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February 7, 2012

Blues battle again

Wednesday's 9 p.m. meeting between Duke and North Carolina at the Smith Center will count just one game in the records of the teams and the ACC standings.

But there is no doubt it means so much more to the fans, the coaches and the players.

"Coach [Roy Williams] says that we could win the ACC Tournament and it would not mean as much as beating Duke," sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall said.

Williams did not put it exactly that way in the Tar Heels' pregame news conference, but he said this game is unique in what it means to both teams and those who care about each team.

"Duke and North Carolina is a little different," Williams said. "That is not a put-down to anybody else. The last eight years the highest-rated TV game for college basketball has been the Duke-North Carolina game for all eight years."

With Carolina (20-3, 7-1 in the ACC) ranked fifth in the country and Duke (19-4, 6-2) ranked 10th, the pair will more than likely keep that steak of interest alive.

Even Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who used to downplay the rivalry, now pays tribute to what this has become. There is no other rivalry in college basketball, perhaps in all of collegiate sports, that has taken on a brand the way Carolina-Duke has.

"You have two of the greatest programs in the history of college basketball playing," Krzyzewski said. "Anyone who has been a part of the games through the years is not bigger than the rivalry, whether it is a coach who has been there a long time or an All-American. And there have been a lot of All-Americans.

"The game itself is bigger than any individual. But the individuals who make up the game have been some of the best in the history of our game."

This is why no matter how the ACC conference schedule changes in the new few years, Carolina and Duke will continue to play on a home-and-home basis. This is the premier game in the league's television inventory.

"The other thing that happens nationally," Krzyzewski said, "because of the excellence of both programs over the years, there is the anticipation of excellence. Our teams are two of the best teams. It produces some of the great games that we've had during the regular-season in college basketball.

"In all of sport, I think it takes on more of a national rivalry," Krzyzewski said, "than like Boston and New York in baseball. This game is watched all over the world. It's the best rivalry in college sports and maybe in sport."

The passion in this game is genuinely special. Often, people refer to the games being ugly. There is nothing unattractive about these games, however. Both teams scratch, claw and play so hard that it is sometimes difficult for people to see the true beauty before them.

As usual, these two are the top two scoring teams in the ACC. UNC is first in the league at 84.1 points per game, while Duke is second at 79.8.

The Blue Devils lead the league in field-goal percentage at 48.2 percent, while the Tar Heels are second at 47.0.

"They have multiple guys who can shoot the ball," Williams said. "When you play Duke you have to score the ball. Coach [Steve] Robinson has a great line: attack or be attacked. They're a big-time basketball team. Hopefully my team will play great."

Look for Carolina to try to emulate what it has been doing on defense of late. Big men Tyler Zeller and John Henson will try to control the lane and have the perimeter players stick with their men and make Duke's shooters have a harder time getting the open shots that so often lead to the barrage of 3-pointers under which the Blue Devils can bury a team.

In the five games since Florida State humiliated the Tar Heels in Tallahasse, Fla., Carolina has held its opponents to a combined 38.3 percent shooting (118-308).

"I think our team has become more focused defensively," Williams said.

The Tar Heels will need to replicate that again against the Blue Devils, Williams said.

"They really do have a complete team, which can put it on the floor, shoot the 3 and can score inside," Williams said. "It's what we try to have. We haven't shot the 3-point shot as well as we would like to, but some of the other things we do are OK."


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