The rivalry between Duke and North Carolina is considered one of the best in college basketball, but it didn’t possess some of the same excitement last year with the Tar Heels enduring a down season and the Blue Devils finishing as national champions.
There will likely be no shortage of enthusiasm when these two powers meet for the first time this year.
First place in the ACC is on the line Wednesday night when fifth-ranked Duke and No. 20 North Carolina renew their rivalry at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The Blue Devils captured the ACC regular-season crown, tournament title and national championship last season, while the Tar Heels finished tied for the league’s second-worst record. Duke swept the two-game season series after losing both meetings in 2008-09, when North Carolina won the NCAA tournament.
The distance between the teams was quite evident in last season’s finale, as Duke cruised to an 82-50 victory, the second-most lopsided beating in the rivalry’s history.
It likely won’t be as easy this time around, with the Blue Devils (21-2, 8-1) leading the Tar Heels (17-5, 7-1) by one-half game in the ACC.
“Out of anything that’s going on this week, that’s the thing that we’re playing for,” Duke’s Kyle Singler said. “It’s for first place in the league.”
Singler and fellow senior Nolan Smith are the biggest reasons the Blue Devils are atop the conference.
Singler, third in the league with an average of 18.0 points, has reached double figures in scoring in an ACC-best 21 straight games. He is averaging 22.3 points on 14-of-26 shooting from 3-point range in four games against North Carolina over the past two seasons.
Smith is averaging league highs of 21.0 points and 5.6 assists and is on pace to become the first player in ACC history to lead the conference in both categories. He scored 18 of his 20 points in the first half of Saturday’s easy 76-52 win over North Carolina State, his league-best 13th 20-point game.
“Those are two seniors. Those are two guys that aren’t going to come along like that and play four years in college basketball very often on the same team like that,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I’m not going to enjoy them (Wednesday), and I’m not going to enjoy them any other time that we play them, but if you’re a fan of ACC basketball, you ought to enjoy those youngsters while we’ve got them.”
While the Blue Devils were expected to make a run for the league title, North Carolina’s charge is more surprising. The Tar Heels dropped three of their first seven games but have two losses in 15 games since.
They make the short trip to Cameron, where Duke has won 32 in a row, riding a five-game winning streak, and are brimming with confidence following Saturday’s 89-69 win over a Florida State team that has one of the league’s best defenses.
Freshman Harrison Barnes led the way with 17 points, while Tyler Zeller and John Hanson each scored 16 for North Carolina, which is averaging 93.0 points on 53.3 percent shooting in its last three games.
The convincing win was particularly encouraging, considering it came less than 48 hours after junior point guard Larry Drew II abruptly left the team.
Freshman Kendall Marshall made people quickly forget about Drew’s departure, finishing with nine points and 16 assists, the most by a North Carolina player in any ACC game.
“I think this team chemistry is at an all-time high,” sophomore guard Dexter Strickland said. “For us to play like this, our actions speak, and it says that we’re a team and we love each other. We’re playing like it and we’ve just got to continue to play like it.”