When the No. 20 North Carolina Tar Heels visit No. 5 Duke tonight, they will do so carrying the bitter memories of a 32-point drubbing at Cameron Indoor Stadium a year ago — the lowest point in a season full of embarrassing moments.
And though Roy Williams hasn’t forgotten UNC’s first loss on its rival’s home court in four years, he and his team will try to tune out the Cameron Crazies and disregard the scars of UNC’s worst loss since he took over as coach in 2003.
“It’s not just the building, I mean they’re really good,” Williams said. “So we have to try to prepare to beat Duke’s players and not be concerned about the crowd.”
If the loss at Cameron was rock bottom for last year’s squad, tonight’s contest comes when this team is primed for liftoff. UNC check in a half game behind the Blue Devils for first place in the ACC after having won five games in a row and 10 of its last 11.
Instrumental to UNC’s winning ways has been the play of freshman point guard Kendall Marshall. Marshall took over for Larry Drew II after UNC’s 78-58 loss at Georgia Tech on Jan 16., and the Tar Heels have not lost since.
Pressuring Marshall will be middle school chum and Washington, D.C.-area high school rival Tyler Thornton, who was moved to the starting point guard spot two games ago in order to relieve leading scorer Nolan Smith of some of his ball-handling duties.
Also making his Cameron Indoor Stadium debut will be forward Harrison Barnes. The preseason All-American has been the target of jeers in every road gym UNC has played in this season, and the Duke fans will undoubtedly shower Barnes with scorn after he spurned Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s scholarship offer in a televised news conference in Nov. 2009.
For his part, Barnes hopes to ignore the hoopla surrounding what The Sporting News once called “the greatest rivalry in American sport” and remain consistent after a three-game stretch in which he has averaged 22.7 points and 7.3 rebounds.
“They were one of my top schools in the final at the end there, so I had a very good relationship with them, and I have a lot of respect for the university and for Coach K,” Barnes said.
Barnes’ respect has been well-earned. Led by seniors Smith and All-ACC swingman Kyle Singler, the defending national champions raced to a 15-0 start before suffering their only ACC loss of the season at Florida State. Though the Blue Devils have not been as good since freshman point guard Kyrie Irving went out with a toe injury in early December, they still sport the ACC’s highest-scoring offense at 84.7 points per game.
“Losing by 30 points is something I’ve never experienced before and hopefully never experience again,” UNC forward Tyler Zeller said. “But hopefully this year we can go over there and have a lot better of a showing.”
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