The forecast projects two to four inches of snow for Chapel Hill and the surrounding area during the day. That first wave is supposed to make way for another half-inch of ice by night. The game, by all accounts, will likely be played regardless. (The ACC by rule states postponements can only occur if teams, officials and essential game personnel cannot arrive at the arena safely.)
What if the scenario unfolds like the Tar Heels' win over Maryland in 2000, when snow kept away most fans from the Smith Center? Carolina announced general admission seating, so whoever made it to the arena packed the lower-level seats. The crowd’s demographics were students who walked to the game and those crazy enough to value basketball over hazardous conditions.
The result was an atmosphere that former UNC point guard Ed Cota likened to Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the unranked Heels upset the No. 22 Terrapins 75-63.
Generally speaking, the Duke game always has the most charged atmosphere in the Smith Center, but an inadvertent boost from Mother Nature could turn Wednesday night’s game into another special chapter in the rivalry.
The student basketball managers for both schools engaged in a heated moment during their annual game before The Game. One of the Carolina managers, trying to clear out space after a rebound, caught a Duke manager with an elbow to the nose. Tempers flared as players had to be separated, but the game continued. (It happened at the same basket that Tyler Hansbrough had his nose bloodied by Gerald Henderson in the closing seconds back in 2007.) The Heels’ managers ended up winning the game 38-33.
Duke’s frontcourt isn't big enough or deep enough to match up with the Tar Heels. But it’s not like that’s a newly discovered weakness; the Blue Devils have been playing that way all season. They’ve done a good job compensating for their shortcomings while winning seven of their last eight games.
“We really want to establish our big guys in the paint, especially Kennedy. He’s got size that no one else on the court is going to have,” Paige said. “We’d like to get him going. Our best offense is when we get to the basket or in the paint. I think we realize that. I think they know that and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Keep an eye on the amount of minutes Duke’s Marshall Plumlee plays. The 7-foot sophomore only averages 7.5 minutes per game, but if he plays more it could be an indication that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is conceding he needs a bigger lineup. That would be a small victory for the Heels, an indication that the Blue Devils are playing Carolina’s game.
Conversely, Meeks’ time on the floor could be a similar barometer. He didn’t play much in the second half against Maryland because the Terps had enough perimeter-savvy frontcourt players to make it difficult for him to defend. Instead, Brice Johnson played extended minutes because he was better suited to guard pick-and-rolls. If Johnson plays more at center than Meeks against Duke, that too could be an indication Carolina is playing into Duke’s game.
“It depends on who else is in the lineup with them because it can get to be almost an unbelievable matchup problem,” Williams said. “Or it can be we have a couple of guys who are similar and have a chance of staying with them.”
Advice to the freshmen
Carolina’s freshman trio of Meeks, Nate Britt and Isaiah Hicks will get its first indoctrination into the rivalry tonight. Sophomore J.P. Tokoto said he’s been telling them to look at it as “just another game.”
“My experience last year was limited, but for guys like Kennedy and Nate, they’ve been playing big minutes,” Tokoto said. “I’ve pretty much have been telling them to look at it as another game and just play their game.”
Asked if he personally viewed it as just another game, Tokoto broke out laughing. “Nah, I don’t," he said. "Not me, but I feel like that would help them out mentally.”
Keys for a UNC win
No help: With Duke shooting 42 percent from 3-point range, this should be the one game the Heels abandon their typical defensive philosophy. Whenever the Blue Devils get dribble penetration, Carolina should employ a no-help strategy. Better to give up a layup than to watch Duke kick it outside for an open 3-pointer.
Capitalize on putbacks: Carolina leads the ACC in offensive rebounds with a 14.1 average per game. The Heels have turned that into a 13.4 average in second-chance points, which should actually be higher. Williams has consistently emphasized that his team has to be better at finishing through contact. Syracuse is the only team in ACC play to outscore the Heels in second-chance points.
Run off turnovers: During the Heels’ five-game winning streak, they’ve consistently pushed the pace and gotten out in transition more than at any other time during the season. They’ve also capitalized by converting points off turnovers. Duke, however, only averages 9.5 turnovers per game, so chances might be limited.