Duke, UNC: Hitting their strides

[alert type=”info”]The biggest rivalry in sports takes place tonight. Of course I’m biased. Go Tar Heels – let’s catch this W! For those of you who don’t know I go to The University of North Carolina. We are hype today and ready for this game! The game airs at 9ET on ESPN. You might catch be on TV! Get ready! – Trey [/alert]

Photo: Robert Willet  - News & Observe

Photo: Robert Willet – News & Observe

North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams searched for answers after his team’s 87-61 dismantling by Miami on Feb. 9.

His young team, which lost its first two conference games, had put together two three-game winning streaks separated by a loss at N.C. State and looked to be turning a corner before going to south Florida.

“We got killed,” Williams said. “I was sitting in the locker room (thinking), ‘I’ve got to do something.’ I’d already thought about it some. I didn’t get any crystal ball or anything, or hold our hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’

“It just seemed like the right thing to do at that time.”

“It” was putting Greensboro’s P.J. Hairston into the starting lineup, situating four perimeter-oriented players around James Michael McAdoo and giving an increased number of minutes to UNC’s top six players.

Heading into tonight’s regular-season finale against Duke, the Tar Heels have the longest winning streak in the ACC and a first-round tournament bye sewn up. They look like a different team than the one that muddled through the first half of the season.

The Blue Devils have changed as well since these teams last met Feb. 13, but their transformation had nothing to do with philosophy and everything to do with getting back key piece Ryan Kelly.

Both teams are starting to play like the teams everyone thought they’d be as they hit the crucial point of the season.

“With (Kelly), I think we’re one of the best teams in the country,” Blue Devils guard Quinn Cook said. “Everyone’s just buying into their new roles with him back.”

Duke went into the season ranked No. 8 nationally, riding the strength of its senior trio of Kelly, Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry. They won their first 15 games and claimed the No. 1 ranking as the three exceeded expectations.

Then Kelly hurt his right foot, the Blue Devils dropped two of their next three, and they suffered losses at Maryland and Virginia. Kelly made his 36-point return against Miami last Saturday.

Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson helped Duke in Kelly’s absence, but neither could match Kelly’s offensive versatility or his size on the defensive end.

“You try to accentuate (role players’) strengths when you have those three seniors,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Every player has some weaknesses, but if you’re not the key player you have a few more. Do a few things well and don’t try to do more. For those 13 games (Kelly was out), we were asking them to do more.”

UNC went into the season ranked No. 11 with a lineup many assumed would resemble some of the ones Krzyzewski has displayed at Duke, with McAdoo the centerpiece and two wings and two guards around him.

Instead, Williams went with the size and defense of Desmond Hubert in the starting lineup and spread his minutes liberally among a nine- or 10-player rotation.

Since the loss to Duke on Feb. 13, when the four-guard lineup made its debut, the Tar Heels’ starters and top sub Leslie McDonald have played 88.5 percent of the team’s minutes.

“There are a couple games we all wish we could have gotten back, but all we could do was learn from them,” McAdoo said. “It took long enough, but I feel like we’re at a point now that we don’t want to go back and have that feeling.

“There’s a little bit more swagger and confidence guys are having.”

Duke started the season with a clear idea of what it was, had to adjust when injury struck and now is getting back to the level at which it played during the nonconference portion of the schedule.

UNC took a while to find its identity, but has locked in on the combination that has made it one of the ACC’s best as the regular season closes.

“We want to be peaking, we want to be hitting our stride at this point,” Plumlee said. “There’s no better place to test that than going on the road and playing another really hot team.”

Contact David Morrison at 373-7008, and follow @DavidCMorrison on Twitter. ___

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