Students in the class of 2009 never felt the joy of a home win over rival North Carolina in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Last season, fans saw a much different story than the seniors from a year ago. Duke demolished the Tar Heels, 82-50.
Tonight, the No. 5 Blue Devils (21-2, 8-1 in the ACC) have a chance to keep the bragging rights and the balance of power here in Durham, when they face off against No. 21 North Carolina (17-5, 7-1) at 9 p.m. in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The stakes are higher this year than the last. The outright lead in the conference is up for grabs, and Duke will take on its first ranked opponent since beating then-No.6 Michigan State on December 1st.
After that game versus the Spartans, in which the Blue Devils won convincingly and there began to be talk of an undefeated season, it was expected that Duke would retain its dominance in the Tobacco Road matchup.
How things have changed.
Point guard Kyrie Irving went down. Duke fell to two inferior teams, losing its aura of invincibility. Individual players have had to adjust throughout the season and had to fill roles that were not expected of them at the start of the year.
“This team’s played a shortened season,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Our goal is to be really good by March. A game like Wednesday’s helps you with that.... It makes you better.”
North Carolina on the other hand started the season poorly, struggling with its offense. Like Duke, it has undergone a change at the point guard position with freshman Kendall Marshall now running the offense. This has proved successful—Marshall dished out 16 assists in the Tar Heels last game against Florida State, and the offense is averaging 85.6 points in its last five games, all victories, which has spurred them back into the top 25.
“I think their offense the last three games has been unbelievable,” Krzyzewski said. “At times it’s like they’re running a clinic out there.”
Marshall’s recent emergence has made it important that Duke reduce his impact on the game.
“We have a game plan for him,” senior Nolan Smith said. “When you have a guard getting 16 assists, you have to take him out the game… try to make him have more turnovers than assists, and have someone pressure him for a full game. Make it hard for him to run the team.”
Limiting Marshall’s effectiveness will also decrease the effect of North Carolina’s strong inside presence, which includes leading scorer Tyler Zeller and John Henson.
The Tar Heels will look to counter this game plan by possibly sharing ball-handling duties. The issue for the team, however, is the lack of ball-handlers on the team after the sudden departure of Larry Drew II. Head coach Roy Williams even held an emergency “one-possession trial” for the point guard position during practice to identify the team’s third ball-handler behind Marshall and Dexter Strickland.
“We’ll try to get some other people involved,” Williams said. “We’ve also got the opportunity to pass the ball up…. We’ve done that against some teams too.”
Whatever the game plan, the crowd will, as always, be fired up for the show. Like the students in attendance, Seth Curry has been looking forward to the game as well. Curry missed last season’s victories while red-shirting after his transfer from Liberty.
“Growing up in Charlotte, the Duke-Carolina game has always been big time for me,” Curry said. “And definitely watching the game last year, and not being able to play has built up emotion for me.… I can’t wait to let it out on the court.”
Along with Curry, the freshmen on both teams are looking forward to their first taste of the fierce rivalry. Marshall wants his presence to count.
“I remember last year listening to the game… imagining myself there, imagining myself playing,” Marshall said. “Not with the outcome of course.”
With both teams clicking at the right time, a close game unlike last year’s demolition can be expected.
To Kyle Singler, however, it’s all about getting the win, regardless of the opponent.
“It’s for first place in the league,” Singler said. “That’s the thing that we’re playing for, that’s the thing that matters.”