Wednesday night's victory over North Carolina certainly qualifies under the latter classification, with the Blue Devils going into ever-hostile territory and pulling out a victory against a team that had become adept at taking the wind out of Duke's sails in the past few years. And after last year's season of comparative mediocrity, many in Chapel Hill thought Duke's ship had finally sailed.
This time, however, the Tar Heels were left floundering in the wind.
Led by its coronated captain, Tyler Hansbrough—and without his first mate,Ty Lawson—North Carolina was ensnared into precisely the kind of game Coach K envisioned for the February 6th showdown. Certainly, Hansbrough still added to his statistical coffers, but his efforts failed to secure the treasure trove that is a win over a heated rival. The reasons are perhaps best explained by a quick review of military history.
But first, consider that Duke's offense in 2007-08 is catered to the strengths and weaknesses of the individual players on the team. As such, speed, athleticism and shooting are strengths; strength, power and height are weaknesses.
Explains senior DeMarcus Nelson, "Everyone competes. We work on the defensive end, and on the offensive end we just attack."
UNC,though it certainly has some great shooters and some world-class athletes, is most effective when running its offense through its big men. And certainly, the absence of the speeding bullet Ty Lawson during Wednesday's game required UNC to adapt its style toward its inside game even further.
Adaptability is paramount in military strategy, as well. During the Crusades, the lumbering forces of Europe were empowered by their fortitude, but not by their speed. The opposite was true of the Muslims, who perfected the use of their speed—via Arabian horses—to literally ride circles around the Crusaders, a strategy that effectively nullified the advantages the Europeans might have otherwise enjoyed.
And so it has been for the Blue Devils this season, who have compensated for their lack of a true center by swarming opponents with athleticism. And so it was for the Tar Heels on both sides of the ball, as they gave up double-digit scoring to six different Blue Devils, were haggled into 20 turnovers and shot just 33 percent in the second half en route to their 17th loss to Duke in the past 23 games.
Or as UNC's head coach Roy Williams bemoaned afterwards, "They got any shot they wanted. I don't know very many times tonight our defense dictated what shot they got. They had better spacing; they were more patient. I asked, and they thought I was kidding--it shows how poor of a coach I am--at one time out I told them I wanted a dunk or a 35 second shot-clock violation. We didn't get either one of them."
Duke has had a very dissimilar experiencethis season, with Coach K getting nearly everything he has wanted out of his team and players. And as college basketball's punditocracy is quickly realizing, the reason for that is not necessarily Coach K and his staff, but one of their finest students: DeMarcus Nelson.
"I think our team is in a great position right now," he said a few days before Duke traveled to Chapel Hill. "Everyone's playing well, we're developing. We're really finding out who we are as a team, and it's been extremely fun. This group of guys has been very fun, and the season has been great. The whole atmosphere in the locker room has been conducive to guys going out there and being themselves, competing,being passionate, showing enthusiasm and enjoying the game."
And Nelson's leadership has made all the difference.
"The role that I play is about being there for my teammates no matter the reason, off the court or on the court," he says. "That's the kind of environment that we have created within the team. If there's anything the guys need to talk about, they can call me or call the coaches. We've been great at that."
He leads by example, too. Averaging 15 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists in his final season, Nelson's role on the court is defined by his ability to break down defenders, to finish around the basket, and to find open teammates amidst the offensive scheme he has mastered. Undoubtedly, Duke's current style of offense suits Nelson's skills more so than the brand of basketball that had been employed in Nelson's first three seasons.
And that has made all the difference.
And so, when Nelson was forced to head to the bench with foul trouble, the bulk of the second half yet to be played in Chapel Hill, there was reason for Duke fans to be concerned. Nelson has been the lynchpin of this squad, and it's difficult to will a team to win from the sideline.
His teammates persevered, however, maintaining their composure and continuing to pummel North Carolina with basket after basket on offense, and with hounded shot after hounded shot on defense.
Among other noteworthy efforts was the phenomenal play of Lance Thomas, whose 10 points and spirited defense against UNC was emblematic of the season-long performance of the nation's second-ranked team. When someone has been needed to make something happen, someone has.
Duke needed to beat North Carolina, not only for leverage in the conference race, not only to avenge the three straight losses the Blue Devils had suffered to their rivals, not only to welcome back Dick Vitale to broadcasting after a brief hiatus. Duke needed to beat UNC to continue on its path toward that which it has been focused on since being knocked out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament last March.
As sophomore Gerald Henderson said after downing UNC, "We're looking to take over this league."
And the road to doing so always goes through Chapel Hill.
"Every game in the ACC counts the same, so we weren't going to approach this game any different," Henderson said.
But some ACC games count more than others.