Originally posted on Fox Sports Carolinas  |  Last updated 3/8/13
The last time North Carolina lost a basketball game was 24 days ago when the Tar Heels fell short of beating Duke in the Blue Devils rowdy home. UNCs winning streak is now six games. On Saturday, the Tar Heels will welcome the Devils to their own home, a palatial palace otherwise known as the Dean Dome to most college basketball fans. Just like at Dukes Cameron Indoor Stadium, banners hang everywhere in this hallowed facility. Retired and honored jerseys of some of the sports greatest stars are also there for the viewing. It is a pretty impressive display, greater in numbers and space than at Duke. It is even a bit in-your-face by its sheer volume, but thats how UNC likes it. Many teams have ventured into the Dean Smith Center and fallen victim to those honored ghosts of years past. Dukes victims are often swallowed whole by the boisterous Cameron Crazies, the schools students who make themselves a verifiable sixth man. At UNC, the banners and the aura serve a similar purpose, especially when the Tar Heels are clicking. After three months of searching, the Heels (22-8, 12-5 ACC) have spent the last month ascending. And in Wednesdays 79-68 victory at Maryland, for the first time this season they looked like so many of those teams honored in the rafters of their massive home, once coined the Taj Mahal of basketball by sportscaster Tim Brando. Duke (26-4, 13-4) wont succumb to the national championship and Final Four banners of the jerseys honoring the Rosenbluths, Jordans, Jamisons and Hansbroughs of Carolina lore. But the third-ranked Blue Devils can lose to the new-and-improved Tar Heels. The most important matchup of the game centers around 6-foot-11 Duke senior forward Ryan Kelly and 6-6 UNC sophomore P.J. Hairston. Kelly has played two games since missing 13 because of a foot injury and has scored 54 points 36 in his first game back - grabbed 16 rebounds and handed out six assists. He has converted 9 of 16 3-point attempts, easily getting off shots from the perimeter over smaller defenders. Thirty-six in your first game back, I mean thats outrageous, UNC coach Roy Williams said about Kelly. Im sitting there watching the game thinking, Oh my gosh. Thats unbelievable He changes the way you play if youre playing him with a post player He changes everybodys game plan every game hes played. He changed everybodys game plan because of who youre going to guard him with. Although undersized as UNCs four-man on defense, Hairston has battled opponents power forwards quite effectively, but trying to slow Kelly, who is comfortable scoring in the lane but more effective on the perimeter and moving laterally, is a different task. Perhaps Duke will use Kelly down low more than in the first two games and try to pound Carolina in the paint, forcing the Tar Heels to go big. Playing big doesnt suit these Heels too well. They prefer playing small and have developed terrific chemistry with a smaller lineup getting most of the minutes. Carolinas recent play speaks to that. Staying small for UNC means that Kelly will have to chase either Hairston (13.6 points per game) or 6-7 junior Reggie Bullock (14.4 points, 6.4 rebounds) when on defense, though likely it will be Hairston. Both players love to move without the ball, get open on the perimeter, and are comfortable darting to the basket. Kelly spent a good portion of Tuesdays win over Virginia Tech giving coaches the tired signal. Most of those requests were ignored because Krzyzewski and his staff understand keeping Kelly on the floor will more quickly get him into game shape. It is March, theres no time to waste. But the reality is that Kelly struggled shooting the ball once he got tired, and if UNC can run him ragged Saturday night, the Tar Heels have a better chance at notching a victory. Most of that will be up to Hairston. They remind me of some of the teams weve had here in the last 20 years when we went small, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Friday. You kind of open it up, youre shoot 3s. They have a lot of offensive weapons and Hairstons played great, not good, hes played great. Hes taken of his matchup and his matchup hasnt taken advantage of him because hes a really tough kid, hes strong, I just think hes tough-minded. So, a bigger player hasnt hurt him on his defensive end of the court, and hes really hurt that other player. Other factors could determine the outcome. UNC forward James Michael McAdoo is battling a bulging disc problem in his back while Duke actually had a full practice with every player involved Friday. But the Kelly-Hairston battle likely will tip the scales either way in this next installment of college basketballs most storied rivalry. And perhaps the uniqueness of the matchup can live up to the standards both teams celebrate through banners, jerseys and actions.
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