On the surface, everything seems the same. Once again, the Super Bowl served as an appropriate opening act for Carolina-Duke week, and once again, on Thursday night, the sports world will stop and take notice as the best rivalry in athletics attempts to live up to its momentous hype, once again.
This year’s Duke-Carolina game has something different at stake than most years, however. Instead of bragging rights and a spot at the top of the ACC standings and national rankings, both teams are fighting for their seasons.
Duke enters the game No. 9 in the nation after a shocking loss to St. John’s, which is 0-11 in the Big East. Carolina beat winless Pitt over the weekend to snap a three-game losing streak and cling to a spot in the Top 25, at No. 21.
March 15, 2003, was the last time Duke and North Carolina played with neither team ranked in the top eight in the nation. Since then, at least one of the teams was in the top five for 25 of the 30 games.
The result of this game will result in smug looks at the water cooler from fans in a certain shade of blue, but more importantly, it will give one of the combatants a chance to break out of a season-threatening spiral.
Duke’s loss to St. John’s came without warning, as the team had won six of seven, with a two-point loss to Virginia the only blemish. The Blue Devils came out flat and didn’t respond, however, in a performance that coach Mike Krzyzewski labeled “disgusting.”
“I can tell you that’s not the group I’ve coached all year, and they were a very frustrating group to coach today, because they didn’t respond to anything until the last eight minutes and that’s unacceptable. That’s unacceptable.”
The Carolina game brings up the possibility of back-to-back losses for Duke, which would put hopes of a No. 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament in serious doubt. It could also mean some unexpected travel for the Blue Devils, who were hoping to start a March run in Charlotte. Should Duke slip from among the national contenders, it could be sent on the road instead of to the comfortable in-state venue for the first weekend.
Carolina, meanwhile, has been giving up 3-pointers at a record pace. The lack of perimeter defense led to road losses at Virginia Tech and Clemson, sandwiched around an overtime loss at home to NC State.
Even lowly Pitt managed to hit 10 treys against the Heels, becoming the ninth ACC foe in 11 games to reach the double-digit mark on made threes.
Coach Roy Williams admitted after the Clemson loss that he’s at a loss for explaining — or solving — the Heels problems on the perimeter.
Adding even more pressure on Williams and the Heels, Carolina’s rivalry week extends into the weekend, with a rematch against the Wolfpack at PNC Arena looming at high noon on Saturday.
Both the Blue Devils and the Pack are more than capable of putting a team away at the 3-point arc, and Carolina could be emerging from the two games embarrassed and nursing a 6-7 ACC mark. With nine losses on the season, the Heels would suddenly be facing the prospect of the NCAA bubble.
NC State is the lone rivalry week school with a trendline pointed upward. The Pack have won three straight, including the upset of the Heels at the Dean Dome. They also already have a win over Duke this year, and Kevin Keatts has maneuvered the Wolfpack into a legitimate claim to an NCAA at-large berth. Just as impressively as the marquee wins, State has followed up its wins over Duke and Carolina with wins in its following games, a refreshing change from the maddeningly up-and-down performance fans of the team have gotten used to in recent years.
Of course, momentum is a fragile thing, and the Pack has a tough game at Virginia Tech before the UNC rematch. Back-to-back losses would send State back to .500 in the ACC and likely off the NCAA bubble. It would also quell some of the good feeling around the program that the numerous upsets have generated.
It’s the first time in recent memory that the main stage for Carolina-Duke features some company, and NC State would like nothing better than to emerge from this week’s three-team collision as the team to watch.
Whatever happens in the 42-hour span from Thursday night to Saturday afternoon, all three Triangle teams will be on remarkably different paths at this time next week.