Tar Heel Hell: Duke's Nolan Smith Owns UNC, And The Blue Devils Are Harder To Hate

Nolan Smith owned the spotlight in Durham last night. And as hard as it is to love a Duke player, Nolan Smith might just be the exception to the rule. But for Carolina fans, even in defeat, there could be a silver lining to this story.

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Tar Heel Hell: Duke's Nolan Smith Owns UNC, And The Blue Devils Are Harder To Hate

Duke basketball triumphed again on Wednesday night, as Nolan Smith scored 22 points in the second half of Duke's 79-73 win over the North Carolina Tar Heels. And if he hadn't already cemented his status as a shoo-in for ACC player of the year, then that performance probably sealed it.

So, yeah, as a Heels fan, it's been a rough morning. I went to bed angry, and then woke up an hour late this morning, because my alarm didn't go off. (Yeah, I'm going to whine for a second.) Then I spent a half hour trying to hail a cab, and had to settle for a bus that dropped me off eight blocks from office. This article was supposed to be done by 10 am, and here we are approaching noon. And I'm still pissed off about that damn second half. Sometimes, life just sucks.

Anyway, now we get to the part about where Duke came back from 14-points down to beat my favorite college basketball team, reiterate their supremacy in the biggest rivalry in college sports, and bring UNC's surprising winning streak to a screeching halt, while establishing Nolan Smith as the unquestioned best player in the conference, and Seth Curry as a legitimate threat from the perimeter. GOD, life sucks sometimes. WHY DO THESE PEOPLE GET TO WIN?

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Having said all that, let me put my bitterness to the side, and look at the silver linings here. First of all, if Carolina had to lose, I'm glad that it was Nolan Smith--and not Kyle Singler, Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly, or any of the other overrated superstars littering their roster--that sunk the Heels with 22 points in the second half.

It says a lot for any Duke player to be remotely likable, but unlike just about every predecessor since Elton Brand and maybe Jason Williams, Nolan Smith is pretty much impossible to hate. I'm biased because he's from my hometown (Washington D.C), but even if he wasn't, if you can't root for the protagonist in this epic story, then you probably don't have a soul:

The day his father died, Nolan didn't cry. The day of the funeral, he didn't cry. But now, as a 19-year-old, he was weeping in his dorm room, uncontrollably.

"A lot of people think I'm the happiest kid in the world, and, well, I am," he says. "But at times I'm not. Those people don't know when I get off the court after a big game, I go back to my dorm room, and I'm crying that my father wasn't there."

... he truth was, Nolan was hurting inside, on several levels. He had never been a point guard before, and he still wasn't sure when to shoot, when to distribute. He was thinking too much, not being assertive and, with Dawkins gone, he needed Derek more than ever. He'd look down at his tattoo for comfort, or at the poster he kept over his desk of his father dunking.

...He's grown up since then, and blossomed into the best player on arguably the best team in the country. It's one of those stories in sports that makes you pause, and appreciate how awesome this stuff can be. As cynical as sports fans have become, stories like Nolan Smith offer a pretty compelling counterpoint. Sometimes, the good guys win.

And sometimes, the good guys play for Duke, which really seems like a contradiction in terms. But  Nolan Smith has worked his ass off to transform himself from an overmatched freshman and a benchwarming sophomore to a championship-winning junior and superstar senior. He's not the most talented player in college basketball, and he probably won't win player of the year, but as far as beating the odds is concerned, Nolan Smith is every bit as incredible as Jimmer Freddette, or any other Cinderella story that's captured our hearts over the past few years. Ben Cohen had a pretty nice profile of Smith up at Yahoo! Sports yesterday, and it's worth your time if you're still unconvinced.

Yeah, he plays for Duke, college basketball's evil empire. That makes it harder to stomach any story that's billed as heartwarming, but ultimately, it's our loss if we can't appreciate Nolan Smith.

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Having said all that, the rest of Duke basketball is as obnoxious as ever. Their fans were in typical form last night, which is to say they had their faces painted, jumped up and down, and again tricked announcers into thinking they mean more than they actually do. At one point, one of the announcers on Raycom Sports marveled at how "This crowd has willed the Blue Devils back into this game." Which is horses--t, of course.

It was Nolan Smith who did that, weaving through the Tar Heel defense for lay-up after lay-up, and killing them from the perimeter just for good measure. And he did it without the help of Kyle Singler, who looked completely overmatched against Harrison Barnes and finshed with 10 points on 3-17 shooting from the floor. CAN YOU SAY LOTTERY PICK?

And that's how Duke won. Smith and Seth Curry (22 points) helped Duke rally, and Carolina's young team got tight as the half unfolded, allowing the Blue Devils to steal a win after getting blitzed for the first 20 minutes. And even though, I'm still bitter about the way it all happened, I'm happy. As hellish as it is to give up a 14-point lead and lose to Duke at Cameron, UNC's in much, much better shape than anyone ever expected.

And Duke, for all the preseason hype and talk of going undefeated, looks kind of ordinary. They're the same old Duke team, living and dying with perimeter shooting, staggering backwards in the face of elite athleticism. They survived on Wednesday because Nolan Smith was incredible, but for the long term, Duke's not going to scare people nearly as much as we thought.

Kyle Singler is as soft as he ever was, Mason Plumlee still hasn't shown he can dominate a full game, and where guys like Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry can be deadly on any given night, they're just as likely to go cold, leaving Duke with another St. Johns situation come March.

As for the other team in Cameron last night? Sure, they gave up a second half lead, but Kendall Marshall was something of a revelation at point guard, Tyler Zeller continues to emerge as maybe the most skilled big man in the country, and Harrison Barnes is getting more impressive with each week that goes by. It's not that the Tar Heels were better on Wednesday, but unlike Duke, there's a lot of evidence that says the Tar Heels will get better.

They've got the athleticism (Barnes), they've got the expeirence (Zeller), and they've finally got the point guard (Marshall). The pieces are in place for this team to do some damage as the season hits March. And even though Wedneday was ultimately a letdown, the Tar Heels proved they're almost as good as Duke right now. So just imagine where they'll go in March.

College basketball's all about peaking at the right time. And for Duke on Wednesday, Nolan Smith's college career peaked exactly when they needed it: down 14 at home to their biggest rivals. 

But for the Tar Heels, even in a loss, Kendall Marshall looked great, and Harrison Barnes and the other young guys are looking better every week. So I'm okay with losing in February and conceding the ACC to the Blue Devils. It'll be a whole lot nicer to peak in March.

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