(Ed note: don’t miss the Walk-Ons Duke-UNC preview podcast one post below.)
I, Nate Friedman, do solemnly swear that I will not allow myself to reach the heights of emotional investment attained during the first UNC-Duke game. I pledge to watch the game quietly, to restrict my celebrations to guarded fist-pumps and the occasional single clap. I will not throw remotes at the TV or scream swear words when Duke hits sixteen threes. Even if the Heels are winning by ten with two minutes to go, I will not begin gloating. Nor will I allow the outcome of the game to determine my mood for the next week. I make this oath in the interest of maintaining my own mental stability.
I write these words today because I’m bitterly wary. Have you turned on ESPN this week? Yes? Then you’ve seen The Shot, the first buzzer-beater in the history of the rivalry, approximately 900 times (I categorically refuse to link to it here). You’ve heard Dick Vitale moan over and over like an orgasmic Chewbacca and been forced to watch what in Alabama qualifies as sodomy as the Blue Devils man-humped each other near center court, celebrating.
I speak for a number of my Tar Heel friends when I say there is a certain sense of looming vengeance about this game. One of my friends has been posting on social media every day for the last week, “T-minus X days until dookies cry” (pejorative spelling hers). She’s not alone in the sentiment that Duke stole the game in the Dean Dome, and she’s not alone in seeking just retribution.
I have to admit, I harbor the same feelings, maybe for the first time. Before these last couple years, especially during my first three years in college (2006-2009), there was a sense of something bigger. Beating Duke was important – and spectacularly fun – but it was always a mere piece of the puzzle on the way to bigger and better things. Along those same lines, I’m usually in favor of the Heels losing in the ACC Tournament: a loss before starting the only tournament that matters gives you an extra edge and saves your legs an extra set of forty minutes or two. Duke can have its ACC tournament titles. I don’t care how many stupid racks of test tubes they take home as long as they lose to Winthrop or VCU in the second round. We aim for bigger hardware.
This year, the feeling is different, for a couple of reasons. One is the overwhelming dominance of Kentucky. I’ve watched Kentucky play a number of times this year, and they just have “it,” as much as it pains me to admit. I hate Kentucky with an unmitigated disgust (for their seedy coach), but they look like 2009 Carolina – destroying everyone in their path. Even on the rare occasion when that team stumbled, you knew they’d be okay. The biggest question mark of the season was Lawson’s Toe – and after I saw him cross up LSU’s Bo Spencer in the middle of a devastating 2nd half run, I was convinced the national title was simply a matter of coronation. Kentucky has that same look, with the talent to match.
(If you watch the clip above, pay attention to the body language of the team after that play and during the subsequent possessions. That’s what a confident, kick-your-ass team looks like. That’s what Kentucky looks like.)
The other, corresponding reason is a lack of faith in this year’s Tar Heels. Like many of you, I believe Carolina is the only team that can compete with Kentucky talent-wise; the difference is the Heels seem to lack a killer instinct and consistent perimeter play. I know that Carolina has won its fair share of close games this season. But in years where we’ve got the “it” factor, it might be close until UNC seizes the momentum around halftime and never lets up. The game is over, and everyone watching, including the other team, knows it.
Instead, we get games like Maryland, which the Heels win handily but not convincingly. Wednesday night against UMD, Jay Bilas (my hands-down favorite basketball analyst, because he’s both smart and evenhanded – as opposed to, say, the Incredulous Len Elmore) said for the twelfth time this year, “UNC should be winning by 20, but they are missing open shots.” And he’s right. Teams hang around, and in the tournament those Cinderella teams hang around and don’t fall back to Earth. Then you end up taking Southwest back to Raleigh-Durham Airport.
(As for the perimeter play, all season we’ve heard Roy say, “we just missed a bunch of open shots, but they’ll fall eventually.” It’s March. The shots aren’t falling, and I just don’t see the basket getting any wider in the next thirty days.)
I know you’ll roast me, UNC fans, because I just don’t see this team making a run – and even if they do, they’re bound to run into one of the giants. Does anyone really want to see UNC play Kansas again? Or Missouri, which is a Duke clone with faster and better-shooting players?
So instead, my energies have turned toward vengeance. I (silently) demand my satisfaction. I still don’t care about the ACC tournament or even the regular season title-that-doesn’t-exist. But like many, I want revenge for a stolen game that sent the Heels tumbling nearly out of contention for a 1-seed in the tournament that matters.
And revenge is a dish best served cold. So if the Heels grit out a win in Cameron, if John Henson swats the Plumlees’ ill-advised shots so many times I resurrect the Blocktopus nickname, or if Zeller finally gets angry and dunks on one of the inferior Duke big men, I won’t gloat. I won’t triumphantly text my friends. I’ll breathe a sigh of relief and maybe smile grimly, knowing order has been restored. And if they lose? I’ll just trod glumly off to bed, knowing I’ve been denied my satisfaction.
Go Heels. Go America.
Contact the author, @nate_friedman, on Twitter.