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Facing North Carolina, Duke can take a giant leap forward

Coach Mike Krzyzewski is back on the sideline as Duke hosts North Carolina with a chance to turn around an up-and-down season. {Associated Press]
Coach Mike Krzyzewski is back on the sideline as Duke hosts North Carolina with a chance to turn around an up-and-down season. {Associated Press]
Published Feb. 9, 2017

DURHAM, N.C. — For North Carolina, last season's win at Duke may have been the most important turning point of the Tar Heels' season. After an erratic February, they not only clinched the ACC regular-season title with the victory but won in Cameron for the first time in their seniors' careers.

With rings secured and three years of Duke demons exorcised, North Carolina went on to win its next eight games, winning the ACC championship and coming within a whisker of the national title. Vanquishing Duke — especially after the Blue Devils came back from eight down late to win in Chapel Hill — served as a springboard to a successful postseason.

"It was just one of those tough games," guard Joel Berry said. "Having that last game of the regular season and being how it was, it showed us we could win like that. I think that just gave us confidence going into the ACC tournament. It was a great game for us, and every time I picture Duke, I think of the joy we had. That picture is still in my mind."

The timing is different, this being early February instead of early March, as are the stakes, but Thursday's game has the potential to play the same role for Duke this season that it did for North Carolina last season.

Duke needs a springboard, a launching point. This could be it.

The Blue Devils, finally healthy, with Mike Krzyzewski back on the bench, have won three in a row. As a team, because of all the injuries and absences, Duke is two months behind the curve and needs to catch up fast.

Thursday night (8, ESPN) offers that opportunity. Because of the attention, because of the intensity, because of the emotion, this game against North Carolina could serve as a jumping-off point for Duke to become the team Duke thought it would be.

This can be the kind of crucible that forges a team. It can make up for the months Duke lost. It can make Duke, once again, Duke.

"Knowing the magnitude of the game, the popularity, the fact that we're going to play one of the best teams in the country — year in and year out, that's what we're doing in this game — it does serve as a chance to see," Krzyzewski said. "If you win this game, that's a really good confidence boost for these kids."

There are signs of tangible progress. The defense has gotten better, although there was, and still is, a long way to go. The offense is running more smoothly, with Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen and Jayson Tatum doing a better job of getting the ball to the hot hand. Harry Giles has shown slow but steady improvement (and Duke has never needed him more than this game, with North Carolina's big-man trio of Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley).

North Carolina, watching from afar, is aware of the dangers that may pose.

"I can't really say at the beginning of the season they didn't play very well and now they're starting to click, because they didn't have their whole team," forward Justin Jackson said. "These last couple games, Grayson's been playing really well, Luke can really score the ball, having Jayson at that 4 spot kind of creates some matchup problems. They've got everybody back healthy, they seem to be rolling a bit and they have Coach K back on the sideline. It's going to be a battle."

Despite all the hype, this game isn't always a turning point or a launchpad. Sometimes it's just another game. Most of the time, even.

And win or lose, that may be how it plays out for Duke. This team may not be ready for its moment yet - its moment may never even come.

But Duke appears pointed in the right direction. It just needs a catalyst to take a giant leap forward, like a home game against its biggest rival at the time when all its pieces are finally starting to come together.