CHAPEL HILL — A strange component to the UNC-Duke rivalry is the difference between the two regular season matchups.
The first game is always an event, regardless of site. The best rivalry in sports resumes for the first time in 11 months, and the attention of the sports world focuses on the midweek matchup.
This year was no exception, with the game at Cameron attracting Barack Obama, Spike Lee and fans willing to pay $4,000 a ticket.
Game two often seems like more of an opening act. The Carolina-Duke rematch closes out the regular season and by then, both teams and much of the college basketball world is focusing its attention on conference tournaments and March Madness, which begin shortly after the teams leave the court following the rematch.
This year, however, the clash at the Dean Smith Center has more unsettled business than most years.
Depending on what happens in the midweek ACC games that will occur after press time, both teams may still be in the running for a share of the regular season league title. At a minimum, UNC should still be in the mix. Saturday’s game could also help settle big decisions on NCAA one-seeds (likely two out of the UNC-Duke-Virginia trifecta will receive one) and an opening-weekend trip to nearby Columbia, S.C. (again, two of the three will likely be headed there).
Even if Duke isn’t in a position to lay claim to a share of the regular season crown, the Blue Devils can make a statement to the selection committee by avenging their loss to UNC in the first matchup.
And that brings us to the other piece of unfinished business.
Much of the shine of the first game was lost, 34 seconds in, when Duke freshman Zion Williamson went down with a sprained knee and a fatal shoe injury.
Will Williamson log his 35th second of action against the Tar Heels in the rematch? He hasn’t played since the first game, and Duke has gone 2-1 without him, losing to Virginia Tech.
Last Saturday, coach Mike Krzyzewski didn’t seem optimistic about Williamson seeing the court again soon.
“He hasn’t done anything with contact, but he’s moving really well,” Krzyzewski said. “Contact makes you do things you don’t think about. You have to pass that phase. We’re not in any hurry or whatever. The other thing with Zion is that he’s an exquisite athlete, not like there aren’t people like him athletically. He has to be 100 percent, because his body has always responded instinctively to what his mind and heart feel. You’ve seen it. You can’t put him out there with any less than that. You cannot, and we won’t. But it’s getting better.”
Krzyzewski also said: “We’d like to get the band together at some time, without putting any pressure on him.”
In Monday’s coaches teleconference, the picture seemed a little brighter. Krzyzewski declared that Williamson was in phase four of his four-phase recovery program, though he did miss Tuesday’s game against Wake Forest in what would have almost assuredly been his final college home game.
Either way, barring a setback, it appears that Williamson will be on the court for the game in Chapel Hill. He’ll likely have a score to settle and a show to put on after his early injury fizzled the big-game atmosphere the first time around.
For its part, Carolina will have plenty to prove as well. The Tar Heels chafe at the idea that their win came courtesy of Williamson’s injury, without giving any credit to UNC’s game plan and execution. Garrison Brooks and Luke Maye, who scored 14 and 30 inside against the Blue Devils, respectively, will welcome the chance to score points over Williamson’s imposing presence.
The Coby White/Tre Jones point guard battle will also once again be one of the high points of the game. Jones, a candidate for National Defensive Player of the Year, held White to nine points on 3-of-14 shooting the first time around, but Carolina would likely point out that Jones shot just 1-of-11 against White, and his three turnovers matched the most he’s had in conference play.
The Heels got another big man back last game, when Sterling Manley, who had missed the previous 16 games with a knee injury, made a surprise return at Clemson, logging one minute and scoring one point. While he likely isn’t in condition to be a major factor, UNC will want to work him back into shape before tournament play begins.
Carolina also hopes to get freshman swingman Leaky Black back to get the rotation set for the tournaments. And, of course, the Heels will welcome back coach Roy Williams, who left the Clemson game after a first-half fall.
Plenty at stake, plenty of scores to settle. Not a bad opening act for March.