Sophomore J.P. Tokoto has admittedly limited experience in the North Carolina-Duke rivalry.
Last year, he played a combined 10 minutes between the two games the bitter rivals played. Still, he’s taken it upon himself to prepare the team’s freshmen for tonight’s rivalry rekindling at the Smith Center.
“I’m pretty much just telling them to look at it like it’s another game,” Tokoto said.
But does he buy his own advice?
“No,” he said, laughing. “I don’t. Not me. But I feel like that would help them out mentally.”
The fact is, UNC-Duke has never been just another game, and it won’t be just another game tonight.
It’s a clash of near opposites. Duke (19-5, 8-3 ACC) enters with the upper hand, ranked No. 8 in the country and having won seven of its last nine meetings with the Tar Heels. Unranked UNC (16-7, 6-4 ACC), in contrast, is a team on the rise, coming off five straight wins — albeit against the ACC’s lesser competition. A win against the No. 8 team could add a measure of legitimacy to its recent revival.
On the court, Duke works from the perimeter, averaging 9.7 3-pointers per game. UNC works from the inside out and holds a size advantage in the post. It’s outside shooting versus inside scoring; a team at the top versus a team trying to get there.
“But, honestly, rankings don’t mean a thing for this game,” Tokoto said. “It’s whoever wants it more.”
If a Duke has an advantage it’s in the form of freshman forward Jabari Parker, who leads the team with 19.2 points per game, and redshirt sophomore transfer Rodney Hood, who is close behind with 16.5.
The forwards will likely be guarded by James Michael McAdoo and Tokoto, respectively, both of whom tallied four steals each at Notre Dame.
“The difficulty lies in the fact that we don’t present the same kind of problems for them on the other end,” coach Roy Williams said. “When we had Tyler (Hansbrough) as our five-man, he created tremendous matchup problems for them on the offensive end, and we don’t have the low-post scorer this that presents a lot of matchup problems for them.”
Williams has said on multiple occasions he doesn’t have a Hansbrough or Sean May-like figure in the post. Freshman Kennedy Meeks has started the last five games at center, but he doesn’t offer the same explosiveness — at least, not yet.
It’s possible the coach could start sophomore Brice Johnson in his stead, who’s averaging 10.1 points per game off of the bench.
“We’ve had some discussion in our staff as to whether or not we will or not,” Williams said. “A decision hasn’t been made yet. Brice has really done some good things. You’ve got to think a little bit about matchups.”
Whoever takes the court for UNC will have the chance to reverse recent rivalry history, to continue the team’s winning streak and to make a statement against the team’s greatest foe.
“It’s gonna be a huge opportunity,” McAdoo said. “We dug ourselves in a hole, got back somewhat where we’d like to be now, but we’d definitely want to go and get a lot better than what we are now, and (today’s) a huge game against Duke, against anyone.
“But it’s definitely going to be an opportunity to show just how far we’ve come.”
And it’s definitely not just another game.
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