- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The 28-win average over the past five seasons. The regular place in ACC contention. A plethora of nationally televised games and perhaps the greatest name brand in college basketball.

So what does Duke have to show for its steady excellence in the latter half of this decade? Reminders its neighbor happens to be a bit better - at least lately.

Only on Tobacco Road, where less than a 15-minute drive separates one of the sport’s giants from another, can a team achieve all the Blue Devils did during the heydays of J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, DeMarcus Nelson and Gerald Henderson and still come under scrutiny.

The problem is twofold - a towering legacy built over the past three decades and, more significantly, a North Carolina outfit down the street that has won two national titles and reached four Elite Eights since the last time Duke made it past the round of 16.

“We have two of the top four or five programs in the history of college basketball right here,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They’re in the same conference, and they’re eight miles apart. The continued excellence that’s shown from both programs is not going away.”

But if that excellence is extreme - as it is for North Carolina, which has rattled off four 30-win years in the past five seasons - it leads to some curious questions. There’s one big one: What’s wrong with Duke?

Not a whole lot, if anything at all. Perhaps the Blue Devils were a piece shy of an extended postseason run a couple times. Maybe graduation damaged them more severely than usual en route to an un-Duke-like 22-11 record in 2007.

More likely, the school they’re invariably compared with is simply in the midst of one of its finest stretches in decades, fueled by the arrival of Roy Williams - much like Krzyzewski lifted Duke above Dean Smith-led North Carolina in the 1980s.

“It’s kind of funny,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “They’re being measured against that one team, just like in the ACC we’re measured against Duke and Carolina. He’s getting measured by that, and that doesn’t mean they’re not a great basketball team. It just means Carolina’s really been good.”

The Tar Heels aren’t going away, either, not after Roy Williams added a loaded freshman class featuring four McDonald’s All-Americans (John Henson, Dexter Strickland and twins David and Travis Wear) and secured a preseason No. 6 ranking.

Not bad for a team that lost four NBA draft picks and still brings back Ed Davis, Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson to extend the Tar Heels’ recent mastery of the ACC - as well as Duke, which has dropped seven of its last 10 against North Carolina.

“We just see it as a great opportunity to be a part of great tradition of great basketball,” Ginyard said. “We feel fortunate to be in that position. We also feel we have that responsibility to keep up that level of play. There’s no question I think we’ve been doing a fairly good job.”

There is a chance, though, Duke might just get the upper hand this season after watching the North Carolina juggernaut grow stronger in recent years. It might not be a return to the dominance of 1999 to 2004 - when the Blue Devils won 14 of 16 meetings - but the swing of the rivalry toward Durham wouldn’t be a shock.

The Blue Devils are ranked ninth in the preseason and arguably possess the ACC’s best duo in Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler. There’s depth inside, and while the backcourt is thin, arguably Krzyzewski’s greatest skill is maximizing the talent at his disposal.

Almost as important is the need to handle issues regardless of what happens to unfold down U.S. 15-501.

“It’s not like we base our performance - and I’m sure they don’t either - on ‘We did better than Carolina did, it’s a great season,’ ” Scheyer said. “Obviously both of us have expectations of Final Fours and national championships. That’s something with any team that if they beat you prior to that season, like the last year, you’d want to beat any team.”

There’s also the possibility perception is tilted not just by the Blue Devils’ past but the absurd success of their coach.

Krzyzewski owns three national titles and 10 Final Four appearances as he begins his 30th season. The Blue Devils reached seven Final Fours between 1986 and 1994, establishing a standard no other program has come close to matching since the mid 1970s.

That includes the Duke teams of recent vintage, including the outfit that won the ACC title last season but was pummeled in the regional semifinals of a tournament North Carolina captured.

“I’m proud of them,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve won 80 games in three years. But my guys will be judged because I’m still coaching.”

Whatever the reason, there could be at least a temporary balance of power this season, regardless of preseason rankings. North Carolina and Duke were deadlocked in first in the ACC’s preseason media poll, and ultimately they will be compared because of proximity and excellence.

“I think both programs have been very good for each other,” Roy Williams said. “If we win [or] they win, it pushes us a little more. When we play, it’s the biggest stage there is in college basketball.”

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