Coming off of two consecutive wins, North Carolina will enter Cameron Indoor Stadium with as much momentum as it has had in months. What it’s short on is a healthy roster.
Deon Thompson’s back and Will Graves’ ankle are the latest culprits to cause Tar Heels to miss time. Neither Thompson nor Graves has practiced since UNC beat Miami on Tuesday.
“That’s the biggest question mark,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “The list of ‘out’ at practice was longer than it’s been all year.”
Still, Thompson said that some sore muscles in his back will not be enough to keep him from trying to help UNC beat Duke in Durham for the fifth consecutive year.
“No matter how I feel , this is Duke-North Carolina, one of the best rivalries in all of sports,” the senior said. “So no matter how I feel tomorrow, I’ll definitely be out there in the starting lineup ready to help my team.”
If he does suit up, it will be the 146th game in his college career, enough to break Danny Green’s record for the most games played as a Tar Heel. In his four years in Chapel Hill, Thompson has yet to sit one out.
Saturday’s regular season finale against the Blue Devils will be one of the most challenging for him.
“One of the things it says is his toughness, the resiliency of being able to go out there every day,” Williams said. “And it’s been harder for him this year than I think any other year because he has the stress and the expectations. He’s been beat up, and he’s been feeling beat up for probably the last two weeks.”
Success in recent years in Cameron has not deterred these Tar Heels from taking the place – and its rabid fans – seriously. And as Williams said, the winning streak doesn’t mean quite as much this year.
A year ago, the players that helped earn the three-game winning streak in Durham were still on the court. With all of the fresh faces on the 2009-10 Tar Heels, it will be a whole new experience.
Freshman John Henson said that the toughest places he has played in this year have been Virginia Tech and Clemson. He even called them “two of the craziest places I’ve seen in my life.”
But the upperclassmen have made sure to warn him about what he’ll see Saturday.
“They told me it’s going to top everything,” Henson said. “Especially since it’s a rivalry, too. So I can’t wait.”
Although UNC has the winning streak at Duke, it’s the Blue Devils who have won most recently in the matchup. Last month in the Smith Center, Duke held UNC to 54 points and pulled away late for a 10-point win.
The Blue Devils shot just 32.9 percent from the field, but they made nine of 18 from behind the 3-point line.
Jon Scheyer scored 24 points, and Duke grabbed 23 offensive rebounds in the win.
“It was an unusual game,” Williams said. “I watched it over last night, and I was so mad at myself.
“They really have an ability to shoot the basketball. They have a very confident air about them around the 3-point line.”
Williams and Marcus Ginyard emphasized how much the Tar Heels will need to defend the perimeter to prevent similar numbers on Saturday.
“These are the moments that we wanted to be a part of when we decided to come to school here and play with this program,” Ginyard said. “It’s nothing to be afraid of – it’s just something we should be really happy and excited about.”
Something else the Tar Heels are excited about is the possibility of playing the spoiler role. UNC will come in as underdogs, but with a win, it could knock Duke out of first place in the conference. And North Carolina would love to do it on Duke’s Senior Night.
“It would be nice to knock them off their throne,” Henson said. “That would probably be one of the best feelings this season.”