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Mike Lopresti | | February 10, 2017

Rivalry games provide a taste of March Madness

Duke forward Jayson Tatum dunks over UNC's Kennedy Meeks in the Blue Devils' 86-78 win.

On Rivalry Thursday, there was the unmistakable whiff of March. Not just emotions and pride were on the table, but also a chance to send a message about next month. Or not.

Look at the refreshed standing of the Duke Blue Devils, after beating North Carolina 86-78.  Their season has been such a long and winding road, with youth and injuries and noise. Nine different lineups used, and five losses. More than anyone expected, on both counts.

But the group that went out for the fifth time Thursday night – Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones and Jayson Tatum – is now 5-0, after pushing past the Tar Heels in a duel that saw 17 lead changes. “We all grew up tonight.” Kennard said. Maybe Duke is onto something at last.

And Christian Laettner was in the stands to watch it all, his presence a reminder of where the Blue Devils want to go.  “We’ve had more interruptions than six teams,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “No excuses, that’s just the way it is. Now we’re coming together.”

P.S. Roy Williams is 386-113 at North Carolina, but 11-17 against Duke. So 15 percent of his Tar Heel losses are compliments of Krzyzewski.

MORE: Six of the most improved players in 2017 | Watch Tatum's monster dunk

Look at the new momentum from the UCLA Bruins, after they came from 19 points behind to blow by Oregon 82-79.

The Bruins had started to attract some questions. They had given up an average of 89.7 points in their three losses; a reminder of the old adage from the Book of March, that offense might fill up the highlight shows, but a team better have defense if it wants to stick around long.

Had Oregon taken its fast start Thursday and carried the big lead to the finish line, the questions would have been louder. As it is, the Bruins flexed their own defense to slow down the Ducks, and then switched on the incendiary device that is their offense to grab the game back.

The Bruins still have six guys averaging in double figures. If they play a little defense, think how scary they could be next month.

“We know March is going to be tough. Games like this get us ready for it,” freshman Lonzo Ball said. “February sets up March. It’s perfect for it.”

DI Men's Basketball: UCLA defeats Oregon

Finally, look at the sober faces on the Indiana Hoosiers, after a 69-64 loss to Purdue. The injury-battered team that once was ranked No. 3 in the nation is now 15-10, and tied for ninth in the Big Ten. The high-octane offense that once shot down Kansas and North Carolina has now been held to 64 or fewer points in four of the last five games – all defeats.

This is life on the bubble, which has become like a slippery balance beam. Indiana hosts Michigan Sunday and only two words come to mind. Must and win. Because after that, the Hoosiers play four of their last five Big Ten games on the road.

“It’s definitely tough to swallow,” James Blackmon Jr. said of Thursday night, adding the only option now was to move on. “We’ve just got to have a short memory.”

Purdue, by the way, is the only Big Ten team with an all-time winning record against the Hoosiers, 116-89. But they may never have had a play quite like one in the final minute Thursday. Not in 204 previous meetings.

Thomas Bryant – the Hoosier with 23 points – tried to drive past Caleb Swanigan – the Boilermaker with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Contact. Whistles. Official Lamont Simpson called it a Swanigan block. Official Paul Szelc a Bryant charge. Third official Pat Driscoll was not in position to break the tie, and settle this hung jury.

So . . . double foul, which happened to be the fifth for each player. Not every day you see the stars on both teams in a tight game wiped out by one call.  “A rare occurrence,” Simpson said via a pool report.

The bottom line for Indiana? “It would have been a great win,” coach Tom Crean said. But it’s getting a little late for wouldas and couldas.

DI Men's Basketball: Purdue beats Indiana

Like Duke, Indiana has had an awful time of it reaching full strength.  Two key players are long gone for the season, leading scorer Blackmon is just getting back after an injury absence, post De’Ron Davis was knocked out Thursday when he took a shot in the face, and guard Devonte Green barely played after hurting his back lifting a 35-pound bar during weight training.

“You can’t make this up,” Crean said.

Which means, as Crean mentioned, “our margin for error is not very big.” This example, for instance: Indiana came into the Purdue game 14th in the nation in field goal shooting, and the three starting guards went 8-for-34. Indiana can't get away with that.

Were the Hoosiers healthier, they might not be fighting for their Selection Sunday lives. “We haven’t used that as an excuse or a burden inside our program and we’re not going to start now,” Crean said.

Just don’t ask him about any bubble.

“We’ve got to get ready to play Michigan. I’m not smart enough to think past that.”

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