Duke-Carolina- The season begins or ends here for the Tar Heels
It’s been called many things. The “greatest rivalry of all time.” The “unofficial start of the basketball season.” College basketball’s only “national rivalry.” It’s seen Gerald Henderson throw his elbow into Tyler Hansbrough’s face, Austin Rivers make “the shot,” and future surprise NBA superstar Danny Green leap over a flopping Greg Paulus. But tonight’s UNC-Duke game represents so much more than that for the 2012-2013 North Carolina Tar Heels. It represents a chance at redemption. So much of the season has been characterized as a disappointment. Carolina fans just aren’t used to a 16-7 record and NCAA Bubble talk in mid-February, but this year it’s a reality. Carolina NEEDS to win this game. Is it fair to the team for fans to act so spoiled? Probably not. It’s one thing to expect excellence, but another to demand it on an insane level. After losing four first round draft picks to the NBA, another Final Four was not a realistic expectation. This is a YOUNG team.
So what are MY expectations for tonight as a UNC fan?
1) That the game will be competitive
We’re going into a hostile environment, much like we did on Saturday, and we got destroyed. Duke has great fans, I’ll be the first to admit that. Cameron Indoor and the Crazies give Duke one of the best home-court advantages in the country, despite what derogatory things their fans may or may not say. Condolences to NC State’s Tyler Lewis. The Tar Heels need to learn from their mistakes and play at a high-level the WHOLE game. Second-half runs against Butler and NC State show that they can hang with the big guys if they try. They have the talent, and what they lack in experience, they should make up for in effort. Carolina can’t get behind early, or its chance at a competitive edge will be gone.
2) That the UNC lineup will start to reflect real-game results, not practice performance
I love Roy Williams, and I’m a big believer in what he does. Fans can criticize him for being stingy with his timeouts, or not putting certain players on the floor, but he knows the team better than any of us do. We’re not in the locker room. We’re not in practice. He’s loyal, and to be honest, he’s not the one playing the game. It’s the players. So when he takes credit for each and every loss I really respect that because it’s fundamentally not his fault. At the same time, I’ve watched so many games this year where lineups just haven’t worked. For whatever reason, this year’s team seems to have a hard time getting started. This has led to big deficits early on. Roy has experimented a lot and that’s okay because these are young players who are adjusting to their own individual roles on the team. But this is the Duke game. This is not the time for experimentation. The best players need to be on the floor as much as possible. And the best players during the game may be different than the “best players” in the last practice and the “best players” so far this season. Roy needs to stick to the hot hand tonight. There’s too much on the line for anything less.
3) That UNC will do a better job of guarding the three-point line
Duke lives and dies by the three, it’s a fact. They were off at Miami and we all know what happened then. But this is Duke-Carolina and it’s on an entirely different level than that, no matter what Miami’s ranked and what UNC’s not. UNC needs quality wins and a postseason berth IS at stake tonight whether the team will admit it or not. Since the game is at Duke, I don’t expect them to be off tonight. Duke has great fans. So it’s extremely important that Carolina does a better job of covering the three. Our perimeter defense is notoriously bad and it has been for years. But this year’s team is a guard-oriented group which gives us the opportunity to change this for the better. Mason Plumlee is a force inside, but Seth Curry earns more points each time he scores. Our focus needs to be on Curry and the other Duke three-point shooters, not Plumlee. With Joel James out we just don’t have the size to do that anyway. The Tar Heels NEED to commit to better perimeter defense or they cannot be competitive.
I’m cautiously optimistic about tonight’s game. Yes, it is a long-shot that Carolina wins. On paper, Duke just has a better team, even without Ryan Kelly. More experience, more size, a home-court advantage. But this is Duke-Carolina and anything, I mean ANYTHING, can happen. If the Tar Heels can pull out the win, then they’ll have a lot of momentum going into the last half of conference play.