Head coach Roy Williams remained skeptical during his Tuesday press conference about his sophomore's prognosis for Wednesday's game, which marks the sixth time the two programs will meet while both teams are ranked in the Associated Press' top three. North Carolina has won four of the last five meetings.
But eight miles down Highway 15-501, the Blue Devils (19-1, 7-0) are preparing for the worst.
"My belief is that he's such a tough competitor, it'd be tough to keep him out of that game," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Lawson. "Hopefully he will be able to play, and we'll prepare for them with Lawson. The thing is, if he did not play, they're not going to change their style."
The thought in Chapel Hill has long been that Duke's pressure defense would not be able to contain Lawson's quickness and ball-handling skills, and that All-American Tyler Hansbrough would be dominant down low with Duke's lack of a legitimate post presence.
But with Lawson's availability in jeopardy, the question becomes whether or not third-string point guard Quentin Thomas (11.1 minutes per game) can handle Krzyzewski's trademark aggressive defense that has tallied 140 points off turnovers in its past five games.
"I think it's obviously a key thing for us not to have turnovers around the 10-second line that they turn into points," Williams said. "You can never beat a real good team if you give up easy baskets where you can't get back and stop them. You're not going to win that game. If we give up 25 points off turnovers, or 30 points off turnovers, that team's normally going to lose."
The lone senior Tar Heel ran the offense effectively after Lawson went down just minutes into Sunday's contest, posting a career-high nine points while dishing out six assists against two turnovers. But North Carolina committed a season-high 21 turnovers for the game, and the Oakland, Calif. native knows that similar numbers against the Blue Devils will most likely result in a loss.
"Duke is a great team, especially on the defensive end – they like to pressure the ball," Thomas said. "Taking care of the ball has to be a great [focus] for me and my teammates."
If the turnovers are kept to a minimum, the Tar Heels will be able to utilize arguably the nation's top post player in Hansbrough (21.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game).
"I think [in] every game my role is important, but with Ty gone, it will be a lot of different things," said Hansbrough, who will face Duke for the first time since Gerald Henderson's flagrant foul that broke his nose last March. "You know how fast he is and what he brings to the court. But also, I think that ‘Q' is going to step up big for us. He does a lot of different things, and I think some other guys are going to have to step up for us, if he's out."
Aside from the point guard discussion, the most pivotal position of the 224th edition of this Tobacco Road rivalry is the No. 4 spot. Duke essentially plays a four-guard lineup for extended periods of time, with the 6-foot-4 Henderson (13.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg) defending in the post when freshman power forward Kyle Singler (13.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) slides over to replace center Lance Thomas.
The Tar Heels will counter with 6-foot-8 Deon Thompson, who has come on strong in conference play, averaging 11.4 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Junior wing Danny Green has seen significant action at the No. 4 spot as well, so North Carolina can go small in their lineup, if necessary.
But while Williams acknowledges that Thompson or Hansbrough may face a difficult task in defending a smaller Blue Devil on the perimeter, he plans to capitalize on the height discrepancy on the other end of the court.
"I do believe that if we have an advantage, we shouldn't give up that advantage," Williams said. "We just have to play better with our big guys against their little guys."
UNC's bigs have already faced a sharp-shooting four-man once this season – BYU's 6-foot-6 Jonathan Tavernari connected on five of his first eight 3-pointer en route to scoring 18 points in a 73-63 loss to the Heels in November. Ironically, Lawson sat the final 38 minutes of that contest with a sprained right ankle.
The game tips at 9 p.m. at the Smith Center and will be aired nationally on ESPN and locally on Raycom/LFN.