Roy Williams said this week that his Tar Heels will have to play their best game of the season to defeat Duke Wednesday night in the Smith Center. Realistically, that may not even be good enough.
Those who have wanted to know “What’s wrong with Carolina” this season should be measured in their excitement over the team’s five-game winning streak, all against unranked opponents. Basketball is a simple game; usually the team with better players wins. Duke had better players last season and won both games; Duke has better players again this season.
The last time Carolina beat the Blue Devils was on March 3, 2012, in Cameron Indoor Stadium by the score of 88-70. If the Heels hadn’t blown a double-digit lead a month earlier, they would have swept the Dukies for the first time since 2009, the year of UNC’s last national championship.
In 2012 and in 2009, Carolina had better players than Duke.
UNC’s five starters from the 2012 season – Kendall Marshall, Reggie Bullock, Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller – are in the NBA today, with all but Bullock playing significant roles for their respective teams. Four of the five starters and the sixth man (freshman Ed Davis) from the 2009 roster are also in the NBA.
Can you envision any of the current Tar Heels even making an NBA team when they leave Chapel Hill? McAdoo, maybe. Paige, perhaps. Of their two best players last year, Bullock is sitting on the LA Clippers bench and P.J. Hairston is tearing up the NBA D-League, hoping to be drafted in June.
A simple game.
Duke replaced its two NBA first-round draft picks from last season, Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee, with freshman Jabari Parker, projected as a top-3 pick in the 2014 draft, and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood, also considered a lottery pick. To replace the deadly Seth Curry, they also have a couple of guys who are likewise lights out from the 3-point line, Rasheed Sulaimon and Andrew Dawkins. Duke, obviously, leads the ACC in long balls. In ACC-only games, Carolina has the best 3-point shooting defense, which will have to be outstanding to contain the Blue Devils from downtown.
College basketball has become a win-lose game of signing up the most highly rated high school seniors and then losing them after a year or two. The best at doing that lately is Kentucky, which virtually trades in its starters each year for a new group of five-star recruits.
Duke is starting to play that game a little more in the twilight years of Mike Krzyzewski’s career. If the Blue Devils lose Parker and Hood after playing one season, they have the top recruiting class in the nation coming in, led by 6-10 Jahlil Okafor, the No. 1 freshman-to-be in the country, 6-1 point guard Tyus Jones (No. 5) and 6-5 wing player Justise Winslow (No. 15).
Carolina has damn good players on the way, too, but none as highly rated as Duke’s top two. Justin Jackson, 6-7, is No. 8; 6-6 Theo Pinson is No. 10 and 6-foot Joel Berry is No. 17. So the Tar Heels will be improved next season with the influx of talent, who all look to be potential pros (potential is the operative word).
So what must the Tar Heels do to defeat Duke Wednesday night? Yes, play their best game and hope Duke does not play very well. The latter is unlikely, since the Blue Devils are battle-tested against a tougher schedule so far. After unlikely road losses at Notre Dame and Clemson, they have beaten two of the best teams in the ACC – Virginia at home and Pitt on the road – and taken top-ranked Syracuse into overtime at the Carrier Dome. Duke has also defeated two other ranked teams in Michigan and UCLA and lost to then-No. 1 Arizona and then-No. 2 Kansas.
Carolina has three marquee wins of its own, upsetting then-No. 3 Louisville on a neutral court, shocking then top-ranked Michigan State on the road and beating No. 10 Kentucky in the Smith Center. Those games seem like a year ago.
The Tar Heels have played one other ranked team since, losing at then-No. 2 Syracuse by 12 in a game that wasn’t that close. Their six ACC victories are against two middling opponents, Clemson and Maryland, and four bottom feeders – Boston College, Georgia Tech, N.C. State and Notre Dame.
Is beating Duke and avoiding a third straight loss to the dark (blue) side possible? Yes. Probable, no. But basketball is not only a simple game, it is oft-unpredictable. Yell and scream at the Dean Dome or in front of your flat screen and hope, as Ol’ Roy says, that the Heels can turn in their best game of the season.
It would certainly help if their young post players Kennedy Meeks, Joel James and Brice Johnson manned up against Duke’s Amile Jefferson and Marshall (the last) Plumlee. James Michael and Marcus are playing like All-ACC first teamers, but they cannot defeat Duke by themselves.
Three days later, No. 25 Pitt comes to town without as many future pros as Duke, but a bunch of tough guys from the Steel City. The manning up must continue.