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Duke-North Carolina: It’s bigger than just a game

Duke Georgia Tech Basketball
John Bazemore - AP
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski argues with an official at Georgia Tech Tuesday.

ATLANTA Once Duke had finished business at Georgia Tech, it was time to pack the bus and head to the airport. The trip terminated on another bus, when it rolled in front of Cameron Indoor Stadium around 3 a.m.

That gave Duke approximately 40 hours before it was time to get back on the bus and take it down U.S. 15-501 to Chapel Hill, all the way to the Dean E. Smith Center for a 9 p.m. tip against North Carolina.

“So the main thing for our guys is to try to get some sleep, go to class,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We’ll practice in the afternoon, probably nothing physical. Try to get a great night sleep (Wednesday) night and play. It’s just the way it worked out.

“Obviously the decision not to play last week was an outstanding one,” Krzyzewski continued, referring to the postponement from the game’s original date, last Wednesday at 9 p.m., because of a winter storm. “It puts you at a little bit of a disadvantage, but there was no other time to play the game. You couldn’t play it any other time. And obviously right after we play them, we play another pretty good team (Saturday against Syracuse). So, just play them, see what happens.”

No. 5 Duke (21-5, 10-3 ACC) is halfway through a four-games-in-eight-days stretch, racking up victories against Maryland and Georgia Tech. Now comes the tougher part of the stretch, beginning with UNC Thursday and ending with the No. 1, undefeated Orange on Saturday. Earlier in the week, Krzyzewski compared the Thursday-Saturday stretch to a Final Four, in terms of timing and talent.

“You’re playing two teams that might be in the Final Four,” he said.

The magnitude of the stretch hasn’t been lost on the Duke players.

“These next two games, starting with Carolina, nobody in the country is going to play the type of games that we’re going to play,” Rasheed Sulaimon said in the Georgia Tech postgame locker room. “Being the Duke-Carolina rivalry, we know it’s going to be an amped-up game, especially at their place. We’re going to get back, we’re going to rest up, take what we did good from this game and learn from what we did bad and try to improve on it and get ready for Carolina.”

North Carolina (18-7, 8-4) is riding a seven-game win streak and has secured two more confidence-boosting wins since the game was postponed: against Pittsburgh last Saturday and at Florida State on Monday. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams watched live as Duke played Georgia Tech Tuesday night (“It’s a bad way to watch a game. There are a lot of commercials,” he said.) Then he went to bed as Duke began its travels.

A tough turnaround. Sure. But it beats the alternative.

“I’ll quote Chuck Daly (coach of the 1992 USA dream team), my great friend: It is what it is,” Krzyzewski said. “Would you rather not be in that game, even if you played the night before? Of course you would rather be in this game and the game on Saturday, no excuses and let’s play. We should be really excited. We’ll be ready to play. Hopefully we’ll play well, because North Carolina is playing great.

Williams is taking a similar approach with his Tar Heels.

“It is several games in a short time period, but we would be practicing almost every day,” Williams said. “They’d rather play games than practice.

“And it’s what it is. I try not to make any big deal out of it. I belittle the whole thing about people saying it’s hard. What good does it do to say ‘woe is me?’ It just makes people more negative about it. I talk about it as, ‘You guys get to play games instead of listening to me say get on the end line at the end.’ It’s a neat situation if you’re 18, 19, 20, 21 or old man Leslie (McDonald), 23.”

The Blue Devils are actually 3-1 this year when they have one or fewer days in between games. And, as Sulaimon pointed out, it’s Duke-Carolina: the extra energy the rivalry brings will help negate any tired feelings.

“But even if we were tired, games like Thursday, no matter if we’re dog tired, we’re going to be ready for it,” Sulaimon said. “We’re going to play and try to represent our program. It’s not just a game between this year’s Duke team and their Carolina team; it’s a program game. We’re going to try to represent our program and our coach to the best of our ability.”

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