Originally Published: March 2, 2012

No. 6 North Carolina At No. 3 Duke

By Eamonn Brennan
When and where: Saturday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), Cameron Indoor Stadium (Durham, N.C.)

There's a lot on the line in Durham on Saturday night. Bragging rights, for one. The 2012 ACC regular-season title, for another. Ownership of just one more data point in a storied history of back-and-forth acrimony, for a third. The intensity, the anguish, the joy, the victory, the defeat; great rivalries bring all this stuff to the fore, and few pairings in any sport anywhere can match this.

The stakes are specific to the teams, too. For UNC -- particularly for Tyler Zeller, Kendall Marshall, and Harrison Barnes, all of whom contributed to the now-legendary Feb. 8 meltdown -- redemption is on the line. The Tar Heels have lived in their post-disaster reality for nearly a month now, and they'll be driven to wipe the slate clean.

And then there's Duke. The Blue Devils prevailed in the first meeting on Austin Rivers' clutch last-second 3-pointer. On its face, that victory should have given the Blue Devils the perceptive advantage in this rivalry, the ability to say they'd been underrated and overlooked, the chops to enter Saturday night's battle confident, collected, with very little to prove.

Instead, Duke has spent the past month hearing the multitudinous reasons why the Feb. 8 win was a fluke. UNC was better for 37 minutes, especially in the second half. Duke won because the Tar Heels melted down, because Marshall committed uncharacteristic turnovers, because Zeller missed free throws and, fluke of all flukes, even tipped in a Blue Devils shot. (That led to a near-instant Zeller meme. You know the one.)

Plenty of those reasons are valid. UNC was better for most of the 37 minutes that preceded its late collapse, especially the first 17 minutes of the second half. After the game, Coach K readily copped to the idea that -- despite how proud he was of his team for staying together and fighting back and making the big, late plays -- he still thought UNC was the best team in the ACC. At the time, he was right.

UNC was more complete, more athletic, with much better rebounding and defense. The Blue Devils could score in insane bunches, as they'd been doing all season, but they were noticeably and uncharacteristically lacking in other key areas of the game. Case in point: They gave up 1.18 points per trip to the Tar Heels in the first game. They won, of course, but the knocks were obvious and valid. Besides a great offense and an insane final few minutes, what did this Duke team -- which had lost home games to Florida State and Miami in the weeks that preceded it -- really have?

And so, despite the one-game advantage in this 2012 series -- not to mention the seeming psychological edge afforded by that kind of win -- Duke has plenty to prove Saturday night. Since Feb. 8, Duke hasn't allowed more than 1.03 points per trip in any game, and that figure came in an offensively brilliant performance at Florida State. Is that real improvement? The product of mediocre ACC foes? Somewhere in between? Duke's efficiency margin in conference is hardly eye-popping. If there are still doubts about this Blue Devils team, are they well-founded?

Beyond the rivalry, beyond the bragging rights, beyond the ACC title, this is what Duke will put on the line in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday night. As we transition from regular-season basketball to the glories of the NCAA tournament, let's see how fluky Feb. 8 really was.

Watercooler: Finally, March Is Here

By Eamonn Brennan & Myron Medcalf

Editor's note: Myron Medcalf and Eamonn Brennan got together for their weekly Watercooler chat, discussing Thursday night's results while looking ahead to this weekend's games and the madness of March.

Eamonn Brennan: The greatest month of all the months is upon us, Myron. With it comes the final week of the regular season, bubble crunch time for a wide swath of teams and even less sleep than could be had in January and February. And you know what? Forget sleep. I'm ready. How are you feeling?

Myron Medcalf: I'm with you. I'll sleep in April. I'm ready to go. Excited for the finish. Speaking of the latter: In the middle of the Michigan-Illinois game, I found myself wondering how Illinois has a 7-footer who's a possible lottery pick, some talented weapons around him and size … but looks horrible. It's Big Ten tournament title or the NIT for Illinois, right?

EB: Oh, absolutely. After that disastrous late-season slide, the Illini had to beat Michigan and win at Wisconsin this weekend to try to salvage some hope of an at-large bid. Now it's Big Ten tourney title or bust. And news flash, but I'm going to go ahead and predict that Illinois won't win the Big Ten title. The problems that have plagued the Illini all season -- stagnant offense, bad shot selection, underuse of Meyers Leonard, Brandon Paul's chuckfests -- have officially done them in. The same goes for Bruce Weber's tenure at Illinois. That, as they say, is that.

I found myself turning away from Illinois-Michigan to check out a much closer and more competitive game between Florida State and Virginia, which Florida State won, somehow, by draining a well-guarded, last-second 3-pointer.

The shot was great and all, but the most impressive thing? FSU needed a big stop at the end. It got the first, gave up an offensive rebound, then got another to keep the score tied at 60. The Seminoles are still the Seminoles on offense. But as ever, man, do they defend.

MM: They do. That's their bread and butter. In two previous losses to Duke and Miami, the Seminoles didn't have that same defensive bite. But on Thursday night they proved that they can lock down like Alcatraz. Leonard Hamilton will tour the country this summer teaching seminars on the last-second, contested 3-pointer.

Although I give FSU credit for that gutsy win, I think it's time to question its opponent's at-large résumé. Eamonn, you stay up until 4 a.m. to knock out the thorough and essential Bubble Watch. You and others in the Bracketology realm can speak to this issue more eloquently than I can, but what am I missing about Virginia? The Cavs are still living off that win over Michigan, in my opinion. They're like the Chingy of college basketball. Should I be more impressed with their résumé? Am I missing something?

EB: You're not missing a ton. From a strict bubble perspective -- in which we're just talking about wins and losses and computer numbers -- Virginia hardly overwhelms. Now, I think the Cavaliers are better than their record. Five of their seven ACC losses to date have come by a margin of three or fewer points. And they play really good defense, which we've seen all season.

The Cavs will probably get in the tournament, if only because they've got a good-enough RPI and SOS profile and they've mostly handled business against inferior teams in the ACC, which are legion. But I'll admit that the enthusiasm I felt for the Cavaliers early in the year has waned in the latter weeks of February.

MM: Selection Sunday will be interesting. Teams like Virginia and South Florida, which have struggled against the elite in their own conferences. Mid-major leagues (see CAA) pushing for more multiple bids. And then you have the fighters, the teams that might be able to squeeze into the field with a late push. How about Northwestern? As you wrote, why can't that team catch a break? I mean, the Wildcats can't get one bid. Not one? I think there's still time for that program, though. What will it take for Northwestern to make history?

EB: Well, obviously the Wildcats can't lose at Iowa in what promises to be the most hotly anticipated and widely viewed Iowa-Northwestern game of all time. (Not Iowa-Northwestern State. Actually, sorry for bringing that up, Hawkeyes fans. That was mean.) A loss at Iowa would sink the Wildcats, and obviously it depends on what else happens around the bubble, but the bubble is only going to get smaller as the conference tournaments offer up an auto-bid or two that isn't one of the league's obvious at-large candidates. Best advice for the Cats: Beat Iowa, get a win in the Big Ten tournament, then get another. Then we'll see.

To read the rest of The Watercooler chat, click here.


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