In a depleted ACC this season, Duke and North Carolina have proved themselves superior. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels exited last weekend with identical 12-2 conference records, and this Saturday's matchup in Chapel Hill will affect the regular-season ACC champion, top seed in the conference tournament, seeding in the NCAA Tournament and, of course, the fluid nature of college basketball's most storied rivalry.
Duke toppled the Tar Heels 79-73 last month in Durham, and Carolina—which has dropped the past three contests against its archrival—is seeking revenge in a prime-time, nationally televised game.
After the 2007–09 seasons, a three-year period when the Heels advanced to a pair of Final Fours, won a national championship and dominated the Blue Devils 5-1 head to head, Duke regained the initiative last season by winning a national title of its own that was preceded by an 82-50 annihilation of Carolina on Duke's senior day.
Recruiting success has shifted accordingly. After winning his second title since arriving at Carolina, Roy Williams dramatically won out over Mike Krzyzewski for Harrison Barnes in the fall of 2009. This past fall, Coach K extracted some payback, nabbing prized guard recruit Austin Rivers.
We're nearing the point when the age of both coaches will become a factor in the ability of the two programs to remain competitive. Krzyzewski is 64 years old and will be 68 by the time the Rivers-led recruiting class graduates from Duke. Williams, meanwhile, will turn 61 in August. In addition to the sheer longevity of each coach's tenure, questions inevitably will arise as to the ability of each man to continue exerting the effort required (extensive travel, phone calls, media obligations, etc.) to manage an elite, hyper-competitive program. If either program has a succession plan, it isn't apparent.
The recruiting issue has intensified over the past several years. During Williams' first few seasons at Carolina, the two coaches didn't cross paths frequently when targeting prospects. With Barnes, Rivers and others in upcoming classes, however, Duke-Carolina clashes appear to be inevitable. And make no mistake: Superior talent tends to win games.
Back to this year's squads, the two clubs enter the close of the regular season under very different circumstances. At Duke, everyone continues to hold out hope that freshman star Kyrie Irving will recover from a toe injury he suffered in December. His return wouldn't necessarily be a panacea—due to the amount of time he'd need to regain conditioning, as well as the changes forced upon the established player rotation—but obviously his natural ability would give the Devils tremendous firepower.
Duke's legs looked tired down the stretch against Virginia Tech in a loss to the Hokies last weekend, and concerns have surfaced that stars Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler may be fatigued. Former All-American J.J. Redick's struggles in the postseason several years ago heighten the anxieties, given that he, like Smith and Singler, also played very heavy minutes and was unable to carry his shooting excellence into the spring. As an upperclassman, Redick shot a combined 7-for-32 from the field in Duke's season-ending losses in 2005 and 2006. Against the Hokies last Saturday, Singler played all 40 minutes and shot just 6-for-19 from the floor.
Still, the Devils appear to be in a strong position to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and with or without Irving, their talent and experience will pose tremendous hardships to opponents.
Because the ACC is suffering through an extremely weak year, however, some pundits have questioned Duke's competition and whether the club has built a portfolio worthy of a top seed. The Devils' best win likely was the one at home against Carolina; beating them again in Chapel Hill would serve notice to the rest of the nation about their pedigree and resilience.
The story in Chapel Hill reads differently. Carolina opened the season with a top-10 ranking but flatlined out of the gate, culminating in a disastrous performance at Georgia Tech in January. Echoes of last year's debacle resonated throughout the basketball landscape, and fans understandably were concerned about a second straight year of national irrelevance. On his weekly radio show, an angry Williams snapped at fans who criticized him.
The Heels regrouped post-Georgia Tech and made a switch at point guard, benching junior Larry Drew in favor of promising freshman Kendall Marshall. That move led to Drew's stunning departure from the team last month, but his absence has proved a positive for a team rallying around its freshman floor leader.
Carolina has won with defense despite extremely poor shooting at times, including the lowest scoring output—a 48-46 victory over Boston College—by any Tar Heel team at the Smith Center since the building opened in 1986. Barnes, the team's most dangerous three-point shooter, is prone to episodes such as the one he experienced at home against Maryland last Sunday. Despite drilling three long bombs during the game's opening minutes, he finished only 3-for-10 from the three-point line.
To win, the Heels need to shoot a higher percentage from the perimeter—whether the hero is Barnes or someone else—in order to ease the pressure on the club's interior-based offense.
Additionally, for the same reason that Duke's résumé has been criticized, Carolina still hasn't convinced experts that it truly has exorcised the demons from a year ago and early this season. Beating the Blue Devils would give the team a signature win and place the two clubs back in genuine competition as to which has the better team this season, as well as which head coach wields a bigger stick during the off-season recruiting skirmishes.
And so that brightly lit rectangle surrounded by 20,000-plus rowdy and well-lubricated fans on Saturday night will dominate workplace conversation throughout the Triangle.