Game of the Week: No. 1 North Carolina at No. 6 Duke (Saturday, ESPN, 9:00 PM)
With conference tournaments starting this week, March Madness is officially here. Bubble teams are making last-minute statements to the committee, automatic bids are being handed out, and conference races are coming down to the wire. However, before Championship Week gets underway for every conference, there is still business to be decided in the major conferences. This weekend features several key games, including Louisville and Georgetown facing off for the Big East crown, UAB hoping to get a marquee win at Memphis, and several other quality contests. But the best is the rivalry of all rivalries -- Duke and North Carolina. Both teams are atop the ACC and are fighting for not only the conference title but also a No. 1 seed in the Charlotte region come Selection Sunday. Separated by only eight miles and a few shades of blue, the battle for Tobacco Road should be a good one.
North Carolina Team Breakdown
North Carolina came into the season as one of the top candidates for preseason No. 1 and the national championship – and it has not disappointed so far. The Tar Heels are 28-2, with the lone losses both coming at home. One was a two-point defeat at the hands of Maryland, and the other was the first match-up against Duke – without Ty Lawson. UNC owns wins the most top-100 wins in the country, with 16, including victories over Clemson (twice), BYU, Kent State, Miami (Fl.), Davidson, Kentucky and Ohio State. The Tar Heels are ranked No. 2 in offensive efficiency and No. 26 in defensive efficiency.
North Carolina is led by one of the best players in the country, junior big man Tyler Hansbrough. The All-America is a dominant big man who has taken his game to another level this season, scoring at least 17 points in all but five games this year. He is also averaging over 28 points per game over his last seven contests. He is an efficient scorer who is also a relentless rebounder that can convert in a variety of ways. Starting next to him is Deon Thompson. The 6-8 sophomore has shown flashes of his potential times this season, but has struggled mightily lately. Swingman Danny Green started earlier in the year at the power forward position, but he has become one of the best sixth men in the country. Marcus Ginyard starts at small forward. He is a tremendous defensive player who can guard nearly any position on the floor with his length and athleticism. Alex Stepheson comes off the bench down low.
In the backcourt are sophomores Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. Lawson might be the fastest player in college basketball with the ball in his hands, and he has the ability to score and distribute the ball in traffic and in transition for easy baskets. However, he missed six games with a high ankle sprain and is not yet at full-strength. In his absence, senior Quentin Thomas did an admirable job of filling in. He is very quick, but is at times careless and out-of-control with the ball. He became more comfortable the more he played, though, and averaged 6.7 assists in the six games Lawson missed. Ellington will start no matter what. He is a tremendous shooter and scorer who can make shots from anywhere on the court, from deep beyond the arc or in the mid-range. He is also heating up at the right time, averaging nearly 21 points per game over his last six contests.
Duke Team Breakdown
Duke has bounced back from a disappointing season last year, in which it was knocked out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Eric Maynor and Virginia Commonwealth. The Blue Devils have just three losses on the season, a one-point defeat at the hands of Pittsburgh when Levance Fields hit a step-back three with three seconds remaining, as well as back-to-back losses a couple of weeks ago at Wake Forest and Miami (Fl.). Duke owns impressive victories over North Carolina, Wisconsin, Marquette, Clemson and nearly everyone else in its path. Duke is ranked No. 6 in offensive efficiency and No. 9 in defensive efficiency – indicative of its tremendous balance at both ends of the floor.
Duke’s success starts on the perimeter, where it boasts one of the deepest and most talented set of wings and guards in the country. Five players rotate in and out of the game, with all five averaging at least 15 minutes and 6.5 points per game. Gerald Henderson and DeMarcus Nelson lead the way on the wings. Henderson has developed into one of the premier perimeter players in the ACC. He is extremely talented and athletic, and has finally been given a chance to showcase that. Nelson has developed greatly since he arrived in Durham, and is the team’s leading scorer, and is second in rebounds and assists. Greg Paulus starts at the point. The oft-criticized junior, despite his quickness and defensive deficiencies, is a solid leader that takes care of the ball and shoots the three. Jon Scheyer started last year, but comes off the bench this season and has developed into one of the best sixth men in the country. Nolan Smith backs up Paulus.
Up front, Kyle Singler has been one of the most impressive freshmen in the country. He is very difficult to guard, due to his ability to shoot the three, score inside and create plays off the dribble. He is fundamentally sound and forces match-up problems for nearly any defender. Lance Thomas starts at the five, but he’s more of an athletic forward who can run the floor and finish. Taylor King, who comes off the bench, is one of the best three-point shooters in the country. If he is open from anywhere on the court, he will take a shot. David McClure is a decent role player, and Brian Zoubek adds size.
Game Analysis and Prediction
Although Duke vs. North Carolina is always one of the best games on the college basketball schedule during the last weekend of the regular-season, this game has taken on added importance as it pits two of the top teams in the country against each other. Both squads are fighting for the top seed in the Charlotte region – and any other region, for that matter – in the NCAA Tournament as well as the always-coveted ACC regular-season title. Both teams like to push the ball and get transition baskets, but are also comfortable in a half-court set. Duke pressures the ball defensively with its stable of athletic perimeter players, forcing its opponent into turnovers and mistakes. At the other end, the Blue Devils spread the floor and create match-up problems because of the number of players that can shoot the three or take their defender off the dribble. North Carolina is one of the best offensive teams in the country, with the ability to knock down perimeter shots or throw it inside to Hansbrough and get baskets. Defensively, though, the Tar Heels have struggled at times, as they have given up at least 80 points on nine occasions this year.
If Duke is going to win the ACC and pull off the season sweep of North Carolina, it needs to do several things. First, it needs to take advantage of its perimeter depth and spread the floor in order to create mismatches across the board offensively. Kyle Singler can drag either Deon Thompson or Tyler Hansbrough away from the basket, and then take them off the dribble for easy baskets. If Danny Green comes in to play the four for UNC, Singler will have more than a three-inch height advantage. Also, Duke will have to take exceptional care of the ball against North Carolina’s perimeter ball pressure. Greg Paulus and Nolan Smith have done a good job of that this season, but will need to continue to do that if the Blue Devils have a chance of winning. UNC is not the best defensive team around, obviously, and Duke will have to make them play defense. Turnovers lead to easy baskets and momentum for North Carolina – exactly what Duke can’t afford. Defensively, Duke will have to stop Tyler Hansbrough. The Blue Devils have no one taller than 6-9 besides Brian Zoubek, and they don’t have any legit post defenders that can really stifle the opposition. If Hansbrough has a big game, it opens things up for the rest of the Tar Heels, which have a tremendously explosive offense. Lastly, Duke has to get back in transition defensively. Ty Lawson – and Quentin Thomas – loves to push the ball and North Carolina is very good at filling the transition lanes on fast-break opportunities for easy baskets.
On the other side, North Carolina needs Ty Lawson or Thomas to take care of the ball. Lawson is one of the premier lead guards in the country, but he might not be at full-strength yet; Thomas has become much more comfortable running the offense lately. Duke extends its defense well past the three-point line and sometimes past half-court if it senses vulnerability with the opponent’s ball-handler. Lawson can break the pressure and get the offense started by himself, but Thomas needs to be strong with the ball and not turn it over. Duke has plenty of athletes that can score in transition; UNC can’t allow that. Also, UNC needs to get the ball to Hansbrough early and often. He is much too strong and talented inside for anyone on Duke to stop. The Blue Devils don’t have a lot of height or inside strength, and Hansbrough can dominate down low. If he gets Singler or Lance Thomas into foul trouble early, it puts Duke at an even bigger disadvantage in the paint. Hansbrough had a monster game last meeting (28 and 18), but Wayne Ellington, Marcus Ginyard and Danny Green shot just 7-for-34. UNC’s perimeter players need to step up. Defensively, UNC needs to play tough perimeter defense and it also needs to rotate in terms of its help defense. Duke has several players who can take their defender off the dribble, but UNC will need to be sure to rotate over and step into the lane to stop penetration. Duke loves to get into the paint and then kick the ball out for open threes and jumpshots. Furthermore, Duke has a plethora of players who can shoot the three-pointer with efficiency – UNC will need to get out and contest the Devils’ shots. If Duke starts knocking down outside shots and getting into the lane, it will spell trouble for UNC. Duke hit several long-range bombs in the last meeting, which ultimately did the Tar Heels in.
Going into last game, the key was clearly the health of Ty Lawson. This game will be slightly different; Lawson is definitely going to play, but how healthy will he be? He played 21 minutes against Boston College and 20 vs. Florida State, but seemed closer to his old self in the latter game. He adds a different dimension to the UNC lineup when he is in the game. Despite his return, though, I’m going with Duke again. They have the offensive firepower to exploit UNC’s defensive liabilities and the defensive pressure to stifle the Tar Heels’ explosive offense.
Prediction: Duke 87, North Carolina 82