The roar that usually surrounds the first Duke-North Carolina game of the year is more like a murmur this season. No round-the-clock TV promos. The online hype and national attention is subdued.
Given the Tar Heels' slide, this isn't a surprise. But it still feels strange.
The four games between the Tobacco Road rivals were Top 10 showdowns. From 2004-2007, all eight games were Top 25 matchups. Twelve straight ranked games? That's absurd.
Ellen Ozier / Reuters file
|Mike Krzyzewski will be miffed if his Devils stumble against UNC.
Then again, that's what we've come to expect from these two teams – consistent, continued excellence that sets the tone for the rest of the country.
And now? UNC (13-10 overall, 2-6 in the ACC) isn't even on the bubble, let alone in the NCAA tournament. It's not even the biggest ACC game of the week for Duke (19-4, 7-2), which plays host to Maryland on Saturday.
But … it's still Duke vs. North Carolina. Anyone who writes off Wednesday's game would be foolish. Coaches know it, fans know it, and players know it.
"My reaction is, 'What's going on?' " Duke guard Nolan Smith told The Raleigh News & Observer. "They have guys that are probably going to be lottery picks. It's very surprising to me. But they're a very talented team."
That's usually been true. It's also why the two teams have produced so many memorable games through the years – even when one was backsliding.
The most recent was March 9, 2003, when the Heels (15-14) pulled off an 82-79 upset of No. 9 Duke thanks to some hot shooting (56 percent from the field) and a fired-up roster. Then-UNC coach Matt Doherty got into a shoving match with Duke's Andre Buckner before officials separated everyone.
"We've been taking punches to the face all year and we've come off the mat each time," said Doherty, who was out less than a month later."We came off the mat today and played a great game against a great opponent. What a gutsy effort. To me it was one of those classic Carolina-Duke games."
Or take the Feb. 3, 2000 game. For the first time in 10 years, UNC wasn't ranked for the showdown, yet took the No. 3 Devils to overtime, before losing 90-86.
This was the season Duke entered the NCAA tournament ranked No. 1 in the AP poll, yet was bounced in the Sweet 16. The Heels spent most of the season underperforming with a talented roster (future first-round picks Joe Forte and Brendan Haywood among them), only to put it together in the Big Dance. As an eight seed, the Heels reached the Final Four.
My favorite example – and probably the most used – is the double overtime classic from 1995.
Mike Krzyzewski was on a leave of absence. Duke was headed for its worst record in a decade, while North Carolina was No. 2 in the polls and would finish the year in the Final Four.
When Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and the rest of the Heels opened on a 26-9 run, it should've gotten ugly. It didn't. Somehow the Devils rallied, forced overtime and got a miracle shot from Jeff Capel to force another extra period. UNC eventually claimed a 102-100 victory, but the game already earned its place in rivalry lore (and became an ESPN constant when it came time to hype the game).
This year's game requires a few things to be that entertaining, most of them UNC-related (Duke being better and all).
Larry Drew II must bring it
It's not that Drew is bad – a 2-1 assist-turnover ratio is decent – it's just that he's not Ty Lawson, or any other top-flight point guard, which is what Roy Williams' up-tempo offense requires. If Drew plays 30 minutes and gets to a 3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, the Heels should be in it.
Where's Ginyard of old?
UNC senior Marcus Ginyard was supposed to be the team's leader, defensive stopper and sometime scorer. Instead, he's dealt with nagging injuries and an always-streaky jumper. So forget the offense. If Ginyard can take one of Duke's main offensive threats (Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler or Nolan Smith), it forces one of the Devils' lackluster big men to step up.
Make those big guys miserable
Duke's frontcourt isn't highly skilled, or effective against aggressive defenses (see: Georgetown blowout). What it does is support Scheyer, Smith and Singler. If Carolina's faster, more athletic forwards get back to its disruptive, harassing style of defense, it'll turn Duke into a perimeter-oriented team. (The Devils can shoot the 3, but you're better off keeping Smith from driving the lane and kicking, and off the free-throw line in general.)
Duke should win this game. But should doesn't always apply in this rivalry.
Mike Miller's also on Twitter, usually talkin' hoops.