The time is ticking down for North Carolina and its chances of getting statement victories prior to the postseason and Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament.
Even though this is a team that still has multiple games against ACC opponents, North Carolina only has one win against a Top 25 team (against UNLV in December).
Now UNC takes the short trek across 15-501 to Durham looking for bragging rights against its rival Duke on Wednesday night.
Tip off is at 9:00pm eastern time and will be aired on ESPN and the ACC Network.
North Carolina (16-7, 6-5) is coming off a humiliating defeat down in Coral Gables, as Miami shot the lights out from the start and never looked back in an 87-61 win last Saturday.
Coming off three straight wins over Boston College, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest---a trio of games most would have predicted to go in the win column for UNC---the contests at Miami and Duke were the two games that could solidify the Tar Heels into the tournament.
With the sting of the Miami setback still fresh, UNC really does need a win over a quality opponent heading into perhaps the most difficult environment for a road team to play in all of college basketball.
Duke (21-2, 8-2) is coming off a narrow escape Sunday night against Boston College, in which they struggled down the end but managed to pull out a one point victory, 62-61.
The Blue Devils have struggled quite a bit away from Cameron Indoor Stadium so far this winter---they were also embarrassed at Miami and they also lost at N.C. State, as UNC did---but they're undefeated so far at home, even without the presence of senior Ryan Kelly.
The Duke-UNC game has been a highly-anticipated classic for many years, making its case as the best rivalry in all of college sports. North Carolina will be looking to make it another memorable outcome Wednesday night in a dynamic where they are a clear underdog to the No. 2 Blue Devils.
UNC and Duke split their matchups last year, with Austin Rivers draining a buzzer beating three in Chapel Hill, while Roy Williams and company demolished Duke in the final game of the regular season in Cameron Indoor.
Williams knows that his team will have to come out and play much better than before if they're to make a game of it Wednesday.
But as he does most seasons, he noted how honored he feels to be the current caretaker of this great legacy.
"I think it's the best rivalry in college basketball. They (Duke) have a great program, great coach, great players, and a great school," Williams replied.
"I feel lucky to be a part of it and we're going to try to play our tails off and see what happens. I think our team will play better than we did Saturday and we better play better. If it's not, it's going to be one of those butt-kickings."
A ROAD GAME LIKE NO OTHER
Heading into Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Tar Heels have not had the best road record.
Coming into Wednesday evening UNC has a record of 4-5 on the road, mostly because they've gotten off to slow starts.
In the five losses on the road, North Carolina has been outscored in the first half 240-166, with four of those opponents (Indiana, Texas, N.C. State, and Miami) scoring over 40 points over the opening 20 minutes.
North Carolina hasn't scored more than 37 points in the first half in any of those five losses.
The disparity in performances at home than on the road have been quite eye-opening for the Tar Heels, and UNC has to find a way to reverse that trend dramatically if they're to hand the Blue Devils its first home loss since Senior Night in Durham last March.
"Well that's typical for every team, especially typical for a young team," Williams said about his team's road woes.
"Experienced guys are confident guys and right now…I hate even saying this because we played twenty games but the bottom line is we're still young. They have a ton time handling it on the road."
If the Tar Heels can keep pace or build a lead in the first half, the Tar Heels could have a chance to pull off the upset.
However, if North Carolina allows Duke to get off to a fast start from the perimeter and build an early double digit lead against them, Williams and the Tar Heels will naturally have trouble coming away with a W, and could be headed towards the disaster of 2010, when a Duke squad on its way to the NCAA title buried an all-out-of-sorts and NIT-bound UNC squad 82-50.
Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry are the two leaders for the Blue Devils, with both guys scoring over 16 points per game (the second and third leading scorers in the ACC), while Plumlee is also second in the ACC in rebounding (10.7).
No one can deny that Plumlee has been a National Player of the Year candidate with his play, as he does everything for the Blue Devils down low.
Recently though, Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson have stepped up for the Blue Devils since Kelly has been out of commission.
"Mason Plumlee is a guy that can score, rebound and block shots. Then you've got Jefferson and Hairston and some of those guys give them another big body to play through," said Williams.
James Michael McAdoo will have to bounce back from his last game against Miami, where he went 3 of 12 from the floor and scoring in single digits for only the second time this year.
With McAdoo having some recent troubles with his back, Williams will look to see how his big man handles the Duke frontcourt.
McAdoo practiced Tuesday, Williams indicated, and he should be in action Wednesday night in hopes of vindicating himself after struggling mightily against Miami.
"I hope he (McAdoo) bounces back greatly. I've had some players, Kirk Hinrich, when he played poorly, the next game he was going to be off-the-charts good. I told him I'd rather have him play real good and real good," Williams said.
"How he bounces back (from the back), I don't know," the Hall of Fame coach continued. "We've been very concerned about his back for the last week or so."
"On Friday it bothered him. Saturday morning he said he felt good. So we'll just have to see how he bounces back. But a lot of that depends on the other team as well."
"If you're being guarded by Mason Plumlee or trying to guard Mason, some of those guys over there, you're not going to have as easy a chance to bounce back as if he was being guarded by me or you."
DEFENDING THE THREE
In the Miami loss, North Carolina allowed the Hurricanes' to drain 15 three pointers in the blowout loss.
As everyone knows, Duke typically tries to win offensively by setting screens and getting men open for good looks from the perimeter, and nothing has changed with this year's Blue Devil squad.
Duke has four players that have shot over 50 three pointers and as a team the Blue Devils shoot 40.9 percent from behind the arc.
For Carolina, the task is simple yet very complicated all at the same time---find a way to fight through the screens and get hands in faces to disrupt Duke's shooting.
Seth Curry might be their most dangerous long shooter on the floor, but Williams has also been very impressed with Rasheed Sulaimon.
"It's another shooter," Williams said. "We tried to recruit him (Sulaimon). I loved him. I absolutely loved him," said Williams. "He can score the ball. He can take the ball to the basket. He had a couple of games earlier where he kind of hit the wall. Once conference play began he's really played well."
In general though, the Tar Heels know that Duke can score with anyone and have multiple players on the floor at any given time that can score.
"From 10 miles away, they (Duke) look like they're formidable, have a lot of guys who can score. You can't really concentrate on one thing. They can shoot the ball straight. Ten threes in the first half of a game recently."
The key matchup in the game will be how the North Carolina backcourt can control Duke's backcourt.
Reggie Bullock has the size and length to create a mismatch with Curry, Sulaimon, and other Blue Devil perimeter defenders, along with P.J. Hairston, as his size and outside shooting could be huge for the Tar Heels.
However, Marcus Paige will have to deal with a much improved Quinn Cook, who has demonstrated his quickness and scoring ability in multiple games so far this year.
Paige will look to also bounce back after a rough showing down in Miami, where he went 1 for 9 from the field and scored just two points.
One thing that should give UNC fans a little optimism heading into this matchup is the history of the rivalry itself, and knowing that anything can happen.
When the Blue Devils and Tar Heels face off, you can most often throw out the records, knowing that it's going to be a back-and-forth struggle to the wire.
Duke and North Carolina will always be a bitter matchup between the two historic programs, with neither coach nor team giving an inch.
Even though this is a game that might not have the same magnitude as games in the past with UNC unranked, there is no doubt that both teams will bring all they have onto the floor.
It's always special when these teams come together and who knows? Wednesday's game might be another classic in the long and storied Tobacco Road rivalry.