UNC players are ready for 233rd incarnation of Duke rivalry game

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The North Carolina Tar Heels host the Duke Blue Devils at the Dean E. Smith Center on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012.

There are immense sports rivalries, just like great wars, that extend across state lines, regions and sometimes even countries.

And then there are civil wars — brother against brother, friend against friend. Today’s matchup between No. 10 Duke and No. 5 North Carolina marks the 233rd battle in perhaps the greatest civil war in sports.

“We’re all competitors, we’re all warriors on the court,” UNC point guard Kendall Marshall said. “We definitely want to get the best of each other, but off the court, when you grow up with each other… it’s hard not to be friendly off the court.”

In many cases, those friendships are just the runoff of AAU basketball, the premier high school league where many top recruits are found. But for 40 minutes of game time starting at 9 p.m., those ties will die.

“There’s no possible way to really prepare,” UNC forward Harrison Barnes said. “I mean, it’s a very emotional game because it’s Carolina-Duke. The only way you can really prepare for it is to just be out there.”

This particular matchup is in Chapel Hill, where UNC is 60-32 against Duke all-time. But the Tar Heels hold just a slim 15-11 edge on Duke in the Smith Center.

“Michael Jordan was going to beat you no matter where you played, and I think players at North Carolina and players at Duke feel like they can beat you regardless of where they play,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.

A loss for the Tar Heels would end UNC’s longest home winning streak of 31 games. The last time North Carolina lost at home was Feb. 24, 2010.

“The players make more of a difference than the gym,” Williams said.

Wednesday’s matchup features two different teams than the last time Duke and North Carolina met — that being a 75-58 Duke win in the 2011 ACC tournament.

Since that game, Duke has lost a lot and the Tar Heels have learned a lot.

North Carolina returned all five starters and more experience while Duke was forced to replace its top three contributors and 53 percent of its scoring from last season.

The Blue Devils did, however, add the nation’s top recruit in guard Austin Rivers, who leads Duke in scoring so far this season.

But perhaps the biggest difference on Duke’s roster this season is the emergence of Mason Plumlee. He has given Duke some of its best post-play in half a decade, averaging 11.6 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game.

“He’s a very athletic player,” UNC forward Tyler Zeller said. “He’s very good. He has that jump hook, and he’s getting a lot more touches this year.”

Fellow Blue Devil Ryan Kelly has emerged this season as well. The 6-foot-11 forward has averaged 12.6 points and 1.1 blocks per game while shooting 45 percent from long range — a higher percentage than any North Carolina player with more than four attempts.

The Tar Heels know guarding Kelly, as well as Duke’s other talented 3-point shooters on the perimeter, will be crucial.

It’s not difficult for the Blue Devils to get settled in from behind the arc, and Duke will likely attempt shots from long range often in Wednesday’s game.

In Duke’s loss to Miami on Sunday, the Blue Devils attempted 31 3-pointers.

“We’ll definitely be out there,” sophomore guard Reggie Bullock said. “We can’t take plays off on the perimeter.

“Me, Kendall and Harrison, we know that’s what they’re good at doing. We all came in (to UNC) together, we always wanted to be on the floor together, so I just know we’re going to pull through to make it happen.”

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