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#5 UNC vs #10 Duke

What: College Basketball Armageddon 2012, Part I
Where: Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill, NC
When: Wednesday, February 8th, 9:00 PM
TV: ESPN & ACC Network(Note: No ESPN blackout in North Carolina)
Records: UNC 20-3, 7-1 ACC; Duke 19-4, 6-2 ACC

Now it gets real.

Having just seen WarGames last week on AMC, it provided me with an ollustration of how the UNC basketball season unfolds for Tar Heel fans.

DEFCON 5: Non-conference schedule

DEFCON 4: First half of ACC play

DEFCON 3: First Duke game and remaining non-Duke ACC games

DEFCON 2: Second Duke game and ACC Tournament

DEFCON 1: NCAA Tournament

Let it be noted ladies and gentlemen we are now at DefCon 3.

UNC meets Duke tonight for the first meeting of the season and a sign that the basketball season has entered that crucial stage of the regular season. For this season in particular, it makes the beginning of a stretch of eight games during which UNC will play Duke and Virginia twice, Miami and NC State on the road with home games vs Clemson and Maryland sprinkled in. What lies ahead are games that will require the composure and toughness from the 2nd half of the Maryland game to be evident with an eye towards playing at the level the Heels on display versus NC State two weeks ago.

There are plenty of subplots for this one underneath the perpetual one of being the "best, most intense, better than anything Louisville and Kentucky have ever done" rivalry in college basketball. First of all is there is a new villain in Durham and his name is Austin Rivers. The freshman is really good and has shown some serious chops on the offensive end. Rivers is also cocky as heck and carries himself in a way that draws plenty of fire.  The fact Dexter Strickland is injured robs us of what would have been an epic matchup between the two guards. Instead UNC will use Harrison Barnes or Reggie Bullock to check Rivers. Bullock may be the better choice given the condition of Barnes' ankle but I expect both of them to see time guarding Rivers.

The other interesting aspects to watch are how much UNC can dominate the interior and whether Duke can hit three point shots. Despite how well Mason Plumlee has played this season he, his brother Miles and Ryan Kelly will find life very difficult against John Henson and Tyler Zeller who between them collect over 20 rebounds per game. This is also a big game for Zeller if he has any designs on being the ACC Player of the Year, a movement that is starting to gain some steam. Zeller has been amazingly consistent and should be highly motivated to do to Duke what fellow Indiana native Sean May did to them in 2005. Kelly is the versatile type that moves all over the court which will pull Henson away from the basket. On the perimeter Duke is a three point shooting team and Seth Curry was 11-21 from three last year versus UNC. The best way to disrupt Duke shooters is close out on the catch instead of the shot which FSU did with alarming efficiency. If UNC can do the same or at least force bad shots, Henson and Zeller can cleanup the rebounds.

The big picture subplot to this game lies in the ACC standings. A loss for Duke will not eliminate the Devils from ACC first place contention but the fat lady will be humming rather loudly. At three losses, Duke would need to win out to have even a shot at first place. Possible but not a great position to be in facing NC State, Florida St(on the road) and UNC again. UNC on the other hands needs to hold home court because of the four road games they face in the final six games of the season. The conventional thinking is FSU is due to stumble in at least one game, if not two at some point which would open the door for UNC providing the Heels can make it to March losing only one more game. The road is tough enough for UNC so losing at home is not an option.

UNC has played extremely well at home this season and I expect nothing less in this outing.

UNC 90 Duke 79