Duke-UNC: 'Just another big game'

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Seventeenth-ranked North Carolina will find out a lot about itself when it begins a brutal three-game stretch starting with top-ranked Duke tonight at the Smith Center.

The Tar Heels (13-5, 3-4 ACC) then hit the road to No. 16 Wake Forest on Saturday and No. 15 Georgia Tech on Tuesday.

But for UNC to upset the Blue Devils (18-1, 7-0), it will take a monumental effort. It might also return league credibility to a team picked to finish second in the conference standings, but that currently sits in an unenviable sixth place.

"If we don't play, we're going to think Chapel Hill is on the other side of Murphy," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "If we get on our heels, we're in trouble. We have to keep attacking them. If we don't get after it, they will smell blood in the water."

If they can upset Duke, the Tar Heels would set an NCAA record, having beaten 11 teams ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press. UNC, which defeated then-No. 1 Connecticut on Jan. 17, 86-83, is currently tied with UCLA with 10.

With all five Tar Heel starters averaging in double figures, scoring enough points is not a problem. Rashad McCants, who leads the ACC in scoring with 18.9 points per game, is also among the top 10 in league in field goal percentage, free throw percentage, three-point percentage and steals.

His improving defense has propelled him into a mid-season flurry of productivity. But offense remains his priority, and that is not enough to guarantee a Carolina victory.

"Rashad, offensively, is as good as anybody when it comes time to score," Williams said. "But defense is kind of foreign to him. He is starting to play much better defense now. We can put points on the board, but we've got to keep teams from playing us."

The inside play must become more consistent on both ends of the floor for Carolina to challenge the nation's elite.

"When we play, we can be pretty doggone good," Williams said. "We've shown that. But when our power forward gets eight rebounds in five games…it's only OK if his substitute gets 40 a game."

Sean May, who currently ranks second in the ACC in rebounding with 9.5 per game and sixth in scoring with 15.4 points per game, has seen his productivity and minutes shrink ever since he rolled his ankle versus UNC-Wilmington. He is suffering through his worst slump of the year and so is Jawad Williams.

As far as Williams is concerned, the mask is gone and so now will be his tentative play. But May says his problems are not so much physical as they are mental, as well as experience related.

In fact, the Tar Heels' seemingly inability to close the deal in games down the stretch is directly related to its overall youth, according to May.

"This is really my first year of playing in the ACC," May said. "But I'm growing as a player and I'm getting better with each game. I haven't been playing really well lately, and I'm just looking forward to getting out of this little slump I'm in. We don't have that guy who has been through it. There are 15 guys on this team who have never been to the NCAA Tournament. Coach said this thing's not going to turn around overnight. For us to win tomorrow, it has to be an entire team effort on defense as soon as the ball it tossed up." said May,

Still, May asserts his recent slip statistically has nothing to do with the foot he fractured last season.

"I'm just in this little rut, because I'm thinking about it too much," he said. "Physically, I'm fine."

While Duke guards' J.J. Reddick, Chris Duhon and Daniel Ewing have been outstanding this season, Carolina's backcourt may be more athletic. That's an area Williams hopes the Tar Heels can take advantage of. The Blue Devils' Sheldon Williams, Shavlik Randolph and Luol Deng also present colossal challenges for the Tar Heels slumping front line.

And while UNC has proven it can shoot lights out from three-point range at times, it has also struggled when relying on the long-range shot.

"You can't have eight rebounds in five games out of your power forward," Roy Williams said describing Jawad Williams' play of late. "Sean's been struggling inside as well. When they're more productive our team is a heck of a lot better."

The challenge is stiff this week and well into the next for a Carolina team that could be at a NCAA selection determining crossroads. Either UNC or Duke has participated in the 17 of the last 23 Final Fours. However, the Blue Devils are a lock to return to the Big Dance, while the Tar Heels – albeit vastly improved – have not yet solidified their first return to March Madness in three years.

Still, the match-up with Duke remains just one steppingstone to returning Carolina to a resemblance of glory days gone by. Area fans can certainly understand the immense intensity of this rivalry. While the current players tend to see this as just another game.

"This is not any different than any other game," Jawad Williams said. "I'll see people I've never met in my life and they will say to me, ‘Beat Duke.' It's a goal of ours, but it's not that big of a deal. They ask me, ‘What does this game mean to you,' and I say, ‘Not much, it's just another big game.'"

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