UNC Basketball: Things to Watch For vs. Duke


I probably don’t need to give you the entire history of the greatest rivalry in college sports.

You may be tired of the story where North Carolina scored 8 points in 17 seconds to put the game into overtime where they eventually won.

I may not need to mention Marvin Williams’ heroics in the final seconds of the 2005 matchup on the Tar Heels’ senior night.

And if I don’t need to mention these moments, I most definitely shouldn’t bother with telling you about Tyler Hansbrough’s magical performances in Cameron Indoor, Danny Green and Jerry Stackhouse’s legendary dunks, or the iconic image of blood underneath the eye of Eric Montross.

The bottom line is, anything that happens in a game featuring North Carolina and Duke can be remembered forever.  And any individual playing in a game of this magnitude can be etched into the emblem of not only either of these programs, but in college basketball altogether.

This Wednesday, February 18th, the #15 North Carolina Tar Heels will travel to Cameron Indoor Stadium to face the #4 Duke Blue Devils.  The game is important enough without its effect on the rest of the season, but to raise the stakes even higher, if the Heels lose this ACC game, it will put them at 8-5 in the conference, losing 4 of their last 5 heading into their last five games of the regular season.

It has been an emotional week for the North Carolina family, most events having nothing to do with basketball.

But as for the North Carolina basketball side of things, the Tar Heels have two big questions they need to address.

Feb 7, 2015; Chestnut Hill, MA, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels forward J.P. Tokoto (13) reacts after defeating the Boston College Eagles 79-68 at Silvio O. Conte Forum. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

1) What’s wrong with J.P. and Kennedy?

Kennedy Meeks and J.P. Tokoto were taken out of the starting lineup after the tough home loss to #2 Virginia February 2nd.  Coach Williams ran practices with Nate Britt playing ahead of Tokoto and Isaiah Hicks ahead of Meeks.

According to Dylan Howlett of Inside Carolina, it is still too soon to tell if the tinkering of the UNC rotation is positive for the team moving forward. A few quotes from his excellent analysis below (everything in block quotes is his writing…)

"The experiment passed its first test a week ago, a 79-68 win at Boston College. Hicks had a career-high 21 points. Tokoto hit seven of eight free-throws, helping UNC preserve a tenuous lead. But the gambit flatlined Saturday: Hicks had just five points in 18 minutes, and Tokoto continued to look off-kilter."

Meeks has looked solid all season offensively.  In fact, against Pittsburgh, he along with Johnson seemed to be the only two that could get anything going.  Defensively, however, apparently Meeks does not meet Coach Williams’ standard.

"Meeks played 19 minutes — nine fewer than Berry and more than four minutes shy of his season average…“He was just looking for guys to step up and bring a spark to the game, pick up the defensive intensity,” Britt said."

As far as J.P. Tokoto is concerned, the mature, junior wing believes that Coach Williams knows what he is doing.  Tokoto leads the Tar Heels in assists and is arguably the most proficient creator and finisher in North Carolina’s backcourt.

"“I’m going to keep playing whether I’m starting or not,” Tokoto said. “It shouldn’t be anything big to anyone else. It shouldn’t even be a question. We’re playing basketball. We’re teammates. If one person starts over the other, it doesn’t mean necessarily that they’re better than them. They just deserve the spot more. It is what it is.” “Obviously, I’m not performing up to my ability, and he sees that,” Tokoto said later of Williams. “He knows how to bring that out of me, and this is the way. Just gotta keep playing basketball.”"

Feb 14, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams (right) talks with his players on the bench against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the first half at the Petersen Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

2) Why have the Heels been struggling to win recently?

The Heels have lost three out of four going into their highly anticipated matchup against Duke.  They fell to a better Virginia team at home (but were competitive with them in the first half), lost to Louisville in overtime where the Cardinals came back late in the second half, and fell to an on-fire Pittsburgh squad.

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While I’m not one to make excuses, nor do I necessarily believe in moral victories, I believe that a team can play well and grow without them being victorious on the scoreboard.

North Carolina played well against #2 Virginia, but to beat a team like the Cavaliers, you need to shoot efficiently from the outside and force them to play faster than they want to.  North Carolina went through a cold stretch shooting to begin the second half, and Virginia made it very difficult on the Heels to try to climb back into the game because of their disciplined game and their slow pace.

Against #10 Louisville, North Carolina just could not hold off the Cardinals.  They were up big and proved that they could be the better team for a stretch.  They just didn’t get the job done when it counted.

And finally, against Pittsburgh, the Heels just didn’t have an answer for the Panthers’ unbelievable shooting.

In asking both questions, North Carolina fans may be reading too much into the Heels’ recent losses.  From the looks of it, the Heels are playing with passion, heart, and smarts, but are just not translating their efforts into wins.

And if you disagree, the Heels should not be short on intensity Wednesday night, as the magical stage is set for another story to be written in the greatest rivalry in college sports.