North Carolina vs. Duke
Sunday, March 8
4 p.m. on CBS

Don’t be alarmed, but this weekend’s rematch between Duke and North Carolina may not be that importantat least not for the reasons you assume. There’s no shortage of hype for any Duke/ UNC tilt, but there’s a lot less anxiety in the annual rematch, set this year for Sunday in Chapel Hill. That’s because the game occurs three weeks after the first clash, a crescendo of emotion after several months of games during which the rivals eye each other’s successes warily from opposite corners of the room.

Make no mistake: A Duke-Carolina game always will be important and highly anticipated because it’s a Duke-Carolina gameand especially when both teams are enjoying outstanding seasons (UNC is now the nation’s second-ranked team, while Duke is No. 7). But we’re now just a couple of weeks away from the opening of the NCAA Tournament and while everyone will enjoy this next match, it’s also time to look past the primaries and begin to contemplate the general.

So instead of getting lost in the “Battle for Tobacco Road” platitudes that typify these games, let’s examine what Sunday’s competition actually does mean and look under the hood of ESPN’s hype machine to identify the underlying issues as the post-season approaches.

And perhaps it will become clear why, for the first time in several years, there’s a real chance the 15-501 corridor will implode with mass exultations in early April.

We didn’t necessarily believe we’d end up here just a couple of weeks ago. The Blue Devils had lost to Wake Forest in a heartbreaker, gotten blown out at Clemson, lost the first game against the Tar Heels and then dropped yet another game to Boston College.

Those four defeats occurred within the space of six games, and the sirens thus sounded throughout the Duke community that, once again, the team was making its annual descent in February that would culminate in a disappointingly early exit from the NCAA Tournament. But Duke recovered against St. John’s and outlasted Wake Forest in a 101-91 shootout that was a true must-win game for the Devils. They then toppled Maryland and Virginia Tech on the road and entered the final week of play with a chance to win the ACC regular season title outright.

The reversal of fortune is at least somewhat related to new personnel, a rare development at this late stage in the season. Freshman guard Elliot Williams, who did not play a single minute in Duke’s 101-87 loss to Carolina last month, was inserted into the starting lineup against St. John’s and has brought quickness and vigor to the court.

With Williams and star junior forward Gerald Henderson now combining on the wing, the Blue Devils can pressure the opposition much more effectively than they’d been able to previously. They’re also a much bigger team, starting 6-foot-5 junior Jon Scheyer at point guard and presenting match-up challenges that college teams simply don’t see.

Also, at the statistical site kenpom.comand if you enjoy basketball and the political statistical blog, it’s a must-bookmarkDuke entered March as the nation’s only team ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Considering that most national champions rank within the top 10 in each of those categories, the Devils have ample reason to be optimistic about their chances in the NCAA Tournamentirrespective of what happens Sunday afternoon.

That said, the Carolina game is more significant for Duke than it is for the Heels. After all, how many college basketball fans don’t know that UNC has won four straight games at Cameron Indoor Stadium, or that a freshman-laden crew spoiled J.J. Redick’s senior night in 2006?

Duke has the opportunity to change the national narrative that has become steadily unfavorable with respect to its archrival, and what better statement to make than to win in Chapel Hill on Tyler Hansbrough’s senior day?

Just as importantly, and similar to what UNC faced in the rematch against Duke in its national championship season of 2005, Duke needs to remove the UNC albatross from around its neck. The Tar Heels’ stirring comeback against Duke four seasons ago seemed to imbue that team with a championship mettle, and the Devils may stand to gain the same self-assurance by what would be considered a highly improbable victory.

Beyond the emotional aspects, Duke also is competing against the Heels for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Most pundits have assumed that both Connecticut and Pittsburgh from the Big East will claim two of the top seeds and the winner of the Big 12 another, while Carolina would be the team from the ACC to earn a top seed. But given how close Duke and UNC are in the standings, the Devils could wrest away that top billing with a win in Chapel Hill and a strong performance in the ACC Tournament.

Carolina’s post-Duke experience has been less fortifying. The Tar Heels survived a pesky Miami team on the road and outscored N.C. State at home, but they blew a 16-point second half lead at Maryland and lost in overtime.

Continuing a disconcerting trend of opposing guards crushing UNC’s oft-maligned defense, Terrapins star Greivis Vasquez scored 35 points, and Maryland shot 62 percent in the second half. The Heels recovered against Georgia Tech after a week off, but this week they face the daunting task of needing to win at Virginia Tech and against Duke in order to ensure beyond a doubt a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament.

Along with the criticism of the team’s defense, Carolina’s shooting remains inconsistent as well. Still, this remains one an extremely explosive offensive team, and indeed rates it as the nation’s most efficient offensive unit.

Evaluating Sunday’s Duke game, it’s easy to portray Carolina’s situation as one in which they have much more to lose than to win. A defeat on UNC’s Senior Dayand what likely will be the final home game for four of the five starters, including Hansbrough, senior Danny Green and juniors Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellingtonwould be a truly soul-puncturing defeat for the fan base.

Conversely, beating Duke seems to negate whatever criticisms may exist, no matter how valid or persistent they may be. Win or lose, playing Duke always seems to bring out the aggression of Carolina’s teams.

Perhaps it’s hatred’s heat that serves as an icebreaker, but whatever the reason the Heels played arguably their finest half of the season in Durham three weeks ago. That second half affirmed in the minds of many that, despite its 0-2 start in ACC play, Carolina had found its way and earned respect as the nation’s best team.

If the Heels can channel the same ferocity on Sunday and plant another defeat on a reenergized Duke squad that’s desperate to beat them, they may enter the ACC and NCAA post-season tournaments as the cocky, mentally indefatigable bunch many fans perceived them to be at the beginning of the season.

Looking around the nation, there simply aren’t many teams that can match the talent and battle-hardened experienced of either Carolina or Duke.

Regardless of the outcome, both squads then need to drag themselves through an ACC Tournament in which they have little to gain, in order to get their respite with what should be easy early-round pickings in the NCAA tournament.

All bets are off at that point, but mark your calendars: The Final Four takes place Saturday, April 4, and Monday, April 6.

Rob Harrington covers UNC basketball for Triangle Offense, the Independent‘s sports blog.