The college basketball regular season is coming to an end, as the onset of March Madness lies less than a week away with the start of conference tournaments around the country.
It's been a season filled with its highs and lows, a season that has had top-ranked teams fall weekly, and a season that has had some surprise teams making a name for themselves.
But there is one thing that isn't a surprise when the season comes to an end. It means the rivalries will come around one last time.
That is no different with the rivalry between North Carolina and Duke, a game that might be more anticipated this time around than the first matchup in February due to the stakes it has with ACC Tournament seeding and perhaps NCAA Tournament seeding, along with the return of one of Duke's most potent weapons.
On February 13, when his Tar Heels trekked into Cameron Indoor Stadium Roy Williams had made the decision, the decision that everyone was wanting, and frankly, the decision that needed to be made for North Carolina to turn its season around.
P.J. Hairston replaced Desmond Hubert in the UNC starting lineup that night and provided a spark that has carried on over the past month for the Tar Heels.
Even though Carolina lost that night 73-68, there just seemed to be something different---a new hope and vision of what this team could be.
Fast-forward six games and the Tar Heels haven't lost since.
The ABC crowd would instantly point out that UNC's schedule hasn't been so challenging down the stretch since it's back-to-back losses at Miami and Duke.
But it's worth pointing out that five of North Carolina's wins on its current six-game streak were by double digits and three of them were away from the Smith Center, including places like Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Maryland where historically UNC has struggled at times.
Now North Carolina will look to take its chemistry and sharp shooting back into the Dean Dome for Saturday evening's 9:00 tipoff with the Blue Devils.
UNC celebrates Senior Night Saturday, as Dexter Strickland plays for the final time at home in a Carolina uniform.
Strickland and his teammates look to put a signature stamp on this regular season and try to turn the tables on what they couldn't finish in Durham, while also sending him out on a good note.
LAST TIME AROUND
In Cameron Indoor the Tar Heels came out with all the confidence in the world, not looking to back down to their rivals and pumped up with its new lineup in place.
In the first half, North Carolina took it to the Blue Devils and handled the adversity of being in what is arguably the most intense atmosphere in college basketball. Shots were falling early and the defense was keyed in.
UNC attacked down low, getting into the driving lanes with its guards and also with James Michael McAdoo, as he got Mason Plumlee in early foul trouble.
North Carolina led 33-29 at halftime, shooting 41.9 percent from the field and three of seven from behind the arc while holding Duke to under 40 percent shooting and just one 3-pointer over the first 20 minutes.
In the second half, everything started to change.
Everyone knew that Duke had a run in them. It was going to be on North Carolina to try to control it.
The run came of course, as Duke went on a 19-7 run during the second half to turn what was a brief UNC double-digit lead into a Blue Devil advantage.
Near the 13:30 mark, North Carolina rushed its shots after Duke had cut the lead down to one. On two possessions UNC shot early in the shot clock, rushing the offense and Duke took advantage.
The Blue Devils got out in transition with Quinn Cook to take the lead 44-43 and then drain a three from Rasheed Sulaimon to push the lead to four points, never looking back from then on.
In the second half, Duke outscored North Carolina 44-35, shooting 52 percent from the floor (13 of 25), while knocking in five threes. The Blue Devils closed the door with their second half free throws, shooting 13 of 14 from the line.
North Carolina on the other hand, shot only 34.3 percent from the floor, while only hitting 9 of 17 free throws down the stretch.
North Carolina has also been one of the top teams in terms of assists per game, but only had eight total in Durham and only got three points from its bench (compared to 11 for Duke).
That 11-3 number turned out to be big in what was a close outcome in Durham, and the Tar Heels need to get a little more from Leslie McDonald, Hubert, Brice Johnson, Jackson Simmons, or anyone else that enters the game at any given time.
Even though it was a tough loss and some think that UNC should have won, the Tar Heels showed what they were capable of and that they can compete with the best teams in the nation.
Now, UNC will look to show the nation that this is a different team and not allow its rivals to sweep them on Senior night in Chapel Hill.
CHANGE IN MATCHUPS
The matchup between these two teams will look a little different but not by much.
With the recent return of Ryan Kelly, the Tar Heels might have some trouble matching up with a taller forward down low, who has the ability to shoot the ball from distance.
Take a look at the each team's starting lineup and who will be guarding who.
Marcus Paige vs. Quinn Cook
Dexter Strickland vs. Seth Curry
Reggie Bullock vs. Rasheed Sulaimon
P.J. Hairston vs. Ryan Kelly
James Michael McAdoo vs. Mason Plumlee
Marcus Paige has to have a better game this time around, as he went 2 of 9 the first time against Duke (four points) with only one assist.
Quinn Cook on the other hand, had 18 points, along with four steals.
Paige will have to have the confidence he has had in the past six games, especially by knocking down the three ball, as he is shooting over 40 percent from the field over that stretch.
Of course, Bullock and Hairston will have to hit their outside shots as they have during the six game winning streak, but will also have to defend the three, as Duke has four players that shoot over 39 percent from downtown (Kelly leads, shooting 53.1 percent).
The teams will have to be focused on each team's top three guys, as Duke has three players scoring over 15 points per game (Curry 17.0, Plumlee 16.9, and Kelly 15.0) and North Carolina has three players scoring over 13 points per game (McAdoo 14.6, Bullock 14.3, and Hairston 13.6).
McAdoo has been battling a bulging disk in his back but will play Saturday night.
McAdoo tweaked his back during the Maryland game, forcing him to come out of the game for a few minutes to get it treated on.
Even though everyone will be talking about the two new guys in the lineup, one can't forget the key role players and how dangerous they can be.
Seth Curry has been averaging 17.6 points per game in ACC play, but was held in check with only 11 points in Durham.
However, Curry is coming off a 20 point performance against Virginia Tech, shooting 5 of 9 from three.
Curry isn't the only one that can score for the Blue Devils, as Duke leads the ACC in points per game at 78.7 points a game, but North Carolina isn't too far behind at 77.8 points a game.
However, since the change, UNC has increased its points per game in ACC play from 71.4 points to 76.1 points per game. But with the lineup change, UNC has had some increases and decreases in other areas of its game.
Rebounding against Duke will be a key factor, as Duke won that battle last time around 39-38. But with so many three point shooters, the guards will have to rebound better with the long misses.
The game will be on ESPN, part of College Gameday, as ESPN will be splitting their games between the Georgetown-Syracuse game at noon, then traveling to Chapel Hill for the night game.
UNC is 6-3 when ESPN Gameday comes to watch the live, although the last time ESPN came was against N.C. State earlier in the season, with N.C. State winning 91-83 over in Raleigh.
It's always a show when the Tar Heels and Blue Devils get together, and tonight's game, while not for the outright ACC regular season title as it's been for the past two seasons, still has plenty on the line.
While Duke has secured the No. 2 seed for next week's ACC Tournament in Greensboro, UNC is looking to improve its positioning for its Friday quarterfinal game.
If UNC wins Saturday night, they will claim the No. 3 seed, which means a likely rematch with Maryland on Friday.
If the Tar Heels aren't able to defeat Duke, UNC could move into the No. 4 seed if N.C. State beats Florida State in Tallahassee, and then they'd likely play Virginia Friday if the Cavaliers beat their opponent Thursday.
Any way one looks at it, Duke-UNC matchup will be a game just like any other one in the rivalry.
For a brief couple hours each late winter the college basketball world takes a pause and soaks in this unique rivalry---a rivalry of proximity and mutually desired outcomes.
Going back to the memorable 2005 comeback victory over Duke in the Smith Center, the Tar Heels have won seven out of the last eight regular season finales in this series.
With Strickland taking his Smith Center curtain call, the Tar Heels would like nothing more than to make it eight out of nine against he Blue Devils while also adding more coals to the fire of momentum this team is building at just the right time heading into the postseason.