DURHAM, N.C. — As the second meeting between rivals Duke and North Carolina looms, neither team is playing well. Duke is coming off of an 82-72 loss to a below-average Wake Forest team on Wednesday night, while North Carolina squandered a 15-point first-half lead against Notre Dame and squeaked out a two-point win on Monday.
But let’s rewind for a moment — to Jan. 25
After Duke had notched its fourth straight victory to get to 16-4 and 5-2 in the ACC, who would have thought that the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, then sitting at 11-7 and 1-4 in the ACC, would eventually have the same record this season? Well, that’s not entirely accurate. North Carolina, thanks to its head-to-head win, now has a better ACC record than Duke, even though the overall records (23-7) are exactly the same.
That commanding Duke win over Florida State on Jan. 25 was Duke’s fourth of a five-game win streak, one that saw Duke take nine of 10 games with the only loss coming in the overtime thriller at Syracuse. Duke beat seven of its opponents in that stretch by double digits.
For the Tar Heels, Jan. 25 was the eve of a game against Clemson at home. Many were saying this was Clemson’s best chance to get its first-ever win in Chapel Hill, as UNC’s 1-4 ACC start tied its worst in school history.
Instead, UNC used that Clemson game, which ended in a 19-point blowout win for the Tar Heels, as a springboard to start a 12-game winning streak. They are still riding that streak. Sort of, anyway.
After thumping Wake Forest at home on Feb. 22 for its ninth straight win, Nos. 10, 11 and 12 have been anything but easy. UNC’s overtime win at N.C. State was impressive in that it overcame a bad performance, but since, UNC has beaten two of the worst teams in the league by a combined six points.
It’s not like Duke was riding high before the Wake Forest loss, either. Duke is 4-2 in its last six games, but it edged Maryland at home by two, throttled Georgia Tech, lost at UNC and sloshed its way through an ugly win against Syracuse before pulling away from Virginia Tech. Another concern for Duke is its shooting. Over that six-game stretch, Duke has made just 29.7 percent of its 3-pointers. And that includes a 10-of-18 performance against Georgia Tech. Duke is just 16-of-60 in the last two games from beyond the arc.
"We can’t be a team that relies on perimeter jump shots," Duke assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski said after the game.
Not when you have a Jabari Parker on your team, certainly. The freshman finished with 19 points, but he finished just 26 percent of Duke’s possessions when he was on the court (per Ken Pomeroy), his lowest percentage since a Dec. 19 win against UCLA.
The eight days off after the Virginia Tech win were supposed to refresh the Blue Devils. Instead, it left them scratching their heads and searching for answers after they let a seven-point lead with less than six minutes to go slip away in Winston-Salem.
"I’m not sure the week off, we were as prepared from an emotional standpoint. When you’re in five games in 11 days and you’re in constant competition, you have an edge that’s required because it’s there and it’s there and it’s there," said Wojciechowski, who conducted the press conference in the place of ailing head coach Mike Krzyzewski. "When you step away from it, you can lose that. This time of year, if you’re not tough and you’re not together for 40 minutes, it can be some very hard lessons."
Duke sophomore captain Rodney Hood blamed himself, as did Parker, and basically everyone in the Duke locker room afterwards.
"We all take the blame for this one. None of us played well, myself included. I played horrible," Hood said. "We didn’t play connected on the offensive end. We didn’t play connected on the defensive end. If we do that, we will lose."
"We’ve got to get ready. The season’s not over with. Got to get ready."
There’s a certain awareness of the fact that the calendar has turned to March between both of these teams, and both understand they need to play much better.
North Carolina might still be winning, but the dazed looks on the faces of many of the players after Marcus Paige just did get a hand on Eric Atkins’ lay-up attempt as time wound down told the story. The Tar Heels knew they were fortunate to come away with their 12th straight win.
"At the end of the day, it’s still a win. It’s just, it was an ugly win," UNC forward Brice Johnson said. "We’re getting tired of those. we’ve had about 3-4 of those in the past five games, so we kind of want to get away from those and start just winning."
A win at Duke on Saturday coupled with a Syracuse loss at Florida State would give North Carolina the No. 2 seed in next week’s ACC Tournament. If both Syracuse and UNC win, the Tar Heels are the No. 3 seed. A loss puts the Tar Heels at No. 4 regardless of what the other teams do.
Meanwhile, it’s simpler for Duke: win and get the No. 3 seed, lose and get the No. 4 seed.
But neither team’s seed will matter too much, although both would want to avoid the No. 4 seed and a possible date with a red-hot Virginia team. Because as Paige knows, playing like this in March is what gets teams beaten, no matter who they face.
"We had a comfortable lead and then we kind of expected (Notre Dame) to roll over and die, but they came out, they fought back and it meant more to them for the majority of the game," Paige said. "That can’t happen, especially because we’re a team close to the top of the ACC fighting for … a high seed in the tournament. So we can’t have that kind of effort."