Duke-UNC just what the NCAA needed

The Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels gave the NCAA a needed boost with their classic Wednesday.

Duke has lost Kyrie Irving perhaps for the rest of the season, Purdue’s Robbie Hummel went down with a season-ending injury back on the first day of practice and Enes Kanter never made it onto the court in Lexington.

Michigan State has become irrelevant, Kansas State is a walking train wreck and, while Ohio State remains undefeated, the Buckeyes haven’t exactly taken the nation by storm.

Let’s face it: The Jimmer can’t carry the torch all by himself.

College basketball needs Duke vs. North Carolina.

Desperately.

Three weeks ago, the buildup to the first act of college basketball’s greatest rivalry was virtually nonexistent outside of Tobacco Road. In fact, I had not a single thought of heading to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday night for what was certain to be another one-sided Duke yawner.

Georgetown at Syracuse was a far more legitimate destination for anyone seeking a blockbuster matchup.

The Tar Heels were on the path destined for a second consecutive NIT appearance, fresh off a 20-point beat down at the hands of Georgia Tech just six games ago. I had no desire to watch another Duke annihilation similar to last season's 32-point embarrassment a year ago.

Then the Marshall Plan took effect — and North Carolina has looked like a completely different team since Roy Williams finally inserted freshman Kendall Marshall into the starting lineup on Jan. 18 against Clemson in favor of the since-departed Larry Drew II.

The Tar Heels, riding a five-game winning streak since Marshall took the reins, put the fear into the Cameron Crazies in a first half in which they put 43 points on the board and went into the break with a 14-point lead.

Marshall was zipping passes all over the court and creating havoc in the lane, Tyler Zeller and John Henson were dominating in the paint and Harrison Barnes was shutting down Duke star Kyle Singler.

Roy Williams’ team didn’t just look like a Top 25 team over the first 20 minutes. The Tar Heels looked, believe it or not, Final Four-caliber.

The advantage rolled to as many as 16 before Nolan Smith (34 points) and Seth Curry (22 points) fueled a comeback and the No. 5 Blue Devils knocked off No. 20 North Carolina 79-73.

“You talk about vintage Duke and North Carolina games, that was one of them,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the win.

Just a little different than last season’s 82-50 thrashing in Durham on March 6 in the regular-season finale.

“There’s no question this rivalry is good for the sport,” Singler said.

And if there’s ever a year in which Duke vs. North Carolina needs to be meaningful, this is it.

It may not have happened if Irving was on the court instead of on the sidelines with a protective boot on his right foot.

But while Irving’s status for the rest of the season remains in doubt, the pinnacle of excitement returned to college basketball for a night — and it didn’t even involve BYU senior Jimmer Fredette.

It was the perfect time as the entire country, now that the Super Bowl is in the books, has turned some of its attention to college hoops — and saw an Act 1 that will help fuel the hype for Act 2, which takes place in Chapel Hill on March 5.

“We played well in the first half, but we’re not into moral victories,” Marshall said after finishing with nine points, six assists and only one turnover in 37 minutes. “That’s not what we’re about.”

Marshall immediately has transformed this team from a potential NIT club to one that could go deep in the NCAA tournament. He’s got the entire package — other than blazing athleticism.

His teammates gush about playing with him because he finds them in positions they can score — unlike that other guy who up and left less than a week ago. Marshall is smart, poised, takes care of the ball and already has emerged as the leader — even with just a half-dozen starts under his belt.

“It’s unbelievable,” Tar Heels guard Dexter Strickland said of his new starting backcourt mate. “He’s just so mature.”

But in the second 20 minutes, Marshall was overshadowed by a veteran down the stretch. Smith made 13 of 23 shots from the field and 3 of 6 from beyond the arc to finish with his career-high 34.

“Nolan’s performance was off the charts,” Krzyzewski said.

And on a night when Singler went 3 of 17 from the field and the Blue Devils continued to get virtually nothing on the offensive end from the Plumlee brothers (Miles and Mason combined for six points), the Blue Devils still left Cameron with a win against their hated rivals.

“This is what college basketball’s all about,” Smith said.

“This win is better than last year’s,” Singler added.

Thankfully, because the rivalry is back — and it couldn’t have occurred at a more ideal time.

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