Duke and North Carolina are both ranked among the nation’s top 25 college basketball teams this week.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the combined histories of the neighboring rivals. It is, however, somewhat unexpected considering the expectations placed on each when the season began and the paths they have taken to get back to their lofty, familiar perch near the top of the polls.
The third-ranked Blue Devils were the consensus No. 1 team back in early November, a dream team stocked with four of the best freshmen in the game surrounding a talented (though tempestuous) senior leader and coached by a man who has won more games than anyone else in his profession.
The No. 4 Tar Heels, on the other hand, were a team due for a makeover after losing three starters from last year’s national championship squad.
Though it started the year just inside the top 10 at No. 9, coach Roy Williams’ team appeared destined to become an afterthought both in the ACC and nationally after projected starters Joel Berry and Cameron Johnson went down with preseason injuries.
That perception was solidified even after Berry returned early from his broken shooting hand when UNC shot a school-worst 24.6 percent in a lopsided 63-45 loss to Michigan State in the finals of the PK80 tournament in Portland, Ore.
But the Tar Heels (10-1) have played well since then, winning five straight in impressive fashion. With young big men Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley making rapid progress and Johnson scheduled to return from his knee injury any day now, the defending champs are starting to look formidable again.
Their come-from-behind 78-73 victory despite a hostile atmosphere at Tennessee on Sunday served notice that they’re ready for anything that’s thrown their way once the ACC schedule gets underway on Dec. 30 against Wake Forest.
“This will be good for us,” Williams said after watching is team clamp down defensively to rally from a nine-point deficit. “Every game in the ACC is like that. To have this experience and know we can pull it out, I think it will come in handy down the road.”
Duke also learned a valuable lesson in its most recent game, was back on Dec. 9 in its unusually early conference opener at Boston College.
Only unlike UNC, it came in a loss.
The Blue Devils (11-1) struggled early while falling behind the Eagles. It’s a similar pattern to the one they have followed several times this season.
Against Texas and Florida in the opposite bracket at the PK80 tourney and to a lesser extent on the road against Indiana in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Duke was able to flip the switch and ride the talents of blue chip freshmen Marvin Bagley III, Gary Trent and Wendell Carter — along with senior Grayson Allen — to pull out victories.
That didn’t happen in Chestnut Hill, as defensive breakdowns and the hot shooting of BC’s North Carolina connection Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson helped send the Blue Devils down to a stunning and eye-opening 89-84 defeat.
“It’s their first conference game so now they know what it’s like,” Allen said of his young teammates after the loss. “They know it’s no joke, that it’s a fight. If we show up like we did and don’t play defense, that’s what’s going to happen, we’re going to get beat.”
Losing the game and falling from the No. 1 spot in the national polls gave coach Mike Krzyzewski the opportunity for a teaching moment he might not otherwise have gotten had his team come out on top.
“We’ve said before this game and while we were winning those 11 games, there’s a lot of work to do.” Krzyzewski said. “This is a young group, being in game situations, we have a lot to learn. It was just that we won and we played our butts off in order to win those 11 games, but it doesn’t mean we’re some finished product. We’re a young team that needs to keep learning, keep working and that’s what we’ll do.”
Duke has one more nonconference tune-up, Wednesday against Evansville, before diving headlong into ACC competition at home against Florida State on Dec. 30.
The state’s two other conference teams — NC State and Wake Forest — are also putting the finishing touches on their pre-ACC preparations.
The Wolfpack, which got off to a strong start with an upset of then-No. 2 Arizona in the Bahamas, hit a bump in the road last week with a loss to UNC Greensboro. Further clouding State’s prospects is the indefinite absence of point guard Markell Johnson, who is under suspension for an undisclosed violation of university rules.
The Deacons are following a different, more promising arc with six straight wins after opening the season with ominous losses to Georgia Southern, Liberty and Drake.