CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams admits that, on paper, his team doesn't match up very well with No. 2 Duke.
The Blue Devils boast a Wooden Award candidate (Mason Plumlee) who is averaging a double-double in the lane, another Wooden Award candidate (Seth Curry) who is making 41.9 percent of his 3-pointers and averaging 16.9 points and a team that has rejiggered and remelded since losing starter Ryan Kelly indefinitely to a foot injury on Jan. 8.
Still, Williams insisted Tuesday: "We have a chance. I believe that from the bottom of my soul. But we've got to play great, and we didn't play great Saturday [in a 26-point loss at Miami]. We've got to play great [Wednesday] night. If we do that, I'll be very pleased, because we'll have a chance."
Although UNC (16-7, 6-4 ACC) has won five of the last seven rivalry games at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke has won nine of the last 10 meetings when it is ranked and the Tar Heels are not, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The exception: March 2003, when Matt Doherty's unranked Tar Heels beat the No. 10 Blue Devils at the Smith Center in his final season as head coach.
The Tar Heels have struggled this season on the road in starting strong, playing consistent defense and getting big plays from big guys, but yes, there is a chance.
Especially in a season that has already seen 13 unranked teams knock off a top-five squad, again according to ESPN Stats & Info.
And especially in this rivalry -- and the Blue Devils (21-2, 8-2) know it.
"We can't just think because of their record or their prior losses that they're going to come in here and it's going to be a blowout,'' Duke guard Quinn Cook said. "They are a great team. People have seen glimpses of them against UNLV. They played well against Miami the first time. They have played some good games, and they have a lot of talent."
A few things to watch in Wednesday's game (9 p.m. ET, ESPN):
Yet again, UNC got off to a slow start at Miami on Saturday, spotting the Hurricanes a 9-0 lead from which it never recovered. It was the same sort of funk that got the Tar Heels into trouble during losses against Butler in the Maui Invitational, at Indiana and at NC State -- and they know they have to be more aggressive from the outset at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
But in a rivalry like this, should that really be a problem?
"I just think, when we play them, everybody's energy, sense of urgency, everything goes up,'' UNC senior Dexter Strickland said. "I don't think we had that against Miami; going down there was like an embarrassment, and we didn't play like we were capable of playing. This game is different, just because it's Duke, and it's the greatest rivalry of all time, and stuff like that. So we've just got to be ready."
CAN ANYONE SLOW PLUMLEE?
The 6-foot-10 senior has recorded 30 or more points in two of his last four games, and he’s going to be a load for UNC to defend. Because of their lack of size, the Tar Heels have often struggled to thwart bigger post players this season, and it won’t help matters that their only true wide body -- reserve freshman Joel James -- will not play because of a concussion.
“I think the one thing that Joel does is he does have that size that bothers people,’’ Williams said. “He doesn’t have the experience to be able to play Mason head-up or anything like that, but when he’s in the right position, it’s really difficult to score over him. Whereas the other guys might be in the right position, and it’s not nearly as difficult to score over them as it is to score over Joel.
“Desmond [Hubert] and James Michael [McAdoo] and Jackson [Simmons] and Brice [Johnson], they’ve got to be able to come through and do it.”
Williams said the Tar Heels want to put a crowd around Plumlee on defense, “but you can’t over-help because I’m real good at math and 3s add up faster than 2s.”
After posting three double-doubles in his previous four games, UNC’s leading scorer struggled against the Hurricanes, scoring a season-low six points on 3-for-12 shooting. The Tar Heels need the 6-9 sophomore -- who said his previously sore back was feeling better Tuesday -- to bounce back in a big way.
Plumlee said he could be tough to defend.
“He is a really aggressive scorer; he really looks for his shot,’’ Plumlee said. “He is a good player. He likes a lot of jump shots so I will have to get out on him, like [NC State’s Richard] Howell, I didn’t get out on and he was knocking them down, so I have to get out on McAdoo for sure.
“He is a good player, he runs the floor, so I’ll have to do a good job on him.”
Last year’s first meeting between the blue bloods was decided on a 3-pointer (the much-replayed game winner by now-NBA rookie Austin Rivers), and long-distance shooting could be key Wednesday, too.
The Blue Devils lead the ACC in 3-point field goal percentage (40.9), as all three of Duke’s perimeter starters -- Cook, Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon – are connecting on at least 41 percent of their shots from beyond the arc.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, are 145-14 in the Williams era when shooting 38 percent or better from 3-point land -- including 10-1 this season. Reserve P.J. Hairston has been the most pinpoint from long distance of late, shooting 14-for-23 (60.9 percent) over his last four games.
The Tar Heels had won six of seven before their thud at Miami. They’ve proved they can win against good teams, but can they beat a great one? If they have a signature victory this season, it’s against UNLV -- which has since dropped out of the Top 25. Their best road win is against Florida State, and despite all of their potential, they have yet to fit their puzzle pieces together into a consistent, cohesive picture. A victory Wednesday night could go a long way toward changing the perception, and perhaps trajectory, of this team.
Duke, meanwhile, has come an awful long way from its discombobulation (and 27-point loss at Miami) after losing Kelly last month. Learning to play without the senior’s defense, and his ability to stretch defenses because he’s a 6-10 forward who can make 3-pointers, remains an adjustment. But a win Wednesday would be its sixth straight, and would continue to show that the Blue Devils remain a team to be reckoned with.
“We aren’t as comfortable as we were with Ryan, and we will never be as comfortable as we are with Ryan, because we aren’t as good as we are with Ryan,’’ Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “You are more comfortable the more talent you have.
“... Our kids have done a really good job of adjusting without Ryan, winning and playing really hard. I think we have played really hard. A few games we have played great, and portions of games, unbelievable. There is more variance for performance playing without a very good veteran player. The more experience you can have, the less variance [and] you get more confident. Our team is capable of having that level of variance still.”