Quinn Cook will be tasked with dealing with North Carolina’s guards who aggressively push the pace of the North Carolina offense.
Shayan Asadi / The Chronicle
Quinn Cook will be tasked with dealing with North Carolina’s guards who aggressively push the pace of the North Carolina offense.

The first of two editions of the Tobacco Road showdown this year pits two teams against each other in vastly different positions.

No. 2 Duke (21-2, 8-2 in the ACC)—a team trying to keep pace with ACC-leading Miami and earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament—will tangle with its nemesis North Carolina, which desperately needs a signature conference win to help secure its ticket to the Big Dance.

“I think it’s a must-win for our confidence, seeing our potential and how we can play against good teams,” said senior Tar Heel combo guard Dexter Strickland, who is the only senior in the rotation. “I think if we can beat the No. 2 team it shows a lot about our team.”

Four starters from last year’s Elite Eight squad—Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller—left for the NBA after last season, leaving the cupboard bare for head coach Roy Williams in Chapel Hill. Consequently, the young Tar Heels (16-7, 6-4 in the ACC) have been wildly inconsistent—and largely underwhelming—this season.

Read more about this year's matchup between Duke and North Carolina

North Carolina’s 2012-13 campaign—characterized by several low points, including lopsided losses to Butler, Indiana, N.C. State and Miami—could take a drastic turn for the better with a win Wednesday night. The Tar Heels have enough sheer talent—highlighted by five McDonald’s All-Americans—and firepower on their roster to defeat anybody. The offensive end is where they thrive, averaging 78.3 points per outing—the ninth highest output in the nation.

“They can beat the hell out of us tomorrow night,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

North Carolina’s players know they have it in them to pull out a road victory against their hated rival.

“I think we have the guys to get the job done,” Strickland said. “We just have to play with a sense of urgency.”

Thus far this season, the problem is that Williams’ roster is comprised of pieces that have not fit together yet in his up-tempo system. Changes in the starting lineup and rotation have been ongoing, leading to lapses in continuity. With seven underclassmen averaging more than 10 minutes on the court, the inexperience and lack of leadership plaguing the team has put the Tar Heels on what looks to be the wrong side of the NCCA bubble at the moment.

Williams realizes that a veteran Duke team presents a considerable challenge for his bunch.

“Well, not very good on paper…” said Williams in regards to how his team matches up with Duke. “We have a chance, but we have to play great.”

As the only player in the inexperienced Tar Heel frontcourt averaging double figures, sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo has to be exceptional against Mason Plumlee and Duke’s stable of big men. Despite averaging a team-high 14.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, the athletic 6-foot-9 forward—who spurned the chance to be a likely top-10 NBA draft pick last summer to return to Chapel Hill—has still been unable to live up to the lofty expectations of being the go-to-guy this year due to his sporadic performances.

But the point guard matchup may playthe key role in Wednesday night’s showdown. Averaging 7.1 points and 4.5 assists per contest, freshman Marcus Paige—a frail 6-foot floor general—has shown both promise and disappointment, while being thrust into the starting lead guard role from the get go. The Iowan has struggled at times with the rigors of a more physical college game. And Paige has a very difficult cover assignment in Duke’s Quinn Cook.

“I’ve always wanted to play in this game ever since I’ve been a kid growing up a Tar Heel fan,” Paige said. “So, I’m really excited to go in there and hopefully we can play really well and get a win.”

If North Carolina hopes to play well and steal a win in Durham, it will need arguably its best pure scorer—junior wing Reggie Bullock—to deliver. And if any Tar Heel player has an edge in his one-on-one matchup against the Blue Devils, it is the 6-foot-7 junior, who could easily take advantage of Duke’s smaller perimeter that does not feature a player taller than 6-foot-4. Playing better as the year has progressed, Bullock is a dangerous scorer—connecting on 43.9 percent of his 3-pointers—and averages 14 points per game.

Bullock’s sidekick on the wing, sophomore P.J. Hairston, is a lethal offensive weapon coming off the bench for the Tar Heels. The powerful 6-foot-5, 220-pound swingman is the third highest scorer on the team at 12.3 points per game.

Given the intensity, familiarity and utter distaste between the two teams, it’s safe to assume a struggling North Carolina squad will be ready for another chapter of the most fierce rivalry in college basketball.

“It is North Carolina playing Duke,” Williams said. “If my team is not fired up tomorrow, I’m going to send them all over to the morgue and see if they have enough boxes ready for them, my gosh. We’ll find out.”