The Kansas-Missouri Border War makes for great college basketball theater, witness the No. 4 Tigers’ stunning come-from-behind victory over the No. 7 Jayhawks on Saturday night.
The game marked the third time in rivalry history that both teams were ranked among the top 10.
Wednesday night in Chapel Hill, N.C., No. 10 Duke challenges No. 5 North Carolina. Such collisions are standard fare on Tobacco Road.
Dating to 1985, this marks the 32nd time in the last 65 meetings that both are among the top 10. In four seasons – 1979, ’88, ’98 and 2001 – the teams played three top-10 encounters.
So let’s be clear: Any conversation regarding college basketball’s best rivalry begins and ends with Duke-Carolina.
Yes, Wednesday’s contest lost some juice when Miami upset Duke in overtime Sunday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. And certainly the Blue Devils and Tar Heels have had extended periods of defensive lethargy that vexed Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams.
Indeed, while North Carolina’s sheer talent can be matched only in the NBA or Lexington, Ky., Duke’s is arguably average – when measured by program standards.
“In our league, we're two possessions from being undefeated or two possessions from being 4-4,” Krzyzewski said.
After winning 45 consecutive home games, Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils (19-4, 6-2) have lost two of the last three – 76-73 to Florida State on Michael Snaer’s 3-pointer at the buzzer, and 78-74 to Miami in overtime.
The games Duke won that could have gone turned otherwise late: Virginia missed two final-possession threes that would have tied the score; Clemson drew within four in the final minute.
“These games, especially in conference, turn out to be like attention to detail,” Krzyzewski said, “where you have to make a play. … When you win a number of games, sometimes your attention to detail is not where it needs to be.
“The games we're involved in now and will be for the rest of the year -- hopefully we make the NCAA tournament -- you train for that. That's what we're trying to drive into our guys: the importance of every play, especially down the stretch.”
Duke bungled those plays against Miami as Austin Rivers and Quinn Cook took wild, ill-advised shots far too early in the shot clock. Worse yet, the Blue Devils missed all six of their overtime free throws.
Conversely, North Carolina (20-3, 7-1) has played nary a close ACC game. Each of the Tar Heels’ conference victories was by at least nine points, with a 15.7 average margin. And their lone defeat was by 33 points at Florida State, their worst in Williams’ nine seasons.
Carolina is 5-0 since Tallahassee.
“We’ve had much better practices,” Williams said. “Earlier I didn't think we were doing the job in practice every day, so I kept telling them, ‘How do we expect to do the job in the games if we're not doing it in practice?’”
The Tar Heels are 4-0 since starting wing Dexter Strickland, their best perimeter defender and most reliable backup to point guard Kendall Marshall, suffered a season-ending knee injury at Virginia Tech. Reggie Bullock – must be nice to replace one McDonald’s All-American with another – has averaged 9.8 points since, meshing well with Marshall and the imposing front line of Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson.
And that’s where Duke may have serious issues. Miami’s Reggie Johnson (6-foot-10, 284 pounds) bludgeoned the Blue Devils for a career-high 27 points, rendering Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly defenseless.
“They can be an offensive juggernaut, especially at home,” Krzyzewski said of Carolina. “We have to play really good defense in order to have an opportunity to beat them.”
The Blue Devils rank last in the ACC in field goal percentage defense at 43.8, but Williams isn’t buying the Duke-can’t-guard angle.
“I hear all the stories about Duke's defense is this and that,” Williams said. “I think they're pretty doggone good defensively. They give up a lot of points, and so do we, because we want to play so fast.
“I'm not counting on them opening the door and letting (us) drive in for a layup. I saw something (in Sunday’s Super Bowl) that I'd never seen, when a team lets a team score a touchdown. I'd never seen anything like that. I don't think Duke's going to let us do that.”
Uh, no the Devils will not. But Carolina is better and at home. Unless some combination of Rivers, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins rains threes, the Tar Heels should win.
Will the drama approach or exceed Kansas-Missouri from Saturday night?
Don't bet against.
Don't forget to set the DVR.
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