar Heels almost always are.
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“You drop out 2010, and hope you don’t have to drop out this year, but in 2010 both teams were not great,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “They were really good and we were not. Most of the other years both of us have been pretty doggone good.”
Both teams are hoping for better, which is why this particular game may be for different stakes, but is no less important for it.
For Duke, a win over North Carolina would continue the organic process of learning how to play without Kelly, who is out indefinitely with a foot injury, and trying to prove they can be as good without him as they were to start the season with him.
That’s about more than just one game, more than just this game. Last week’s win over N.C. State established the degree to which the Blue Devils have figured out how to play without Kelly, and it’s something they need to continue to demonstrate.
“It hurt them losing Ryan, but they made adjustments to that right now,” Williams said. “From 10 miles away, they look like they’re formidable.”
But the Tar Heels, for all their inconsistency, do a few things well that the Blue Devils do not. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski singled out offensive rebounding and transition play – and those are both aspects of Duke’s game where Kelly plays a critical role.
“We’re not as comfortable as we were with Ryan,” Krzyzewski said. “And we will never get as comfortable as we were with Ryan, because we’re not as good as we were with Ryan.”
With and without Kelly, the Blue Devils have still won big games. That’s what the Tar Heels still have to prove they can do, particularly away from home. North Carolina has won only three road games this year: at Long Beach State, at Florida State, at Boston College.
At 6-4 in the ACC, the continually improving Tar Heels have learned how to take care of business against lesser opponents but not how to elevate their game to the level necessary to beat better teams, especially on the road.
“We’ve got to be able to withstand some adversity in a hostile environment,” Williams said. “There’s no question about that. If the other team gets rolling and rocking, we have not bounced back in being able to handle that very well yet. I’m saying ‘yet’ because I think we’re going to get there.”
There’s no better place to prove that than Cameron, where the Blue Devils will be wary of provoking the best from their most fervent opponents.
“We can’t just think just because of their record or their prior losses that they’re going to come in here and it’s going to be a blowout,” Duke guard Quinn Cook said. “They’re a great team. I’ve seen glimpses of it against UNLV and they played good against Miami the first time. They’ve played some good games and they have a lot of talent.”
There may not be quite what’s usually at stake in this rivalry – with the really big game looming in the ACC schedule not either of the Duke-North Carolina matchups, but undefeated conference leader Miami’s visit to Cameron on March 2 – but it’ll be hard for anyone to notice Wednesday night.