CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- "Welcome, sir. We hope you have a lovely stay. Are you here for the game?"
"Game? What game?"
This was a joke, or my bad idea of one. On minimal sleep, after a day spent talking about (and driving toward) this game, these are the things I find funny. Note: I am not funny. The hotel receptionist agreed.
"Duke and North Carolina play [Wednesday] night," she said, matter of factly. "They are huge rivals in this area."
"Oh, I know," I said. "That's why I'm here. I was just kidding."
"Oh! Good. Do you have a favorite team? I do not. It's better that way -- you don't have to get so worked up. You can just sit back and take it all in."
Through the rest of the hotel lobby, middle-aged men -- hair: white; sweater vest: Carolina blue -- milled about. They would have disagreed. I didn't. My friendly receptionist had just captured one of the underrated beauties of doing this for a living: the freedom from fandom.
It's easy to allow actual basketball -- well-executed curl screens, convincing shot fakes, perfectly spaced secondary breaks -- to be obscured by the noisy insanity that envelops this contest. Don't get me wrong: That insanity is lots of fun, too. It's what makes this rivalry a canonical part of the American sports tradition; as a first-timer, I fully plan to soak it all in. It's just that, well, there is a game to be played Wednesday night, too, and sometimes with Duke-UNC -- as with any major sporting event in our day and age -- the nuts and bolts of the matchup get lost in the overwrought language of heroes and villains and implications and antiquity.
Before we get swept up in all the fun -- before we take it all in -- let's examine said matchups, where one question looms large:
Can Duke defend?
Pomeroy Rank: No. 15
Adj. offensive efficiency rank: No. 5
Adj. defensive efficiency rank: No. 91
If this game is going to become part of the Duke-UNC lore -- as opposed to a handy UNC blowout -- it will require the Blue Devils (19-4, 6-2 ACC) to do something they haven't frequently done all season: defend.
It's almost as simple as that. The biggest outlier among the numbers you see above -- which are season totals thus far -- is Duke's defense. For a variety of reasons, the 2011-12 Blue Devils are playing far worse defense than this program is accustomed to. It's hardly a mystery: Tuesday, on ESPNU's "The Experts," Duke associate head coach Chris Collins identified the problem almost immediately. As you no doubt know, the Blue Devils have lost two of their last three home games, primarily thanks to the 1.13 points per trip they allowed to Florida State and the 1.08 they allowed to Miami. Coach Mike Krzyzewski's team is allowing opponents to score more points per possession than at any time since Pomeroy began tracking these things back in 2003; Duke's defense has rarely ranked outside the top 10 nationally, and its worst season other than this one (2008-09), it ranked No. 20.
The question is: Why? A couple of reasons: The Blue Devils' young guards (Seth Curry, Austin Rivers et al) don't guard particularly well on the perimeter: Opponents have posted an effective field goal percentage of 47.8 while turning the ball over on just 19.7 percent of their possessions. In the latter category, Duke ranks No. 221 in the country. Meanwhile, once the ball is in the air, Duke is allowing its opponents to chase down 32.8 percent of available offensive rebounds.
Nor have these numbers improved in ACC play, where we're used to see Duke dominate. On the contrary: Duke ranks No. 9 in the ACC in defensive efficiency, no higher than No. 8 in any of the four factors, and No. 11 in opponents' offensive rebounding rate.
In less number-laden terms: Duke doesn't defend the first shot particularly well, and it doesn't prevent second and third opportunities, either. Instead, Curry, Rivers & Co. have frequently had to resort to outscoring opponents. Their offense is frequently good enough to do so. But Wednesday night will be a different story.
Pomeroy rank: No. 8
Adj. offensive efficiency rank: No. 17
Adj. defensive efficiency rank: No. 14
North Carolina (20-3, 7-1 ACC) has given us the occasional reason to doubt its national championship viability -- not least of which came on Jan. 14, when the Heels were run out of the gym at Florida State, 90-57. For a team with title-or-bust expectations entering the season, that loss was disconcerting. It's not as though UNC has been bad. But rather than the once-in-a-generation team many expected, the Tar Heels' efficiency fundamentals for much of the season would more accurately peg them as "really good, but not quite great."
But while Duke has struggled in its past five games, the Tar Heels have just as suddenly turned it on. John Gasaway noted as much in his Tuesday Truths column yesterday:
Since their disastrous 90-57 loss to Florida State in Tallahassee on January 14, the Heels have been looking a lot more like the Heels: five wins, zero losses, and a per-possession scoring margin of +0.20. That run's been built on total domination on the boards at both ends of the floor. Rebounding plus zero turnovers has given UNC what they need even though they still don't set the world on fire in terms of shooting from the floor.
Indeed, UNC ranks No. 7 in the nation in offensive rebounding rate; the Tar Heels are pulling down 40.7 percent of their own misses. When you have the size and rebounding acumen of players like Tyler Zeller and John Henson, you don't have to set the world on fire from the field. You can get your points in simple ways.
For all the talk of Harrison Barnes's unique skill set and Duke's inability to match up with it, this is the real matchup issue: The Blue Devils simply don't rebound the ball well on their defensive end. Mason Plumlee and Miles Plumlee do their fair share, but that hasn't stopped the Blue Devils from being the second-worst team in ACC play in this category. On Wednesday night, they're facing the league's -- and one of the nation's -- best.
In a world in which Duke was a good rebounding team, the strategy to stop Carolina on its home floor would almost certainly be sloth. The Tar Heels are the seventh-fastest team in the country, according to adjusted tempo. The Blue Devils are by no means slow (they average 68.8 possessions per game to UNC's 74.5), but in the hostile Dean Dome environment, it doesn't seem like a great idea to let UNC do what it likes to do: rebound the ball on defense, get it to Kendall Marshall on the fast break or second break, and run at the rim or find open shooters on the wing. In a normal season, Duke might seek to slow the tempo and force Marshall and Barnes to find their offense in the half court. At the very least, it would make UNC a bit uncomfortable.
But if Duke does that, the Tar Heels still have the upper hand: rebounds. UNC doesn't have to feel comfortable on offense. Marshall doesn't have to lace brilliant 50-foot passes up the floor; Barnes doesn't have to have a great scoring night. The Tar Heels can struggle from the field and still put up points, because they'll have a ton of second-chance opportunities.
Of course, one game is a small sample size. Anything can happen. Duke may have its best rebounding performance of the season; UNC could rebound well and miss a bunch of putbacks and things could be close all evening. You never know. But if the 23 games each team has played to date are any indication -- and of course they are -- this is the toughest matchup of Duke's season.
This team can score. That much we know. How these young, struggling Blue Devils respond on the defensive end -- particularly on the defensive glass, against the longest frontcourt in the country -- is an open question. Their answer, or lack thereof, will determine the story we tell about this illustrious rivalry's latest chapter.