Next up is Duke-Carolina over there and as much as we’d like to be fired up it’s harder now post-scandal.
As Al Featherston pointed out yesterday, we used to take a certain amount of pride in the idea that Duke and UNC did things right and still competed at the very highest levels, only to find out that not only was it all a lie but that UNC wasn’t in the least repentant.
So yes, something has changed, something is broken. We’d still like to win of course but losing to people who have cheated this much and then spent all their energy trying to get away with it?
The era of wishing them well is over. Now it’s just contempt.
We should say however that that’s primarily institutional. We realize the guys who are playing now had no role in the cheating and we respect some of their players a great deal. But as A.D. Bubba Cunningham realized a while back while speaking in Raleigh, there is still immense skepticism about whether or not corners are still being cut.
UNC successfully avoided any meaningful punishment but restoring its reputation, if it’s even possible, is going to take decades. And they have no one to blame but themselves.
Okay, so on to the actual game.
Duke comes into this game after a serious letdown in the Garden where Duke was upset by St. John’s. That loss probably seems less awful after the Johnnies took down #1 Villanova Wednesday, but it doesn’t change anything, least of all in the mind of Mike Krzyzewski.
After the loss, Coach K called the effort “disgusting” and our immediate reaction was, man, practice is going to be rough this week.
We’ve seen episodes similar to this before. After a bad outing in 1992, Coach K took the team off the bus and had an immediate practice. That’s the one where Grant Hill’s nose was broken.
A couple of times, players were kicked out of the locker room.
The main point is that a lesson followed a failure and the lesson was applied with seriousness and, occasionally, harshly.
We’re sure it was applied this time too. What we want to see Thursday is if the lesson was learned.
If Duke comes out and plays hard, puts effort in to the defense and does everything it’s supposed to - if it plays Duke basketball, in other words - then it has a great chance of winning.
Winning though is less than important than meeting the high standards of the program. It’s probably better to lose that way than to win casually. Certainly it would bode well for the stretch run.
And UNC will take serious effort to overcome.
This is not the team it was over the last two years. The remarkable Marcus Paige is gone. Brice Johnson is long gone too as are Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. Justin Jackson was never our favorite but he became a dangerous scorer and of course Tony Bradley opted to leave early for the NBA after just one season.
UNC’s backcourt is still stout. Joel Berry deserves great respect and is a natural born killer with an instinct for the clutch. Theo Pinson has become a player who can do almost anything except shoot well.
He can deny a second shot with a rebound and flip it on the other end with an assist. Both of those guys have immense competitive character.
The biggest surprise is Luke Maye. He emerged as a useful player last year and hit a huge shot against Kentucky with time running out that got UNC back to the Final Four.
This year he’s had huge games. Just 6-8, he’s not that far behind Marvin Bagley statistically, averaging 18.3 ppg and 10.3 rpg.
UNC will likely also start Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson. Everyone in the starting lineup except Pinson can hit threes so Duke is going to have to deal with that and that hasn’t been a strong point this season.
On the other hand, the Tar Heels have to contend with Bagley and the increasingly dominant Wendell Carter inside and just behind them are Javin DeLaurier, assuming he’s sound, and Marques Bolden, also recovering from an injury.
Duke’s perimeter game should be a factor on offense. Gary Trent has emerged as not just an outstanding three point shooter but a guy with a clutch instinct.
Grayson Allen has been erratic on offense and this would be a great game for him to step up. But perhaps most importantly is what Duke sees out of Trevon Duval.
Duval will probably get picked to guard Berry. He’s more than capable but he hasn’t always lived up to his potential on defense this year and Berry will make you pay if you’re not ready. If Duval isn’t fully engaged defensively, he’ll get gigged.
If we were watching this game with no rooting interest but an awareness of the teams involved, we’d think Duke, coming off a horrible outing Saturday, would have an advantage. However, anyone who underestimates UNC’s core - Berry, Pinson and Maye and, increasingly, Johnson - is a fool.
This team has immense experience at the highest levels and a point guard who has risen to the occasion over and over and over again.
There’s a good chance that this game, whoever wins, will be an instant classic.
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