The Battle for Charlotte

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When No. 1 North Carolina and No. 5 Duke take the floor at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday night, it's inevitable that the city of Charlotte, N.C., will be at the forefront of everyone's mind. Never before has the Queen City meant so much to Tobacco Road.

The 225th meeting between these two bitter rivals, separated only by that famed 8-mile stretch of Highway 15-501, is not unusual, even by the grandest measures. The winner on Saturday night will win the ACC regular title outright, marking the fifth-time in the series that has happened.

But statistics like that have become commonplace in this rivalry that fuels a sports media frenzy. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils are No. 1 and No. 2 all-time in the ACC in wins, regular-season conference wins, ACC Tournament wins and NCAA Tournament wins. They have combined for six national championships in the last 26 years, and have 30 Final Four appearances on their collective resume.

This time, though, it's different, and Charlotte is the reason. Next week's ACC Tournament will be held at Bobcats Arena in the Queen City, and Saturday night's victor will draw the preferred No. 1 seed for that event, playing the early game each day while maximizing their rest opportunities.

Even more important than next weekend, however, is what potentially lies ahead on Thursday, March 27th – a Sweet Sixteen game held in that very same building. While Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski may deny their intent, it's more than coincidental that both programs scheduled regular season contests with Davidson to be held at Bobcats Arena.

The winning program on Saturday night will be well on their way to the NCAA Tournament's No.1 seed in the East Region, and it would take a near disaster to prevent that development from occurring.

The Tar Heels are 21-1 in North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament, while the Blue Devils counter with a 28-4 record in the state.

Despite that knowledge, North Carolina's head coach refuses to place that much significance on securing the East Region's top spot.

"If we lose and they send us to Siberia to play, then we're going to show up in Siberia," Williams said during his press conference on Friday. "And it's not the end of the world. Jimmy Boeheim is a great friend, but do you know where Syracuse is? It's [darn] near the end of the world – you can see it. But we went there in 2005, and do you know what happened? We went on [to win the national championship]."

Truth be told, Williams probably hasn't thought a whole lot about the East Region, or even about next week's ACC Tournament. Without emerging victorious this weekend, those future opportunities carry a lot less importance.

Duke defeated North Carolina 89-78 in Chapel Hill a month ago, connecting on 13 of their 29 3-point field goal attempts and forcing the Tar Heels into 20 turnovers in their first full game without Ty Lawson directing the offense.

While senior Quentin Thomas performed admirably in the sophomore's absence (7-1), Lawson's recent return is crucial for UNC to exit Cameron with another notch in the win column. Both point guards are suffering from injuries that have limited their practice time this week (Lawson's ankle, Thomas' knee), but just being on the court Saturday will be a lift for this program.

"Ty Lawson at 80 percent is pretty doggone good," Williams said. "Ty Lawson at 80 percent is extremely important to our team."

It also helps that Tyler Hansbrough has been virtually unstoppable since Lawson's injury first occurred in Tallahassee on Feb. 3. The frontrunner for national player of the year honors is averaging 23.3 points and 12.1 rebounds per contest this season, including a 28-point, 18-rebound performance in the loss to Duke.

But while Hansbrough did his job against the Blue Devils, several of his teammates failed to raise their respective games in that defeat. Wayne Ellington (3-of-14), Danny Green (1-of-10) and Marcus Ginyard (3-of-10) combined to shoot 20.5 percent on the evening, effectively preventing the Tar Heels from rallying to victory.

Improved play – on both ends of the floor – by those three is vital on Saturday.

"It's really pretty simple," Williams said. "If you want to beat Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday night at 9 p.m., everybody you put in the game better play their rear end off… Everybody better bring their ‘A' game and be ready to play it."

The players believe that they are ready meet their head coach's challenge.

"The biggest difference that you're going to see on the court is that North Carolina is going to come out ready to play," Ginyard said. "We really feel that we got outplayed, out-hustled and we just didn't have the intensity about our game last time."

The statistics seemingly work in North Carolina's favor – the Tar Heels lead the ACC in conference play in field goal percentage (47.5) and rebounding (44.3 per game), while Duke ranks 11th in field goal percentage defense (46.8) and plays with a much smaller lineup.

The Blue Devils counter with an efficient drive-and-ditch offense (9.5 made 3-pointers per game) and an opportunistic style of defense (plus-5.87 turnover margin).

But as usual in rivalry games, those stats don't always tell the whole story, as it's impossible to measure the emotion and excitement involved in such contests.

In the end, the beauty of college basketball's most intense rivalry is not that an ACC Championship or a NCAA No. 1 seed is hanging in the balance. It's that these two elite programs would battle to the death without anything on the line at all.

"I honest to goodness believe this – if you bring their team out on the court, their coaching staff, my team and our coaching staff, both teams would play their tails off if there was not one person in the stands…," Williams said. "All of the other stuff is just icing. Yes, it's for the conference championship and you can make a scenario [that] it's worth a lot more. But, when push comes to shove, guys, it's Duke against North Carolina and that's all it's got to be."

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