03/04/11 — Stevens: More than ACC title on the line

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Stevens: More than ACC title on the line

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on March 4, 2011 1:48 PM

Beating an archrival never gets old. Regular-season conference championship banners look nice hanging from the rafters and certainly help in recruiting.

When Duke and North Carolina collide Saturday night in Chapel Hill, much more than bragging rights and the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title will be on the line.

Confidence and momentum heading into the ACC and NCAA tournaments are much more valuable than a win over a bitter rival.

Last year at this time, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels were two teams clearly headed in opposite directions. Duke had won eight straight games before a 79-72 loss at Maryland in early March. The Blue Devils concluded the regular season with an 82-50 thumping of North Carolina in Durham.

Duke won its final nine games, captured both the ACC and NCAA championships, and proved there is no price tag for playing for your best basketball this time of year.

Meanwhile, the Tar Heels lost five of their final seven regular-season games, including a first-round defeat against Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament. UNC's season ended with a loss to Dayton in the NIT championship game.

One year later, North Carolina (23-6 overall, 13-2 ACC) has won its last six games and 11 of its last 12 since a 79-73 loss at Duke, in which the Tar Heels saw a 14-point halftime lead disappear. North Carolina has climbed to No. 13 in the latest poll and junior forward Tyler Zeller has averaged 16.1 points and 7.2 rebounds in his last 10 games.

Carolina continues to get reliable production from point guard Kendall Marshall after Larry Drew's departure from the program. Marshall has scored in double figures in three of the last six games.

Freshman Harrison Barnes' game-winning 3-pointer at Florida State on Wednesday night validated his clutch shot-making ability.

The loss of freshman Reggie Bullock to a season-ending injury is a definite blow for the Tar Heels. Bullock averaged just six points a game, but his absence leaves Carolina with just eight scholarship players.

Duke (27-3, 13-2) enters Saturday night's showdown having won eight of its last 10 games. The Blue Devils rebounded from their loss at Virginia Tech with a 70-59 win over Clemson on Wednesday night.

If Duke is going to make another deep run in March it will need a third scorer to develop. Seniors Nolan Smith (21 points per game) and Kyle Singler (17.4 ppg) are the only Blue Devils in double figures.

Duke makes up for its lack of a third scorer on the defensive end. The Blue Devils are in the top five in the ACC in scoring defense, field goal percentage defense, steals, turnover margin and defensive rebounds.

If Duke hopes to win its 20th regular season ACC championship it will need to avoid the slow start that led to a 14-point halftime deficit against the Tar Heels earlier this season.

Momentum can't be measured in regular season conference championship banners or a win over a rival. It only starts there and without it, March truly can be full of madness.