Last year the Tar Heels finished the season as National Champions. North Carolina raced through the ACC slate and claimed the regular season championship. They hung a banner. Apparently satisfied with their regular season performance, head coach Roy Williams appeared to mail-it-in during the ACC Tournament. From there UNC walked through the NCAA Tournament and claimed the program's fifth championship overall, and second since Williams returned to Chapel Hill.
This season the Tar Heels, despite eight McDonalds All-Americans and a preseason ranking in the top five of most every publication, are unlike to even qualify for the NCAA Tournament barring an inspired run through the ACC Tournament. They've lost on the road. They've lost at home. They've been blown out in both settings as well. It's lead to pastel blue themed message board meltdowns, countless articles questioning the team's on everything from heart, ability, and consciousness. Even Williams is at a loss for the cause of his team's disastrous season, saying he's not used to coaching effort.
Luckily for Williams, Wednesday game will be charged with emotion. Despite being one of the most disappointing and underachieving defending national champions of the last century, there is one truth each Tar Heel knows: Beating Duke will ease a lot of the stress and quiet the boo birds in and around the Dean Smith Center. If the effort and desire is there, the sheer talent level on the roster should be enough to carry the Heels.
Blue Devil fans should beware. Last season the Heels played for the national title in early April. This year it can be said North Carolina's national title game will happen in early February.
More Laundry Unveiled In The Rafters:
There's no doubt that Tyler Hansbrough was among the most productive players in ACC history. The 6'9 big forward set the conference scoring record and won handfuls of National Player of the Year awards. And, most relevant to Duke fans, he owned the Blue Devils over the last four seasons - winning six of eight match-ups including four straight in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Much like Duke's Shane Battier in 2001, he came back for a senior season that ended in storybook fashion with a championship. And, before heading off to 17 minutes a game off the bench for Pacers before being sidelined with number of injuries, Hansbrough - like Battier - truly embodied the spirit of a student athlete.
The similarities don't end with a championship in their last year. Both players were universally disliked by opposing fantasies. Both drew reputations for referees allegedly looking the other way on signature moves. Battier for drawing charges. Hansbrough for his famed pivot feet. On Wednesday night Hansbrough will, like Battier, have his number retired by his school.
If his former teammates need any more motivation, you can bet the Heels' former emotional leader will give his teammates a speech that will have them breathing fire and, if there is a pulse in the locker room, ready to play their best game of the year.
Duke's Road Woes:
At home the Blue Devils have been unbeatable throughout the season. The Blue Devils have blown out teams of all sorts in Cameron. Big teams. Short teams. Fast teams. Methodical teams. Nobody has been able to push Duke on their home court. On the road…well, that's a much different story.
In speaking with the media on Monday, junior guard Nolan Smith admitted his team has been pulling a Jekyll and Hyde act when on the road.
"[On the road] we've just been rushing a lot of shots and at home, we're a lot more comfortable. When we're on the road we need to be more connected and need to play more together."
That sounds like a recipe for success, but the implementation has been sporadic at best. After a bad loss to NC State in Raleigh, the team seemed to shake off the demons with a double figure win at Clemson. Then game a trip to Washington where the Blue Devils were thoroughly dominated and the criticisms seemed to resonate louder than ever.
After a rallying around one another and dominating Georgia Tech at Cameron behind a tremendous shooting display, the Blue Devils traveled to Boston College on Saturday in hopes of carrying over some momentum. That didn't happen as Duke once again struggled from the field, but did manage to hold off a late Eagle rally for a three point win.
If the team is going to earn back-to-back road wins for the first time since last February, Krzyzewski's troops are going to have to do it against a motivated and dangerous rival. And, while the Smith center is hardly known for raucous crowds, there's a certain electricity in the air when the Blue Devils come calling. GIven Duke's struggles on the road, it's hard to believe Duke could be considered an odds on favorite to win on Wednesday.
Duke's A Favorite. And They Know It.
For the first time in years the Blue Devils are considered the superior team in this rivalry. Not since JJ Redick's senior season has Duke enjoyed such a distinction. And, as has been noted, the Heels were able to salvage a split that season behind Hansbrough's memorable (or infamous in you're a Duke fan) performance on Duke's senior night. North Carolina has won three straight in the series.
This season, however, despite eight McDonalds All-Americans and a higher preseason ranking the Heels have floundered. Duke has performed as expected. Because of this contrast a game that would have been a "pick'em" in the preseason has morphed into a contest with a clear favorite. Whether that adds any pressure to this Duke team is debatable, but there's not player on the Blue Devil roster who has entered a game against North Carolina favored to win. In fact, since 2006-2007 Duke has played the Tar Heels six times. Only once have the Blue Devils been ranked higher.
Does the favorite status add pressure to a team that has struggled mightily on the road, and will be facing an extremely motivated team playing the most important game of its season?
We'll find out on Wednesday night.