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Rewriting the Storylines: A UNC-sided preview of tonight's Carolina-Duke matchup

[Editor’s Note: You may have noticed that since Zeke now lives in a country that is, unfortunately, 5 time zones removed from Chapel Hill, the site has been falling down on the job a bit when it comes to Carolina-related recaps and commentary. Well, we’re hoping to change that: Please everyone welcome friend of the site and new contributor Rob Weldon, who will be giving us UNC news from the sunny confines of California. Take a quick gander at Rob’s bio here, then read some his thoughts on the UNC-Duke game tipping off in a few hours.]

Tonight’s renewal of The Rivalry is shaping up quite nicely.  Before the season even started we knew the storylines of tonight’s game:  redemption for last season’s dreadful Heels, Barnes’ superlative Skype skills, Duke’s continued run of dominance and the Smith/Singler All-America party.  Now that we’re fully into this wild season, the stakes are even higher.  Duke’s not the unstoppable team everyone (including myself) expected – partly due to Irving’s unfortunate injury.  Carolina’s still a work in progress with some talent, but has started to look really impressive.  Both teams stand above the rest of the conference with only one loss in the ACC. Heck, it’s a top 25 game again!

For more evidence of this game’s huge implications for North Carolina public policy, there is an organization called “Public Policy Polling” (http://blogs.newsobserver.com/accnow/poll-unc-favored-over-duke-by-nc-residents) that has learned a lot about the favorability trends for the respective teams and coaches.  Just as a note—with a 4 point margin of error you might want to refrain from making causal conclusions.

Back to basketball, this Roy Williams interview is something special: http://espn.go.com/blog/collegebasketballnation/post/_/id/22828/roy-williams-has-no-sympathy-for-the-devil. We can all agree that Roy’s pretty ridiculous in a lot of his dadgum press conferences.  Then in the accompanying video interview he says the typical non-controversial stuff that Coach K would say, but it’s the stuff about the crowd that gets me. Obviously, the Duke crowd means something to the Tar Heel team and that’s another reason why this game is important.  We’ll all find out more about the toughness and resilience of this UNC team in Cameron than we might learn in the March 5th game.

(Speaking of the Cameron Crazies, did anyone else out there catch last year’s exposé documentary about the real life consequences of group-think for poorly dressed, sweaty people?  Check it out here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0455407/.  Clearly, from the title down to the pitchfork on the movie poster, it’s about the cleverest college fans in the universe. I should note that it’s with no small amount of respect that I suggest the Duke fans are zombies.)

Alex mentions the match-ups as some of the most intriguing aspects of this game and I agree.  Duke’s players are considerably more accomplished, but they also have more to lose.  The small forward spot will be most interesting.  Harrison has shown that he can score points against very good teams.  The Duke defense is wily and aggressive enough to shake any of his accumulated confidence.  Kyle Singler’s occasionally underrated inside game will be very important for Carolina to contain.  (Side note: Kyle’s “artistic” side may also need some containing: http://espn.go.com/video/clip?categoryid=2459792&id=5780741.  He seems like a nice kid and all, I’m pretty sure Banksy’s not from Medford, Oregon. Yeesh.)

UNC must then concern itself with the difficult perimeter match-ups.  Smith, Thornton, Curry and Dawkins are classic Duke guards that hustle constantly, shoot the 3 with confidence and defend opponents with abandon. Then they chest bump a lot.  Carolina fans know the pressure that will be on Marshall from these guys on both offense and defense.  Nolan Smith, the ACC’s scoring and assist leader, will be the one most feared.  I’m hoping Marshall rarely gets the assignment to chase Smith on Duke’s posessions.

Carolina’s best chances rest with our inside presence.  While Duke’s Plumlee 1 and Plumlee 2 have been solid, they have not always asserted themselves as the Blue Devils might hope.  Carolina’s problem has been not feeding Henson, Zeller and Knox.  They’re hungry!  Feed them… especially #31.  The wild card for Duke is Ryan Kelly.  His game is confusing and efficient.  Meanwhile, UNC’s wild card is the 6’4” power forward out of Durham:  Justin Watts!  Strikes fear into the Duke faithful everywhere, I’m sure. 

When looking at the teams, there still one clear favorite in this game.  Do not be fooled by the Blue Devil’s St. John’s loss!  Duke’s two losses – and most recent national championship – compared with UNC’s five losses – and most recent Georgia Tech throttling – say enough about the teams.  UNC is so young, inexperienced and irrationally giddy with the recent success that the players might believe they’re actually going to whip up on the Devils.  Here’s hoping that they’re that naïve for an entire game.