CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- When North Carolina and Duke officially opened the Smith Center six years ago, Jay Bilas was asked if there was any special significance to the meeting between the then top-ranked Tar Heels and the Blue Devils, who were No. 3.
"It's an important game, but the winner won't be crowned king of the universe and the loser won't be banished to the gorge of eternal peril," said Bilas, then a senior forward for Duke and now one of its assistant coaches.
The same holds true for tonight's 9 o'clock game here between these not-so-friendly Atlantic Coast Conference neighbors. But should the Tar Heels win -- as they did that afternoon back in 1986 -- there will be some added significance: a shakeup in the top ranks of college basketball. Consider where the teams are now in terms of rankings, records and winning streaks. Since being throttled by North Carolina, 96-74, in last year's ACC Tournament final, top-ranked Duke (17-0, 7-0) has won 23 straight games and a national championship.
The No. 9 Tar Heels (15-3, 5-2) have proved merely mortal this season. They have lost three times by double digits: by 12 at home to Florida State in mid-December, last month by 12 to Notre Dame in New York and by 11 at North Carolina State. But they have won two straight.
"They looked very impressive in their win over Georgia Tech [Sunday]," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said yesterday. "They seem to be playing their best basketball of the season."
But will North Carolina's best be able to stop these rampaging Blue Devils, whom Smith called recently "the best Duke team I've seen"? There are indications that they are every bit as dominating as Nevada-Las Vegas was last season -- before the unbeaten Runnin' Rebels ran into Duke in the NCAA semifinals.
At the same time, Smith has been frustrated by his team's inconsistencies, due largely, he said, to inexperience. But the Tar Heels have recently begun to show signs of fulfilling their immense promise, particularly center Eric Montross.
"I said after the Georgia Tech game that it was his best performance since Purdue [in early January] and it might have been his best this season," Smith said yesterday of the 7-foot, 258-pound sophomore. "He was very active. He certainly needs to be active tomorrow night. I think he was putting too many expectations on himself, and he got frustrated."
The Tar Heels have been pointing to this game for a month, and that long-range plotting might have caused some momentary lapses. But being underdog at home -- a strange position for North Carolina -- will give Smith's team a chance to come into the game with a different attitude.
"We have nothing to lose," sophomore point guard Derrick Phelps said recently. "They're the ones with all the pressure."
Said Smith, playing those little psych games for which he has become famous, "Even if we were defeated by them, we could learn what we need to do to play a team on that level."
The Blue Devils are aware they have dodged more than one bullet en route to the best start in school history. They were nearly upset at Michigan in December before holding off the young, but wildly talented Wolverines, in overtime. They were almost beaten at Florida State last week before running off the last 14 points to win, 75-62.
Though the Dean Dome is only 11 miles from the Duke campus, it marks the beginning of a four-game road swing for the Blue Devils, who play No. 22 LSU Saturday in Baton Rouge, No. 24 Georgia Tech a week from tonight in Atlanta and N.C. State Feb. 16 in Raleigh.
"It's going to be a challenge," said sophomore forward Grant Hill, who saved the night against Florida State by scoring eight of his team's last 14 points and coming up with two big defensive plays. "But we're looking only at the North Carolina game right now. I didn't even know until after we played Notre Dame [last Saturday] that we had LSU. To tell you the truth, I don't know who we play after that. The coaches do a great job of getting us ready for one game at a time."
Krzyzewski, whose team also plays at UCLA later in the season, said recently, "We didn't schedule the games we did if we wanted to finish undefeated. We've had no discussions at all about it with our team. It's not the type of goal that you shoot for."
Said senior forward Brian Davis, "We understand that being unbeaten doesn't mean anything in March. We're trying to look at the big picture. We know what has to transpire over the course of the season. We know that we can improve. That's our main goal."