Duke travels to UNC for the traditional season-ender with UNC, and things are a bit different than they usually are, or than perhaps everyone expected they would be at this point in the season.Earlier, the book on both teams was simple: Duke was struggling, particularly on offense, and was briefly considered a bubble team. UNC was expected to use its amazing talent to roll over virtually everyone.
Neither expectation has exactly panned out.
On the one hand, Duke has periodically blown past its limitations, although not against Maryland, to be sure. But in other recent games, Duke's offense has been quite sharp for much of the game, though the Devils still struggle with the end game at times. If a few plays had gone their way, Duke could be in first place.
But that didn't happen, and Duke will finish at either 9-7 or 8-8, depending on the outcome of the UNC game.
For their part, UNC has been staggered in recent games by an inability to put people away. Maryland and Georgia Tech both stole a bit of their hearts, and prior to that, State and Virginia Tech also shocked them. State was playing well in Chapel Hill, too, before Sidney Lowe got sick and had to leave the game.
Duke had a significant relapse against Maryland, as the Terrapins dismissed Duke's usually stalwart defense and ran the score up, something Duke has not allowed much of this season.
For the Heels, the question to a large extent is one of leadership, and to us, the enduring mystery is why they haven't taken on Tyler Hansbrough's personality. We would have thought this team would have coalesced around his famous intensity; it rather clearly has not. Brandan Wright has massive talent but isn't always assertive; Reyshawn Terry runs hot and cold. He's not exactly UNC's traditional senior leader.
In some games, Roy Williams has benched his hot-shot youngsters and gone with the guys who got it done last year - Hansbrough, Bobby Frasor, Marcus Ginyard, Wes Miller and whoever else is fitting the bill at the moment.
Duke, meanwhile, has struggled to establish an inside game. In some recent games, overwhelming defense has led to lots of fast break points, and smart spacing and passing has found easy baskets underneath. But in some other games, there's no one at home in the lane.
So while the cliche about this game is that there are no guarantees, it's doubly true this time. UNC has a stake of first place on the line, a second chance really after tossing it away earlier. Since the opponent is Duke, their intensity and cohesion will be much higher for, at the very least, the first part of the game. As an aside, you may have noticed that in almost every Duke and UNC game, the home team tends to jump out to an emotional lead, which is usually lost after the 10-15 minute mark or so.
And we know Duke well enoug to know that the loss to Maryland was a red flag, and that the team has been significantly challenged and focused in practice. Yes, it's UNC. Yes, it's senior day. But we expect Duke to come out with a surpassing intensity. Whether that translates into victory will be determined Sunday afternoon.
Duke's challenge is to overcome UNC's talent. UNC's challenge is probably going to be to match Duke's intensity. Normally the rivalry pretty much guarantees that, but at this point it's safe to say that intensity is not this team's great strength. They have had it at times, though, and it will be higher than it has been in recent games.