Win or lose tonight in Cameron, Carolina has to give Duke a game. The Tar Heels cannot knuckle under to an early tsunami as they did at Miami Saturday and during certain halves of certain games earlier in the season.
The tradition of the rivalry demands it, regardless of how mismatched the teams might be. Heck, in 1972 – the day Duke Indoor Stadium was renamed for Eddie Cameron – the BAD Blue Devils (7-6 at the time) upset a third-ranked Carolina team that would win the ACC championship and reach the Final Four. They did it by hanging tough against a far more talented opponent until reserve Robbie West came off the bench to hit a 15-foot push shot to win it at the buzzer. West (like Fred Lind, another sub who keyed a triple overtime win against UNC in 1968) has remained part of Duke Basketball lore ever since.
Then came those two games in 1974, both won by the Tar Heels over last-place Duke teams in the ACC. But not before Bobby Jones stole an inbounds pass and laid in the winner at Cameron and a few weeks later Carolina came back from eight points down with 17 seconds left in regulation to force overtime, where the Heels won 96-92 at a delirious Carmichael Auditorium.
Except for Bill Foster’s first three years as Duke’s coach and Mike Krzyzewski’s first three, the rivalry has been amazingly even. Duke had an unparalleled run between 1997 and 2006 of winning the ACC regular season and/or ACC Tournament ever year. Since Roy Williams returned and defeated Duke for the first time in 2005, the Tar Heels won 6 of 7 games, including four straight at “Hansbrough Indoor Stadium.” Duke has had the better of it lately, winning the last 5 of 7 – but that included Carolina blowing a big lead at Cameron in 2011 and losing on the Rivers’ buzzer-beater last season.
You play with who you have, so there should be no excuses. Still, I’m going to make a few. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Duke has lost more than two players to the first-round of the NBA draft after only one season – 1999, Avery, Brand, Langdon and Maggette. It has happened to Carolina twice – 2005 and 2012 – and essentially three times, when you consider Spurs starter Danny Green was a second-round pick in 2009 with first-rounders Ellington, Hansbrough and Lawson. And, while I’m on this, let’s add a little more kerosene to the fire.
Really, who expected Kendall Marshall to go pro after his sophomore year? How much better would the Tar Heels be with Special K at the point and Marcus as his understudy? Want more?
Travis Wear, who left Chapel Hill with his twin brother like the Colts left Baltimore, would be a senior starter at UNC this season. Instead, he’s a 6-10, 230-pound red-shirt junior for mediocre UCLA, where coach Ben Howland is pretty much gone after the season, playing 30 minutes a game, shooting 53 percent (FG), 40 percent (3P) and 80 percent (FT) and averaging 5.5 rebounds and 11.1 points a game. How much better would he be here as THE low post guy?
And how about Alex Oriakhi, the 6-9, 240-pounder who was allowed to leave UConn and play somewhere else right away after the Huskies went on probation for this season. That somewhere was supposed to be UNC before Missouri’s Frank Haith swooped in and signed Oriakhi, who has started all 23 games for Mizzou, shoots 58 percent from the field and 80 from the foul line while averaging 11 points and just under nine rebounds.
Imagine the Tar Heels strutting into Cameron tonight with two or three (or, hell, even one) of those guys. But that’s not the case and, to be fair, Duke is playing without Ryan Kelly and may not get him back at all this season. Two years ago, the Blue Devils lost Kyrie Irving after a few games all the way to the NCAA Tournament. And after last year, they lost Austin Rivers, whose game-winner in Chapel Hill made him an otherwise-undeserving legend of the rivalry. Remember, a healthy Carolina team avenged that loss with an 18-point pounding the last time the arch rivals played in a game that wasn’t that close.
So the teams aren’t that even this time around. They weren’t back in 2010, when Duke exorcised those four straight home losses with a dreadful drubbing. And they weren’t even the other way in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, when Foster and Coach K were living in the shadow of the Dean.
Both emerged, yes thankfully, and the rivalry continues as the only relevant games of a regular-season diminished by the rush for an NCAA Tournament berth and conference realignment. Even Coach K, who turns 66 today, said it in one of only two mid-season press conferences he holds each year. He acknowledged, like his old rival Smith, he’ll be gone some day and so will ol’ Roy.
“What will remain?” he asked rhetorically. “Duke and Carolina.”
So tonight is the 235th edition and though one team is heavily favored, history has proven that either team could win.
Unfortunately, Carolina has to dance with who it’s bringing, which is short on just about everything but offensive rebounding and occasionally hot three-point shooting. But, win or lose, let’s give ’em a good fight.
Please don’t be wall flowers.