The Tobacco Road Shootout ’10 – Worth Watching?
Tonight, Duke University and the University of North Carolina square off in the first of at least two matchups this season. For years, Duke/UNC has been the premier rivalry in NCAA basketball, arguably in American sports as a whole, yet when I heard the game was on tonight, I wondered why I didn’t have it circled on my calendar weeks ahead of time like I have in the past.
Full disclosure – I’m a big UNC fan, but I don’t have any direct ties to the school, and as I simply like watching good basketball, if “my” Heels are having a relatively down season by their standards, such as this one, I don’t make catching every game a priority. Call me a fairweather fan… call me whatever you want – I don’t care what you think. My reasoning for liking UNC in the first place is incredibly shallow. I grew up a Chicago Bulls fan, as did most of us, but I felt a special affinity for the team since Chicago is the city of my birth, yet I was always far removed from it growing up. I naturally gravitated towards the Bulls and the Bears, though, as well as MJ23 . . . because, let’s be honest, who didn’t? I became aware of UNC first as “the school Jordan went to” and second as “the OTHER Carolina,” the one I didn’t live in. Problem was, I didn’t have a connection with Clemson or South Carolina, the two basketball programs worth following in the state, and the school my parents went to, the University of Virginia, hasn’t been relevant in basketball since Jeff Jones decided to leave his wife for a cheerleader in the mid-nineties (a shame, actually, given their tradition). I liked UNC’s colors, I liked their former players, so it was settled. I was a fan, and have been ever since. And screw you for thinking what you’re thinking.
Anyway, this year’s matchup is the first battle between Duke and UNC in seven years in which both teams have not been ranked within the Top 25. Duke’s in the top 10 this year, but after being stunned by College of Charleston on 1/4, the Tar Heels have lost seven of nine, beating only Virginia and NC State in that span. Duke, on the other hand, has been consistent but not transcendent. They deserve their Top 10 ranking, but I haven’t given them serious consideration for my short list of national-title contenders, at least yet.
Playing Duke after an uncharacteristically bad losing run probably isn’t the most desirable scenario for the Tar Heels, but there’s so much animosity between these two squads that this game has real potential to be a turning point in each team’s season. Nobody denies the Heels are loaded with talent. Big man Ed Davis is the Heels’ best player, and he does a pretty convincing Marcus Camby impression. The unfortunate thing about this season for Davis is that if Ty Lawson were still the Heels’ PG, he’d probably be averaging upwards of 20 ppg and in consideration for National POTY honors. As it is, though, Davis is saddled with a young point guard in Larry Drew II who is equally as frustrating as he can be dazzling at times. The positive for the Heels heading in to tonight’s matchup is that there’s no game the players are more mentally prepared for. A win against Duke in these circumstances could turn the Tar Heels’ season around. Nobody’s denying they have the talent to do it.
Duke enters the game as the heavy favorite. For precisely this reason, however, this game is a “must win” for the Blue Devils. The Tar Heels have taken six of the past seven games from the Blue Devils, and after Roy and Psycho-T cut down the nets last season, and scored a commitment from the No. 2 ranked recruit in the class of ’10 when Harrison Barnes‘s choices were narrowed down to Duke and UNC. These factors led to an assumption that the ever-tenuous balance of power on Tobacco Road had shifted. However, as we now know, it turns out the drop-off that everyone expected from UNC after losing four NBA draft picks (Tyler Hansbrough, Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green) was much more severe than anyone predicted. The young Heels have struggled to score at times, and have lacked the killer instinct in finishing games that has been a trademark of Roy Williams teams in the past. As perception is as important as performance in NCAA basketball, UNC has afforded Duke a rare opportunity to pull firmly ahead in the perpetual race between these two teams.
An upset from North Carolina is hardly out of the question, however, and if there were ever a night that betting on the favored team might not be the smart money, it’s tonight. UNC always gets up for Duke, and it will be an especially emotional night at the Dean Dome as Tyler Hansbrough’s #50 jersey is being retired in a pre-game ceremony, only the 8th Tar Heel to earn this distinction. It’s also important to remember that although UNC isn’t ranked in the Top 25 right now, that’s simply a matter of perception rather than reality – this is the very same UNC team that beat Ohio State and Michigan State early in the season, both Top 15 teams currently, and each worth considering for the short list of realistic title contenders. Beating Duke tonight could be exactly what UNC needs to turn their season around, and you can bet that they’re aware of that fact.
Duke won’t be an easy out, though. Mike Krzyzewski is the best coach in the entire sport – professional or collegiate – and he knows how to get the most out of his players. Watching Duke’s players warm up before the game at Clemson I was able to attend earlier this year, I wasn’t at all impressed, and expected a repeat of last season, when the Tigers humiliated the Devils, and the game was over before the second half was half-over. Coach K knows how to coach, though, and he gets the most out of those players. Jon Scheyer is an underrated ball-handler and well-regarded shooter, who’s proven to be as accurate creating his own shot off the dribble this year as Duke’s primary ball controller, as he has been on the catch-and-shoot in recent seasons. Kyle Singler has been able to play facing the basket this season instead of playing out of position as a Stretch-4 last year, and the results have spoken for themselves. Both Scheyer and Singler should be in the discussion for All-ACC 1st team when the dust settles this season, as well as scoring guard Nolan Smith, and the rest of Duke’s roster is made up of hard-working and talented players who take their coach’s instruction as scripture, such as the Plumlee brothers, Brian Zoubek, and Lance Thomas. There’s probably not a lot of NBA star power on this roster, but the Devils play suffocating defense, don’t turn the ball over, and make a high percentage of their shots – recipes for success any way you look at it.
The Tar Heels, on the other hand, are all talent and no substance, at least so far. Despite their athleticism, they’ve really struggled with their transition defense, and opponents have picked up on this. Pushing the ball against the Heels and turning the game in to a track meet, an unthinkable strategy in years past if beating them was your objective, is the path to success this season. Despite Davis’s talent and potential, and the experience of senior Deon Thompson, the Heels also have been relatively unaggressive, for a Roy Williams team, in the low block this year. The Devils actually have a size advantage over the Tar Heels tonight, especially since the Heels are missing 7-footer Tyler Zeller for the remainder of the season due to injury. Larry Drew II and senior defensive stopper Marcus Ginyard figure to have their hands full chasing Smith and Scheyer around, as they both move with and without the ball so efficiently.
The Tar Heels have their backs against the wall. The Blue Devils smell blood in the water. For the first time in a long time, national title hopes aren’t at stake (at least right now) for both teams, and first place in the ACC isn’t on the line tonight. But, if you choose to skip the game, don’t be surprised if your morning SportsCenter is dominated by back-and-forth highlights from each squad as the game works towards an exciting finish. When one team is playing for redemption, and the other for validation, a game that looks routine on paper is often anything but. Specifically quantifying the emotional impact this game already has on each team as they prepare for it, and will have on each team based on the results, is impossible, but knowing that whatever that impact is will be severe on each team is key in understanding this matchup’s significance. Don’t be surprised to see whichever team emerges victorious tonight as one of the last few standing as the season winds down this March.
And don’t worry, I’m too bold not to make a prediction after giving a preview. I’m a homer, and think that tonight is where the young Tar Heels resurrect their season. After all, it’s not over until it’s over. A losing streak in January and February doesn’t mean anything in March as long as you’re playing with confidence, and I think tonight is when the Heels get their mojo back. Final score: Tar Heels 75, Blue Devils 71.