For the renewal of its classic rivalry, North Carolina and Duke failed to deliver a classic, but there were plenty of quirks and panic-mode moments to pave the way for Blue Devil bragging rights and Tar Heel travel plans.

As is tradition with this battle of college basketball’s bluebloods, telling (and often disheartening) events occurred in Cameron Indoor, Wednesday night. There’s no question the better team won—Duke, 73-69—but the way these things seem to just happen never fails to amaze.

Here’s a quick list: Duke’s second-half flurry of points led to a quick comeback; the oft-erratic Tyler Thornton shot 3-for-3 from downtown; Mason Plumlee shot 75 percent from the free throw line; Bo Pelini and Barry Switzer were, randomly, in attendance; The Tar Heels attempted three more free throws than Duke, but made four fewer. That’s just off the top of the head.

There’s a reason Duke is No. 2, though, and in better shape than they were at this time last season—the Blue Devils play with chemistry and poise, have consistent point guard play (unlike the Tar Heels) and can, at times, shoot the lights out, no matter who is hoisting up the shots (SEE: Thornton, Tyler). On top of all that, they have the sport’s top coach. Despite a potentially devastating injury to Ryan Kelly and a reliance on young guys in certain spots, the Blue Devils remain a legitimate contender.

North Carolina (16-8, 6-5 ACC) will be fortunate just to make the Big Dance, entirely.

They proved it again versus North Carolina, a team that faltered down the stretch, but, overall, played well on both sides of the ball. It just wasn’t enough. It might not be in Chapel Hill, either. Duke’s turnovers and rebounding certainly need addressing before the next go-’round, and if Coach K and his staff fix those problems, it could be an embarrassing result.

Still, no matter how it happened, Duke certainly has the upper hand in the 2013 edition of college basketball’s most popular rivalry.


KEEP AN EYE ON…

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: There’s plenty to love about this freshman’s game, as he continually proves in adjusting to the college game. Smart has triggered the Cowboys’ recent five-game winning streak, including wins over Kansas and Baylor. Smart has averaged 19.2 points over that stretch, while his assists, rebounds and steals—he ranks fourth nationally with three steals per game—have held constant. He’s an NBA guard, plain and flippin’ simple.

Mason Plumlee, Duke: His numbers jump out among a rather weak group of National Player of the Year contenders, but after seeing him struggle at times versus athletic opponents— C.J. Leslie and Kenny Kadji come to mind—it’s hard to buy into the fact that this is the nation’s top player. However, after scoring 18 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in Wednesday’s rivalry game with foul trouble, it’s still plausible that he could be the one leading the Blue Devils to a Final Four appearance.


THE FIFTH WATCH

Pittsburgh at Marquette: Don’t look now, but Pittsburgh is one of the most overlooked teams in the country—and the 16th-ranked Panthers can play. Coming off a disappointing 22-17 season mired with losing streaks, coach Jamie Dixon has this team playing efficiently (Ken Pomeroy’s rankings tab them at fourth-best nationally). Close losses to the likes of Michigan and Louisville are just as impressive as Pitt’s wins, but it cannot slip up to Marquette again. It’s time to make the leap. Pick: Pittsburgh

Ohio State at Wisconsin: The Buckeyes have struggled against top teams of late—losing to Michigan State, Michigan and Indiana—but were able to handle the Badgers at home last month, 58-49. Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas had a big game against Wisconsin last time (25 points, four assists) and continues to carry the team’s scoring load, so he can not lay an egg here against a stout defensive team (4th nationally). Wisconsin looks to extend its recent hot streak. Pick: Wisconsin

Indiana at Michigan State: In its January win over the Spartans, Indiana shot 16 more free throws and a higher effective field goal percentage. That’ll do it for the nation’s top-ranked offense. However, the Tom Izzo’s the most consistent team in the Big Ten and its 75-52 neutering of rival Michigan, Tuesday, was one of the most impressive wins of the season. Indiana needs to show up for this game, because statistics say the Spartans will. Pick: Indiana

Florida at Missouri: Once considered a premier SEC matchup, this showdown loses some luster due to Missouri’s unimpressive 6-4 showing in an underwhelming SEC. And you can all but ignore the Gators’ loss to Arkansas, last week. Florida is a power, as it proved with its shellacking of Kentucky (although an injury stole the headline, more on that in a moment). Mizzou point guard Phil Pressey has been asked to pick up the slack—his numbers have fallen off in some respects—and it won’t be enough, once again. Pick: Florida

Virginia at Miami: Any other season, this would be the type of game no one watches and you’d have to dig past a website’s home page to even find the score. But Miami now has a legitimate claim (at this point) to be the country’s No. 1 team—even LeBron James is taking notice—but, strange as it sounds, Virginia could prove a thorn in the Hurricanes’ side. Joe Harris, Jontel Evans and the Cavaliers have the ability to slow it down to a crawling pace (6th-slowest team around), which could frustrate the explosive. Still, an upset here would be a shock. Pick: Miami

THIS IS WHY…

Sam Bowie’s name keeps popping up.

In December, ESPN rolled out a feature profile on the former Kentucky big man—headlined by the “I am not a bust” sentiment—as a primer for its documentary delving into the upside, struggles and ultimate legacy of the man notoriously known as “The Guy Drafted Before Michael Jordan.”

Don’t let that happen to Nerlens Noel.

Don’t let Kentucky’s current center, and projected top draft pick, be a trivia answer years from now. Don’t let him be the guy who was practically funneled to the NCAA’s “amateur system” due to the NBA’s age limit and is now paying the unfortunate consequences: his season was derailed by an ACL tear suffered against Florida , putting his professional future—and livelihood—in jeopardy.

Will he make the NBA one day? Given his natural ability, and modern medical science, the overwhelming odds say yes, he will. But this will affect his draft stock. This will affect his earning potential. This will affect his family, his future, his life.

And why? Because David Stern’s league opted to ignore the infamous age-limit rule during the last round of collective bargaining—asESPN’s Henry Abbott recently identified as a major strike against Billy Hunter’s tenure—and continue to perpetuate the one-and-done environment in college basketball. That environment puts talented young men like Noel at risk. This is not opinion. It is fact. Noel’s injury only underlines it, and could help push the rule to the brink.

The popular opinion is that the league is protecting itself, financially, from handing out millions of dollars to unpolished, raw prospects, although, as has been identified multiple times, the bust rate of draft picks has held relatively constant since the implementation of the age limit in 2005.

This is why change is on the horizon in the NBA, as the player’s union cannot keep letting its future members be forced into a year of under-compensated competition. Nerlens Noel deserved more. Put him in last year’s draft as a high schooler: You’re trying to say NBA teams were taking less of a risk by picking the likes of Meyers Leonard, Royce White, Tyler Zeller, Andrew Nicholson or Miles Plumlee in the first round over him? Not even close.

This is why, despite Kentucky’s past history with standout big men and injuries, the NCAA’s track record of putting young men at unnecessary financial risk is an even bigger issue—and one that needs addressing soon.