For the first time in almost a decade, North Carolina will be the higher ranked team when the Blue Devils take on the Tar Heels tonight at 9 p.m.
In high school Sean Dockery used to beg his coach to end practice early so he could watch it, and one of Shavlik Randolph’s middle school games was cancelled for it.
It, of course, is Duke versus North Carolina.
The rivalry will add another chapter to its illustrious history when the No. 2 Tar Heels (19-2, 8-1 in the ACC) venture into Cameron Indoor Stadium tonight at 9 p.m. to take on the seventh-ranked Blue Devils (17-2, 7-2).
For the first time since the final meeting of the 1995-1996 season, North Carolina will be the higher-ranked team as the Tar Heels try win for just the third time in the last 17 tries against Duke.
“It’s definitely the best rivalry in college sports,” UNC center Sean May said. “I’d probably say it’s up there with some of the best rivalries in sports: Boston-L.A., New York-Boston. It’s crazy how much people actually get into it, and just walking around town this past week, this is some people’s National Championship right here.”
North Carolina comes to Durham as the most prolific offense in the country, averaging more than 92 points per game.
The Tar Heels play an up-tempo style, and speedy point guard Raymond Felton runs the break as well as any player in the nation.
“I don’t think anybody gets it up as fast as North Carolina does,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And so I’m sure there will be a little bit of a transition, because we can’t practice that.”
Unlike Duke, North Carolina has a deep bench to complement the trio of May, Felton and Rashad McCants. The Blue Devils need at least two of their “big three” to have strong performances to compete with the nation’s best, but UNC has a little bit more leeway, Shelden Williams said.
“They have ball-friendly guys at all their positions,” Krzyzewski said. “May is probably the most ball-friendly big guy in the country. In other words, he has great hands and feet. He does really good things with the ball, not just score it. That means you can position it and where it goes after he gets it. Any offensive system that you have is enhanced by skills like that from your players.”
Senior Jawad Williams is the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 15.9 points per game, and at 6-foot-9 freshman Marvin Williams has created matchup problems as a reserve.
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With Duke’s frontcourt still depleted by injuries, foul trouble becomes even more significant for Shelden Williams.
When the two teams met in Cameron for the ACC regular-season finale a year ago, May outplayed Williams, who scored just four points and grabbed five rebounds. He finished the game with four fouls and played only 28 minutes, but this season Williams has, for the most part, stayed clear of foul problems.
“He’s having a great year,” Roy Williams said of Shelden Williams. “He’s controlling the area inside, he’s scoring inside, he’s getting your big guys in foul trouble, he’s taking away your easy shots because he’s blocking them. I mean he’s just having a phenomenal, phenomenal year.”
Williams and Randolph, who is still recuperating from mononucleosis, will each have to play a lot of minutes and stay out of foul trouble to keep the combination of May, Jawad Williams and Marvin Williams from dominating the paint.
Much of the Tar Heels’ success so far this season has been a result of the coach’s commitment to defense, which he instilled in his players during his second year since coming back to North Carolina from Kansas. When his players first arrived for preseason workouts, Roy Williams had all of the rims removed from the backboards to demonstrate how critical defense would be to UNC’s success this season.
The work has paid off. The Tar Heels are holding their opponents to 69.4 points per game, five less than last season, and under 40 percent shooting.
As Krzyzewski said, the Duke-North Carolina rivalry transcends more than just the coaches, players and students who take part in it each year. It is about the programs and their respective histories and traditions.
In his third attempt to beat the Blue Devils as UNC’s head coach, Williams understands the significance.
“If we win, they’re not going to let me go to the golf course and say, ‘Hallelujah,’ and if we lose, they’re hopefully not going to hang me in effigy,” he said.