Originally posted on Fox Sports Carolinas  |  Last updated 1/11/13
Seth Curry has seen N.C. State play a few times this season, and hes pretty impressed. Theyre good, he said Tuesday night after he and his Duke teammates took care of Clemson. They have talent, they have great players. Theyre really good. Curry is right. The Wolfpack started the season perhaps a bit too high in the national rankings (No. 6) but its current spot at No. 20 is the teams highest since November, and is probably way too low. That, however, might be determined Saturday when the unbeaten and top-ranked Blue Devils (15-0, 2-0 ACC) make the 24-mile drive east to Raleigh to take on the Wolfpack. For Duke, which wont have senior forward Ryan Kelly, who is out indefinitely with a foot injury, its about keeping its perch atop the national landscape but also learning how to play without Kelly. For N.C. State, its about two decades of frustration and a rare chance at leap-frogging its bitter local rival in a sport that tugs at heart strings in these parts like few others around the country. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked Tuesday night if Saturdays game reminds him of the 1980s, when Duke, N.C. State and North Carolina were almost equally nationally relevant, and ACC basketball was a true religion on Tobacco Road. But since Duke went dominant and North Carolina continued being North Carolina, the Wolfpack simply got lost in the shuffle of the changing narrative around here. N.C. State fans frustration with basketball struggles reached so deep and became so painful many in the fan base tried to fashion themselves as a football school earlier in the 2000s. Apathy had set in that much. Following the failed tenure of Les Robinson, who replaced Jim Valvano in 1990, Herb Sendek jumped ship with pitch forks at his back in a move that was best for both parties, followed by five years of the failed Sidney Lowe era. The result of such instability has rendered N.C. State hoops literally irrelevant. Robinson, Sendek and Lowe combined to lead six Wolfpack teams to the NCAA Tournament where the team won just six games in 20 years. N.C. State flared up in Julius Hodges junior season in 2004 and beat a top-ranked Duke team, but otherwise, this series has been lopsided, and the church of ACC basketball has been missing out on what was once a great thing. Thats why Saturday is so important. Not just for Duke and whats on the line, and the Wolfpack (13-2, 2-0), which has so much to prove, including to itself. But this is big for the ACC, for the Research Triangle, for Tobacco Road and for league stops outside the Old North State. The UNC-Duke game has carried this conference for the last decade and it needs more nationally relevant games that are wrought with real hatred and passion, just like the way the ACC was back in the '80s. These teams have the DNA to light the fuse. Duke has the ever-cool Curry, who has a way of getting under opponents skin with long-bomb daggers and a disposition that hes just a bit cooler than everyone else on the floor. Dukes Mason Plumlee doesnt seem like a cohesive mix with N.C. States bigs. Hes a bit goofy, will certainly be the target of the Wolfpacks underrated student body, and will engender plenty of emotion the first time he catches, turns and knocks over Richard Howell and goes up for an uncontested slam, as Howell looks up from the floor. Kelly and his beard wont be on the floor to draw the wrath of the Wolfpack faithful, but Coach K will get more than his share. They dont like him much in Raleigh, and Saturday that dislike will turn into some heavy-duty venom. On the flip side, N.C. State has super athletic junior C.J. Leslie, who is just as capable of erupting on this stage and turning in a historic performance as he is of letting the emotion of the moment get to him and imploding. Howell will bang like he always does, but will he fall for Dukes bag of tricks and get coerced into foul trouble? Point guard Lorenzo Brown is the key. If he plays well, N.C. State has a chance to win. He and Plumlee may be the early front-runners for ACC Player of the Year, but Brown may have more control over the outcome of this game than the 6-foot-11 Blue Devil. Scott Wood is one Wolfpack player inclined to get under Dukes skin. Wood is long and thin at 6-7, and he doesnt look much like a scrapper, but he has a mouthy side to him that has at times served him well. Hes capable of turning a nothing-but-net 3-pointer into more, as he systematically works at getting into opponents heads when that duty calls. He did so in Wednesday nights win over Georgia Tech. And Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried came to the Triangle nearly 21 months ago unafraid of having to compete with UNC and Duke for local supremacy. He starred at Alabama as a player and had some really good Crimson Tide teams as its head coach. He was an assistant on UCLAs 1996 national title club. Gottfried knows how to knead dough, and hes doing it in Raleigh. He wont worry much about what Krzyzewskis doing on the other bench, and thats why this game should be an absolute blast. Both sides like their chances and everything about what they will bring to the PNC Arena floor. Its been a while since the Devils and Pack danced on this meaningful a stage together. Lets hope it has been worth the wait.
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