...it's UNC vs Duke tonight!
"And so it begins", to steal a phrase from Lord of the Rings, the scenic battle between good and evil, between what is right and what isn't, between two universities that have divided families, friends, a state and some could even say a country. Tonight, in what is the biggest rivalry in college (if not all) sports, it's 3rd/3rd ranked North Carolina (21-2, 7-2 in the ACC) vs 6th/5th ranked Duke (20-3, 7-2 in the ACC), it's the Tar Heels against the Blue Devils, it's eight miles separating these two schools that could not be more different from one another. Why is this billed as the greatest rivalry? Do you see anyone from the east coast writing about SU/GTown? They do when it comes to UNC and Duke! Has HBO done a series about Kentucky/Louisville? They sure did about the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils! Any other game during rivalry week ever been the biggest game ever watched on ESPN? The one on March 4th 2006 was the most watch college basketball game to be televised by the World Leader of Sports.
A rivalry that dates back to 1920, with the Tar Heels leading it 128-97 (Duke went 15 and 4 in the time between Dean Smith retiring and the hiring of Roy Williams) tonight will be a special game once again. The fact that the winner of tonight's game will take over the driver's seat in the ACC shouldn't surprise anyone. These two teams that have been the premiere powerhouses in the conference, together they have won close to 80% of the regular season titles and just above 55% of the ACC post season tournaments, have almost never let the other have a strangle hold on their turf. In all these years between UNC and Duke giving battle to one another only one Tar Heel, Buzz Peterson, has gone 4 and 0 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. If the Heels were to pull off a win tonight, Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green could have a chance to be in that very elite group. This is UNC vs Duke, it's a classic, and with so much at stake (as there usually is) it should be a great game.
This is going to be a game of will, where the team that can set it's style of play and tempo will get the upper hand on the other. North Carolina is going to look to push and score the easy baskets on Duke, while the Blue Devils will look to make this into a halfcourt game moving the ball around for an open three. For both teams their own strategy has gotten them yet again another 20 win season, but now, when facing off against one another, which one will work? UNC started the ACC season with two huge missteps, big enough that a lot of the ABC'ers had Carolina over and done with. Duke has now faltered as well, so much so that Greg Paulus is back as the starting point guard in tonight's game.
And that is where we can start. Ty Lawson vs. Greg Paulus. Whoever gets the upper hand on that matchup is going to make his team a bit stronger than the other. If Lawson can play the way he has in the last seven games I believe that he will have the edge over Paulus, whose speed isn't going to stay with the guard from Chapel Hill. As I have said over and over this year, this Tar Heel team is going to go as far as Lawson leads it, he has to play for the team and not make it personal, if he does this the team has a great shot tonight and a great shot in the big dance. The next matchup to look at has to be the perimeter shooting of Duke against the perimeter defense of North Carolina. If the Blue Devils get off easy shots, and they make them, that is going to get the Cameron Crazies going, and won't help things for UNC. If head coach Roy Williams can get the Heels to play some good defense (for at least a good part of the game) than Duke will struggle in this one.
But the key for me has always been and will always be one, Tyler Hansbrough. Duke has no one that can shut him off down below and if he gets hot in this one and the refs don't lose the whistles while there is hacking going on, he alone can win this game with his presence inside. Adding to all of that the fact that the senior forward has learned to see and react to the double team, making crisp passes to the guards, who are all (Lawson/Ellington/Green) hitting above 40% from beyond the arc, could really be the edge that is needed for UNC to make it four in a row at "their house". Lastly, and this is going to be just as important as the starters, the bench for UNC might not need to contribute a lot, but they cannot be a liability for the team.
This is the game that players that signed letters of intent to go to either UNC or Duke live for. It's that game where records don't mean anything, where the only reality is that on the other side of the court is the team you just don't like and want to beat at all costs. The oddsmakers have this game from 11/2 to 21/2 for North Carolina, but that is worthless, because emotions, nerves and rivalries cannot be counted in point spreads, only in guts and heart. In my opinion tonight's game is going to be a very good one, that will have both fan bases going wild and the outcome will probably be unknown with a few minutes left in the game. Hang on tight folks, this is going to be a heck of a ride even if it is just eight miles from Chapel Hill.