Just when it looked like the Duke-North Carolina game wouldn't have luster, the Tar Heels went on a tear and the Blue Devils floated back to Earth. North Carolina has now won 10 of its last 11 games, and it came within a Cory Joseph jumper of winning 14 out of 15. Duke, meanwhile, has won two straight since that shocking pratfall at St. John's, but that loss, combined with the lingering uncertainty over whether Kyrie Irving will return, has punctured this team's aura of invincibility.
So we've got ourselves a ballgame. Oh happy day.
As the best rivalry in all of sports gets ready to provide another episode for the time capsule, your resident Hoop Thinker is here to address the five burning questions that will decide the outcome.
1. Is Kendall Marshall ready for his close up?
Junior point guard Larry Drew II's stunning departure from Chapel Hill made big news last week, but Marshall made bigger news Sunday night. In his first game as the team's primary quarterback, Marshall played 36 minutes and finished with 16 assists to just three turnovers in a win over Florida State. (He came into the game averaging 16.9 minutes.) Playing the Seminoles at home, however, is a much different matzoh ball than playing in Cameron Indoor Stadium. As much as the Blue Devils' perimeter pressure is a concern, the biggest challenge Marshall faces is the stage. The grace with which he handles (or doesn't handle) that will go a long way toward determining the outcome.
2. Will the real Plumlee brothers please stand up?
No Blue Devil has suffered more from Irving's absence than Mason Plumlee. The 6-foot-10 sophomore forward looked like the second coming of Christian Laettner when he went for 25 points and 12 rebounds in a win over Marquette back on Nov. 22. But since Irving went out, Plumlee has had just three double-figure scoring games. The good news, however, is that two came in his last two games, so maybe that's the start of something good.
Plumlee's older brother, Miles, a 6-10 junior, has been even more enigmatic. It looked like he was breaking through when he had 11 points and eight rebounds in a win at N.C. State two weeks ago, but Miles had a combined 17 points and 17 rebounds in the five games since. North Carolina's frontline is too good for the Plumlees to be non-factors. If they show up ready to play, Duke will be in great shape. If they don't, the Blue Devils will be forced to bomb away from three-point range. That didn't work against St. John's, and it won't work tonight.
3. Will Harrison Barnes let all the Crazie-ness get to him?
Mike Krzyzewski recruited Barnes as hard as any player over the last 10 years. For most of that recruitment, it seemed Barnes was destined for Durham, but in the end, Barnes jilted Coach K and chose North Carolina. Not only that, he did it in high-profile fashion via a nationally televised press conference and a surprise Skype call to Roy Williams. The Cameron Crazies are sure to remind Barnes of all that went down. The question isn't whether he lets the fans get to him (I don't think he will), but whether the enormity of it all will unsettle him. Barnes' steady improvement is the No. 1 reason North Carolina has surged in the last month. The Tar Heels need Barnes to be poised and confident to have a chance to pull off the upset.
4. Will Kyle Singler finally have a breakout game?
Singler has had a solid season, but it has lacked a certain oomph. He has scored in double figures in all but one game, and though his overall field goal percentage has leapt from 41.5 last year to 44.6 this season, Singler's rebound, assist and three-point numbers are slightly off from his junior year. What's more, Singler has had only one 30-point game all year -- against Oregon back in November. (I guess playing against his little brother brings out the best in him.) If you take out his 10-for-15, 22-point performance in the win at Maryland, Singler is shooting 43 for 106 (40.6 percent) over his last seven games. He was particularly bad (1-for-7 from three-point range) in the St. John's loss. Singler was the consensus preseason player of the year, but he hasn't quite played like it. If ever there was a good time to go Jimmer, tonight would be it.
5. How big is North Carolina's psychological advantage?
Dean Smith used to talk about this all the time. No matter how he sliced it, no matter how he diced it, Smith always concluded that his opponent had a psychological advantage. In this case, however, the Heels are clearly coming in with the better mindset. There is absolutely no pressure on the Tar Heels to win this game. None. They're just happy to be playing better with a chance to surprise people. Duke, on the other hand, has all the expectations not just to win tonight but contend for a national title. The Blue Devils are still fighting to re-create their identity without Irving and will have to fight the tendency to play not to lose. I've long believed that in a high-pitched game like this, it's actually a disadvantage to be the home team. If the Blue Devils come out of the locker room wound too tight, they could unravel.
The easiest way to get discredited as a prognosticator is to handicap the Duke-Carolina game. No rivalry more consistently subverts the conventional wisdom. That said, I'll play the boring card and go with Duke. The expectations are a major concern, but with two tough-minded, experienced seniors like Singler and Nolan Smith in the locker room to set the tone, I expect the Blue Devils to grind it out. But it won't be easy.
Final: Duke 82, North Carolina 79