Christian Laettner used to say that the Duke-UNC game day had a different feel than any other. He's right. Waking up and knowing that game is today is a lot like the feeling kids get on Easter Sunday.
It's not that you're going to get a bunch of candy, although an Easter basket is a fine way to start a new spring day. There's just a special feeling about the day, and you don't have to be particularly religious to feel it.
So for those of us in the Triangle, we wake up a bit giddy, and it doesn't take long to get out of bed, and we watch the clock drag around in circles until the appointed time arrives.
It's still kind of amazing to think that it's such a big deal nationally. We sort of know this, but for us here, it's a local thing.
Earlier in the season, UNC would have been heavily favored, and there were a couple of reasons for this. First, they were rolling over everyone, and they were remarkably deep. And second, Duke had not yet forged the team identity it now has: an undersized team, one with no traditional post, but able to push hard on defense and to force other teams to chase them.
The expectations began to change when Bobby Frasor went down with his season-ending knee injury. He was their not-so-secret ace, a guy who was a defensive whiz and a solid backup to Ty Lawson. Really, he was more than just a backup; he was a different player, but not necessarily less effective, and not necessarily less important. He was an excellent defender, and along with Marcus Ginyard, gave UNC a pair of tall perimeter defenders that could change the game in a big hurry.
It changed again when UNC began to have some problems with ACC teams like Clemson, Georgia Tech, of course Maryland, and most recently Florida State.
And the injury to Ty Lawson against Florida State changed things again. Lawson got a nasty high ankle sprain, and suddenly UNC was down to senior Quentin Thomas at point guard, and Ginyard as his backup.
Depth, which was a huge UNC advantage early in the season, isn't a big selling point now (although it will improve when Lawson recovers): FSU went deeper into their bench than the Heels did, something which was unthinkable earlier in the year.
Lawson left after only four minutes; otherwise, in a 45 minute game, Deon Thompson played 28 minutes, Ginyard 31; Wayne Ellington 35; Quentin Thomas 36, and Tyler Hansbrough 41. Count Thomas as the fifth starter to make it clean: Danny Green got 26 minutes, Alex Stepheson 16, and Will Graves 8.
|STARTERS VS DAVIDSON||MIN|
|D. Thompson, F||15|
|T. Hansbrough, F||31|
|M. Ginyard, G-F||28|
|T. Lawson, G||21|
|W. Ellington, G||33|
|B. Frasor, G||19|
|Q. Thomas, G||11|
|D. Green, G-F||29|
|A. Stepheson, F||13|
Take a look at the Davidson game as an interesting contrast. Yes, it was the first game of the season, but it was a very taut game and it wasn't like UNC could take a lot of chances, because Davidson almost won.
Pretty clearly, Roy Williams has to adapt to a different reality than what he had hoped for. His preference is for a team with a deep bench and a lot of guys who can run, and to push the pace until the opponent breaks.
Much of this depends on Ty Lawson, who is a superb point guard when healthy, and a blur on the court. In an open court game, he would ideally have Ginyard, Ellington, Frasor and Green as options to cut to the basket or post up for secondary breaks, with big men Thompson, Hansbrough, and Stepheson coming in to pound the boards, get follow shots, or post up if the break doesn't work.
Williams would probably like to have someone like James Gist or Uche Echefu to round out the frontcourt, but it's still a tremendous roster, and the big men present Duke with some real problems.
Hansbrough is bad enough. He's given everyone fits since he showed up in Chapel Hill, and no one has really figured out how to stop him, which is pretty amazing since he's in many regards a fairly normal player: he doesn't run faster or jump higher than most people. All he does is outwork them. A standard criticism is that he walks a lot and fouls a lot and there's some truth to both. But he also works a lot and gets the most out of his ability, and that's a great thing to say about anyone.
He got 22 points and 21 boards against FSU despite being shut down for a good bit of the game. And they have more big options than Duke does.
Of course, he is not the sort of player who can do everything himself, and someone has to get him the ball. And this is where it gets interesting.
Duke has overcome a lack of size largely through defensive pressure. It's striking to see how far out they are pushing guards, and how much time it takes to just work the ball down near the foul line at times, and once they force a turnover, you see DeMarcus Nelson, Gerald Henderson, Greg Paulus, Nolan Smith, Lance Thomas, Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer and Taylor King, in some combination of five, heading toward the basket.
And if that happens often enough, much of Hansbrough's hard work will go for naught.
It's hard to recall a Duke-UNC game where the teams each had such interlocking strengths and weaknesses, even down to injuries. Duke could really, really use Brian Zoubek in this game; UNC would love to have Ty Lawson at full strength.
But as Dean Smith said, for a game or two, an injury is often irrelevant. A team can get pumped up enough to overcome it for a while. Quentin Thomas is a senior, and while he has struggled at times, he's also learned, and it's his chance for greatness. Expect him to hold his own.
This game is going to come down to which team can overcome its disadvantages. For Duke, it's nothing new; it's what they've done all year. For UNC, it's a question of adapting on the fly.
However, having Roy Williams on the bench, and Dean Smith on the phone, is a pretty good start.
The other wild card is the emotional resonance of the Hansbrough-Henderson affair.
As we showed yesterday, to an extent it has taken on a life of its own. Henderson will be immediately booed by the Heels fans, who will celebrate their annual wake-up call with more energy than usual. It's only once a year; they can afford to cut loose, and the extra dose of hatred will inspire.
From Duke's point of view, our best guess is that Coach K, if he's true to form, will sit Gerald down at some point and persuade him that it's an opportunity, that once he shows that he can't be intimidated that he can shut up thousands of people who want him to be humiliated. Or something to that effect. Krzyzewski leaves little to chance and prepares in minute ways, and is a master psychologist. He'll find a way to offer this to Henderson as a great thing.
As far as the players go, it seems to be an old issue. The kids from both teams play pickup over the summer (who else are they going to play who is on their level?), and Hansbrough and Henderson played with and against each other (incidentally, Microsoft's spell-check suggestion for Hansbrough? Hans rough).
As always, there's no predicting this game. There is, only, appreciation from both sides before it begins, and, when it ends, elation for one and great gnashing of teeth and wailing for the other.
Oh, and the inside track on a #1 seed.