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Duke vs. UNC: Restoring Faith in College Basketball

There are just eight miles separating Durham and Chapel Hill. Just eight miles, but there sure is an eternity of hate. The term “rivalry” simply doesn’t do the Duke/UNC vendetta justice. One of these teams could very well end up winning the ACC title and even the national title, yet winning these two games will trump it. This game is waiting out in the cold for six weeks just to buy tickets; It’s Dick Vitale screaming at the top of his lungs, until he literally can no longer broadcast; It’s the contrasting shades of blue; It is unlike any other game in any other sport in any other country. And boy did it deliver on February 18th.

Duke/Carolina strips college basketball down to its core and brings out what the game is all about: representing your school and, well, fun. You see, that’s the missing link in the ever-trendy “straight to the pros” debate or the question of “what’s wrong with college basketball?” Instead of Jay Bilas’s continuous rants about the charge/block call or the necessity to change the shot clock, for one night we get this beautifully fast-paced game, with skilled big men in guys like Brice Johnson and Jahlil Okafor, prolific athletes like JP Tokoto and Justise Winslow, and commanding leaders like Marcus Paige and Quinn Cook. Some of these guys will go on to play in the pros, most will not, but they are forever intrinsically linked to the few games they got to play against their rival down the road. Sometimes it takes a night like last Wednesday night to fundamentally remind everyone that college basketball should not be tinkered with, because at it’s nucleus college hoops is as great a sport as exists.

The funny thing is, last Wednesday night was just a regular season game in the middle of February, with few implications on anything. They weren’t playing for a national championship or a conference championship; all these late teenage and early 20s kids had to play for was a silly little thing called pride. Yet that was the hardest these teams will play all season. Sure, turnovers in crunch time and missed free throws likely helped dictate the outcome, but that imperfection – that reminder that these are kids playing a game they love, not professionals – only enhances the beauty and the intention of college basketball.

Speaking of beauty, the Duke Blue Devils took UNC’s best shot last Thursday and responded with perhaps their best win of the season. On paper, beating Virginia in Charlottesville or winning at Louisville or dismantling Wisconsin in Madison appear to all be more impressive wins. But Carolina showed their “A” game on Tuesday. Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks combined for 36 points and 19 rebounds, while JP Tokoto chipped in with 15 points, 7 rebounds and 8 assists, possibly his best game as a Tar Heel. UNC owned the post with 62 points in the paint, exposing a potential chink in Jahlil Okafor’s seemingly invincible armour: his post defense and rim protection (though Okafor appeared to be truly bothered by the ankle injury he suffered in the first half and missed Duke’s next game against Clemson). If UNC played it’s “A” game, Duke was probably at a “B-.”

Duke somehow still found a way to win.

The reality is, Duke is the second best team in the country, but has the best starting five in college basketball (yes, Kentucky included). With four different double-figure scorers and a perfect blend of raw talent, experience, and chemistry, Duke will be the toughest hurdle for Kentucky.

Oh, and they have the best player in the country. Jahlil Okafor – the unquestioned number one overall pick come draft day – is the best college big man since Anthony Davis. What has surprised me most about Okafor has not been his mature post game and smooth jumper, but his court vision. when faced with a double-team – as he does on nearly every touch – Okafor will take a reverse dribble and scan the court. In doing so, he opens up the three-point line for guys like Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook, and Justise Winslow; and opens up the entire paint for everyone else. And if you decide to play Okafor man-to-man his power and diverse repertoire will overwhelm you.

Looking for a team to restore your faith in college basketball? Look no further than Duke. Between their veteran presence, shooting ability, and pure talent, Duke displays everything a fan could possibly ask for in a team.

And I’m a Carolina fan.

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