So here we are and the big game is at hand. Somehow though this year feels different.
Partly it's that UNC has fallen out of the Top 25 and has struggled to some extent. Partly it's that for the first time in recent memory, a different conference game overshadowed it, at least before the game. The Duke-Syracuse game was so taut, so competitively delicious, that it's almost impossible to top.
It may also be partly the foreboding weather, with a lot of ice and snow forecast, although snow has always been a good luck sign for Duke basketball. We'll see about that, but what it may also do is to keep the old fogies out and put the kids in the lower bowl where they can do a reasonable impression of a Duke or Syracuse crowd.
And perhaps it may also be the stench of scandal. Prior to the neutron bomb of fraud which has destroyed the credibility of an entire academic department, Duke and UNC both entertained the thought that the schools were equally concerned with academic performance.
To be clear and fair, Duke also has accepted athletes who are less gifted academically than some of their classmates. This is pretty much universal behavior at this point. However, we're not aware of anyone staying in fraudulently, nor are we aware of any class which constitutes fraud, academically and/or legally.
Until UNC does significant penance, the notion that there is some rough equivalency between the honor of each school is hogwash.
So the only relevant issues are on the court, where two very atypical teams will meet.
UNC traditionally loves to have two big men and to run as much as possible. Defense is practiced, but not enthusiastically. Good shooters, long a trademark of the program, are in short supply.
Duke, meanwhile, is a program built on athleticism and defense, but this year's has been pretty erratic. The low point came when Duke simply couldn't defend Vermont. The defense has improved but this group is much more offensively oriented than typical Duke teams and relies heavily on three point shooting to get by.
Like UNC, Duke's defense has improved quite a bit lately. So has rebounding.
Over the years, Duke has often been outrebounded by opponents, preferring to concentrate on disrupting passing lanes and forcing turnovers. And if you add turnovers to rebounds, as shots/rebounds denied, then the margin shrinks considerably and at times favors Duke.
UNC's offense has been driven by Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo, who has really improved his profile lately. For Duke, Paige may be easier to guard than McAdoo, who is bigger than most of Duke's frontcourt players. Foul trouble will be very key in this match.
UNC has also started JP Tokoto, Leslie McDonald and lately Kennedy Meeks. Roy Williams has made some noises about starting Brice Johnson against Duke, but Johnson is still not great defensively.
One thing seems likely, or as likely as anything in this rivalry can be: Duke will be the better team from outside. UNC depends heavily on Paige for his outside shooting. McDonald is capable from three point range, but Paige is by far the dominant outside shooter for UNC.
And UNC's recent improvements on defense will be tested by Duke, as the Devils can put some combination of Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Quinn Cook, Andre Dawkins, Rasheed Sulaimon and Tyler Thornton on the floor at the same time. Who do you back off of?
Yet somehow, given his superb play of late, there's a pretty good chance that Parker will be the key player for both teams. If UNC can restrict him, it's huge for the Heels. If Duke can get him loose to make plays and he can rebound, that's great news for Duke - and for the shooters UNC will also have to guard.