Celebrating victory over Butler. April 5, 2010.

Groundhog Day came and went with the usual scorn for the holiday and our annual renewed appreciation of the minor masterpiece Bill Murray and company slipped into theaters 19 years ago.

The pagans among us recall that Groundhog Day is a manifestation of the ancient practice of watching the sun go down. Forty-some days after the winter solstice marks the lowest point in meaningless non-conference games, Feb. 2 tells us that spring is on the way, and that we’re halfway to the midpoint of March Madness.

But spring is only on the way when Duke and UNC meet in basketball. The women are doing it on Monday, and anticipation is so high for this showdown in Cameron Indoor Stadium that the Duke press office was moved to issue a hopeful memo to the media, alerting us to the possible spontaneous eruption of a bonfire. Duke students “may celebrate afterward with a bonfire in the West Campus residential quad area.”

And why, the city fire marshall “has approved plans for a bonfire in front of House P.”

The men have a game going on Wednesday, Feb. 8. It’s at 9 p.m. in Chapel Hill. If UNC wins, students *may* concoct a daring plan to occupy a street somewhere in town and jump over small bonfire-lets. If Duke wins, we’ll be making a beeline for House P.

But, back to the awful winter, the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by the sum of tweets. But now, there will be tweets no more, as our resident anti-Shakespearean Adam Sobsey relates.

The December run of awful blowouts was made tolerable partly by unfiltered frankness from players via their Twitter thingies. But Mike Krzyzewski and his grim-visag’d henchmen with unwrinkled suits have stepped in to save the players from themselves accept the players’ wise self-censorship. No more loose tweets leading to defeats.

By the way, basketball may on the march in Raleigh but the point production is suffering. Neil Morris tells us about it after the jump. Potter, Harrington and Sobsey follow.

N.C. State needs more players
Over the first 20 games of this season, the fewest points the N.C. State men’s basketball team scored in a game were 65 in a surprising December squeaker over North Carolina Central. However, over their last three games against Virginia, North Carolina and Boston College, the Wolfpack has reached 60 points just once. And, although the Cavaliers’ defense is tops in the ACC in average points allowed per game, the Tar Heels’ defense ranks only sixth while Boston College—who the Wolfpack scored 56 against last Saturday—is eighth.

The grind of ACC play, even this year’s edition, will invariably test any team’s mettle. However, in the case of N.C. State it’s equally reasonable to wonder whether that strain is being accentuated by their oft-discussed lack of depth. The Pack’s starting five all rank among the top 40 in the league in average minutes per game—no other ACC team has more than four players that high. And, State has seven players averaging over 10 minutes per game (not counting Jordan Vandenberg, who was redshirted after appearing in seven early season contests); only Clemson has that few.

Coach Mark Gottfried said earlier this season that he is not concerned about Wolfpack’s lack of depth. However, in the next breath he seemed to concede the more apt observation that his team simply isn’t built to go eight or nine players deep. While that may be accurate, it doesn’t mollify the harsh reality facing a team just reaching the midway point of its conference schedule. —Neil Morris

You heard it here first: Duke women will win the national title
Following Duke’s 61-45 loss to Connecticut Monday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium one thing is pretty certain. This time, the Blue Devils have a shot to win the national championship. Yes, seriously. No. 5 Duke (18-3, 9-0 ACC) wasn’t afraid of the No. 3 Huskies this time, like in a pair of 30-point losses last season in which the Blue Devils were never competitive. This time, they just didn’t shoot well.

They committed only 15 turnovers to the Huskies’ 21, held UConn to an anemic seven offensive rebounds and generally played a pretty good floor game. They just didn’t shoot well. They were much better in an easy win over Wake Forest Thursday night.

Meanwhile, No. 23 UNC (16-5, 6-2) is on a roll, on a four-game winning streak heading into tonight’s home game with Virginia. The Tar Heels have managed to stay in the national rankings all season long, getting tough wins just when they needed to under pressure in beating East Carolina, N.C. State and then Wake Forest on Sunday.

Now all the Tar Heels—with 11 healthy players—need to do is make sure the injury bug stays away and they’ll certainly host those first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Meanwhile again, N.C. State just can’t seem to get any luck. The Wolfpack (14-9, 4-6) dropped an overtime heartbreaker Thursday night at Georgia Tech, six days after losing to visiting Florida State on a buzzer-beater. That makes the Super Bowl Sunday contest, another tossup-type game with visiting Virginia, huge. Really huge.

State needs two wins to lock in a WNIT invitation, and it would be safe to bet the house, the car and the kids’ college fund the Wolfpack will beat Longwood Thursday night with six games still left to play. But State needs six wins somewhere to earn an NCAA spot, and to get there it would need at least one pretty big upset. —Mike Potter

Tyler Zeller should be ACC Player of the Year
Tyler Zeller quietly is making a case to win ACC Player of the Year. While Harrison Barnes is the bigger scorer and John Henson provides more excitement, Zeller is the only player on the team who has succeeded both offensively and defensively on a consistent basis.

Rebounding emerged as Carolina’s biggest problem through the early season, and Zeller has taken it upon himself to correct that issue. Across the board, his per-game numbers have been superb during ACC competition: 17 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks, a steal, 60 percent shooting and 83 percent free throw shooting. If he continues to enjoy such broad success, he’ll have a chance to make first-team All-American.

Oddly, poor shooting has surfaced like a persistent cold you can’t quite kick. After very encouraging numbers through the first two months, all of UNC’s wings have experienced slumps against conference opponents. Barnes is shooting 35 percent on threes (and still is at 43 percent on the season), Reggie Bullock is down to 35 percent and freshman P.J. Hairston is hitting a lowly 19 percent. As a team, UNC is making only 29 percent versus the ACC.

Going into Maryland and Duke, Barnes’ ankle now appears to be a genuine concern. After twisting it versus Wake Forest on Tuesday—and returning to the game—he did not practice on Thursday (or so we’ve been informed, unconfirmedly —ed.). Even assuming he does compete against the Terrapins, how effective will he be? And will be completely healthy for Duke? —Rob Harrington

There’s only one “I” in Twitter, and it’s too many for Coach K the team
Timely of you, Hoop Cheese editor: Your prompts Thursday included a question about Twitter use among college athletes, and that very day it transpired that the Duke Blue Devils basketball team instituted a team-wide, player-imposed ban on social media until further notice. I would be more than happy to take partial credit/ blame for this, since I was one of the meddling writers regularly gleaning some of the grain of my analysis from the tweeting of the birds in Mike Krzyzewski’s nest, and sometimes quoting the tweets themselves.

“At this time of the year, they just decided instead of a Twitter family or whatever, it’s better to concentrate on our family,” Krzyzewski said after Duke romped over Virginia Tech Thursday night in Blacksburg, Va.

“That’s for the next couple months, and they’ll have a lot to tweet about afterwards. Hopefully they will.”

And then:

“I think that’s a mature decision on their part. You have to focus on what you are doing as a group and you have to talk to one another. There has to be interaction. Our guys are trying to do that, and I’m proud of them. We’re trying to help them do that so we become even closer as a team.”

Sports franchises/programs are, as a rule, tightly closed ranks. I’ve always been a little surprised that players are allowed so much freedom on social media, since they’re never more than an immature impulse away from saying something that could get them in trouble. Already this season, there was a teapot-sized tempest that arose when UNC’s P. J. Hairston tweeted something about whether or not he would be able to play in the Tar Heels’ next game (injury? illness? don’t quite remember), and Quinn Cook of Duke has also tweeted about feeling flu-ish.

But it’s really tweets like Austin Rivers’ after losing to Florida State a couple of weeks ago (“Tough loss …. Have to bounce back tho! Keep moving forward!) that I imagine can cause more damage, because they give the public glimpses, however slight, into the players’ personae, psychology, moods, etc. In other words, what these young men are learning is that Twitter/ Facebook/etc. can make you vulnerable. I’ll never forget the fire marshal who came to an office building I worked in (as a young man) to give us safety instructions in case of emergency. It was a masterful demonstration: funny, engaging, educational, and he had the assembled crowd lapping it up. “Everybody’s listening except the young guys,” he said towards the end of it. “Young guys think they don’t burn.” Well, young guys can get burned by Twitter—and by Florida State. Dealing with a false sense of invincibility is one of the “lessons” Krzyzewski and his staff are “teaching” the Blue Devils.

A little reading on the subject, from the Harvard Crimson, reveals that there are already companies that monitor student athletes’ social media usage. The nugget:

“Kevin Long is the CEO and creator of UDiligence, a service that monitors Facebook and Twitter posts made by college athletes.

“After a sports team or an entire athletic department signs up for Long’s service, athletes are instructed to install an app on Facebook and Twitter. A computer program then filters through the players’ past and current posts and tweets, searching for over 400 keywords such as ‘stripper’ and ‘shotgun.’ When even a photo caption or comment contains one of the keywords, it is added to a list of alerts that is sent daily to the athlete and periodically to the athletic department.

“Big-name institutions such as the University of Texas at Austin, Louisiana State University, and the University of Florida have signed up for the service, which launched in 2007.

“These days, business is booming for UDiligence.

“’As more and more incidents [occur] where athlete posts things that end up in the media, it certainly has increased the interest in making sure athletes are responsible about what they are posting,’” Long said.

[@udiligence What kind of paternalistic, sanctimonious company-man jerk invents this kind of business? #stripper #shotgun —ed.]

For Krzyzewski, I think a lot of this has less to do with Twitter itself than it does with trying to maintain that environment of armored impermeability. Note that his radio show is on satellite, and it does not take live call-in questions. Over at UNC, which has had all kinds of problems with social media, Roy Williams shows up at Top of the Hill on Monday nights and takes all comers (unless the format has changed, I think you can call in live with your question). He has already chewed out at least one questioner, one of several media dustups he’s had since taking the reins at Carolina.

Not so for Krzyzewski, who has mastered the control of emotion, information, public perception, and even the Cameron Crazies themselves.

As for Thursday’s game, I saw only the final seven or so minutes of the first half — whereupon I was rudely interrupted by Shakespeare but those turned out to be the most important seven minutes of the game. Duke broke open a close game with a convincing 17-4 run that was fueled by Ryan Kelly (dunk, layup, three-pointer) and Quinn Cook (layup, weird looking running hook shot, two assists). This time it didn’t even matter that the Hokies’ Erick Green hit a first-half buzzer-beating three-pointer, just as Michael Snaer did in the fateful Florida State game two weeks ago. To open the second half, Duke went on a 24-11 tear to extend the lead to 23 points with 11:30 remaining. There.

One other thing of note from the game, besides Twitter and its discontents: Instead of regulars Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly, Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston (?) started for Duke. This was almost surely a reaction to the Blue Devils’ poor defense in the second half of the St. John’s game last Saturday, which opened eyes to a season-long trend that has plagued Duke. Thornton is probably the best defensive guard Duke has (although he is by no means infallible), and Hairston is a truculent 6-foot-7. The Hairston start may have been a reward for four good days of D in practices, or simply another message sent to the team by Krzyzewski; in any case, it was partially symbolic. Hairston played only 15 minutes—the most he has logged, incidentally, since Dec. 30 against Western Michigan—and had six points, three rebounds, two fouls. It was Miles Plumlee who suffered: The senior played only nine minutes—and got five rebounds. —Adam Sobsey