CHAPEL HILL, NC - FEBRUARY 08: Austin Rivers #0 of the Duke Blue Devils shoots the game-winning 3 pointer over Tyler Zeller #44 to defeat the North Carolina Tar Heels 85-84 during their game at the Dean Smith Center on February 8, 2012 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
North Carolina can get revenge on its arch-rival, capture an ACC title and reestablish itself as a legitimate national title contender, all with a single victory over Duke Saturday night.
Kentucky has been the toast of the college basketball world for so long that it's easy to forget that the Wildcats did not begin the season as the favorites to win the national championship.
That distinction belongs to North Carolina, a team one preseason publication said had the potential to be the the sport's best in the past decade. That sort of hype was understandable. UNC won a pair of ACC championships and advanced to the Elite Eight as a two-seed in 2011, so when Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller all elected to spurn the NBA for another season in Chapel Hill, an offseason coronation was the logical result.
At 26-4 overall and 13-2 in the ACC, it isn't like the Tar Heels are currently in the running to claim the title of biggest bust in the history of sports, but it's certainly fair to say that things haven't gone according to plan.
Carolina carried the No. 1 ranking from the season's starting lineup until a surprising 10-point loss to UNLV in which they allowed the Runnin' Rebels to go crazy from beyond the arc and drop 90 points. A little over a week later the Heels fell to the sport's new top dog, Kentucky, by a single point in a thrilling game at Rupp Arena. The game ended with Anthony Davis blocking Henson's potential game-winning jumper in the final seconds, a play which essentially launched the freshman's national Player of the Year campaign and established the Wildcats as the nation's new team to beat.
The monster blows to UNC's prestige, however, came in ACC play.
If North Carolina cuts down the nets in New Orleans on the first Monday in April, it will become the first team which lost a game by more than 30 points during the regular season to do so. This potential piece of trivia was made possible by Florida State, which put a humiliating 90-57 beatdown on the Heels in front of a national television audience on Jan. 14. UNC then coasted through a stretch against the bottom half of the ACC before allowing arch-rival Duke to go on an improbable run in the final minute and steal a victory at the buzzer.
Have you heard about the shot? Yeah, you've heard about the shot.
"I understood, watching ACC games the next week, they would show the shot. I was like, ‘OK,'" said UNC point guard Kendall Marshall. "Then they're showing ACC games that we're not even playing in, and I was like, ‘Well, that was a big shot.'
"Then I was watching Big Ten games, and they're showing the shot, and I was like, ‘All right, I've got to get away from college basketball.' So I watch a Boston Celtics game, and sure enough, they showed the shot again."
The end of the game, which North Carolina led by 10 with 2:38 to play, established Duke as a legitimate national title contender in the minds of many, but it also showcased all the reasons the Heels had been failing to live up to their lofty preseason expectations. With victory seemingly in hand, the UNC players turned to the familiar comfort of cruise control. They didn't hustle back to defend in transition, they missed key free throws and they put minimal effort into defending the perimeter. It was an inexplicable performance in which the Heels appeared shockingly complacent, or to take it a step further, slightly bored.
We've seen recent national champions coast for periods of time during the regular season before. The 2006-07 Florida Gators and 2008-09 North Carolina Tar Heels come to mind. Even when they gave lackluster efforts in the regular season (and, in UNC's case, the conference tournament) that resulted in defeat, their status as a contender to the sport's top prize was never really questioned. But we've also seen the dangers of being extremely talented and overly complacent. Look at the 2005-06 Connecticut Huskies, a team which appeared unfathomably bored at times and was ultimately stunned by George Mason in the Elite Eight.
Saturday's game at Duke should play a large role in determining how many times you pencil North Carolina in when you're filling our your first bracket nine days from now. Revenge against a hated (and now higher-ranked) rival that beat you on your home floor in gut-wrenching fashion, a conference championship on the line, a primetime spot where the entire sports world will be watching; these are the situations where talented teams prone to stretches of apathy generally turn it up.
Syracuse can match Kentucky's record, Kansas can match their possession of a Player of the Year candidate in the low post, but only North Carolina can compete with the Wildcats in terms of pure talent. Even more so than the ACC Tournament, this is UNC's opportunity to reassure the college basketball world that when the lights are the brightest, the Heels are still the team everyone expected them to be in October.