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Next Up - Carolina

Time: 9:00 | Venue | Cameron | TV: ESPN

Back in the saddle? Coach K had a rough night against Wake Forest, but looks to be ready for UNC's annual visit.
Back in the saddle? Coach K had a rough night against Wake Forest, but looks to be ready for UNC's annual visit.
Grant Halverson

Next up for the Blue Devils is a rematch with UNC, a game that's important on more levels than the obvious

Obviously there's the Duke-UNC thing, and Duke played poorly in Chapel Hill.

But Duke also played poorly in Chapel Hill and there's a NCAA seed at stake too.

And it's Senior Day.

When people look back at this class, it will look pretty unimpressive out of context.

But it's been a really good class in a lot of ways.

Tyler Thornton has become one of our favorite Duke players. He was recruited as insurance for former classmate Kyrie Irving, but he's become much more than that.

How many times has Thornton bailed his teammates out? Remember the Maryland game his freshman year? Remember the Kansas game in Atlantis? How about earlier this year at Syracuse? Duke lost, but he kept Duke in a position to win when the game could have slipped away.

He's been an amazing player for Duke and deserves immense respect and appreciation.

It was pretty clear from the beginning that Josh Hairston was never going to be a scorer or a star. But he has been all about Duke. He comes in, defends, plays his butt off and goes out. And this is beautiful: when he was needed to set a defensive tone in his senior year, he did it. And when he was surpassed by more talented players, he didn't whine or complain.

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Both guys have been the very essence of teammates.

Andre Dawkins has had a very different path. As everyone knows, his sister died tragically on her way to see him play in college for the first time, which led Dawkins into a serious bout with depression.

He sat out last year to focus on getting better, and this year he's been a different player.

His shot hasn't been consistent, but look at him when he plays. He smiles, he laughs, he interacts.

He's a different man now who has triumphed in a different, more important way.

And then there's Todd Zafirovski. Like Dawkins, he's actually a graduate student, but for both guys it's their last time in Cameron.

Walk-ons never get the same attention as scholarship players, and we never know how much they actually improve or contribute. But they do make a difference. They do a lot of things that never show up outside of practice - or at least they don't show up in a way we can see them.

They know the drills, they know the routines. The continuity is nice, especially with a young team.

But guys like Marshall Plumlee, Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly, Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson know, and for guys like Zafirovski, that's enough.

But all that aside, at Wake Forest, Duke simply wasn't Duke. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, the following game is crucial, and that's the case Saturday. And it's Carolina.

So you get the picture.

On Dave Glenn's show this week, Jerry Palm was on and Glenn asked him about Carolina's win streak, and Palm put it in perspective.

You have to look not at the streak, he said, but the teams UNC beat in the streak.

Since losing to Virginia, UNC beat Clemson, Georgia Tech, NC State, Maryland, Notre Dame, Pitt and FSU.

The Duke win was the only one over a serious tournament seed. Pitt has fallen to a likely bubble team. Otherwise? Florida State's the best win.

The win streak is impressive not least of all because of UNC's improvement and how well Roy Williams has masked some critical weaknesses. But Palm has a point.

Of course, Duke has issues too. Marshall Plumlee has come along but he's not ready to be a full-time player. Coach K said 18-20 minutes is about his max currently.

The individual players have had tremendous success and the team at times has played really well together, but we haven't yet seen a consistent stretch where everything has fit together.

Partly that's because it is such a young team. And while Thornton is a guy who really leads by example, Hairston hasn't played much as Jefferson and Plumlee have surged.

It's not impossible to lead from the bench, but it's not easy.

And Dawkins had to reinvent his role this year after being away.

The only junior on the team is Quinn Cook, who has been highly erratic lately. He's capable of brilliant basketball, but he's also capable of dribbling and turning around while being double teamed, which he did against Wake Forest. You could sort of see it coming.

That puts a lot of weight on the sophomores and freshmen, and that's where the heart of this team is: Parker, Hood, Sulaimon, Jefferson, Plumlee and Matt Jones.

In a perfect world, the seniors are the ones who step up. Unfortunately, the recruited senior who ideally would be leading the team just won the All-Star MVP. Kyrie Irving is not coming through that door.

As Wake Forest demonstrated anew though, a group of guys who work hard and stick together can do great things.