Game of the Week: #14 Duke at #8 North Carolina (Sunday, March 4th, CBS, 4:00 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 Kevin Durant and Texas heading to Kansas, Pittsburgh hoping to get revenge at Marquette, Michigan trying to get a marquee win against Ohio State, and several other quality contests. But the best is the rivalry of all rivalries—Duke and North Carolina. The Tar Heels are fighting for the ACC title and a #1 seed, while Duke is trying to position itself for a protected seed in the Big Dance. Separated by only eight miles and a few shades of blue, the battle for Tobacco Road should be a good one.
Duke is always the target for opponent’s hate, and this year the “haters” have had plenty of ammunition. The Blue Devils came into the season with only two returning starters, but they have still played well enough to be in the mix for a top-4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They play excellent defense, but are mediocre offensively. Ranked #8 in the RPI, the 22-7 (8-6 in the ACC) Blue Devils have been up-and-down for much of the year. They opened the year with four straight victories, including an impressive win over Air Force. However, they lost their next one to Marquette, in a game that would foreshadow Duke’s problems all season. Despite that, they won their next nine games, with victories over Indiana, Georgetown, Gonzaga, and several solid mid-majors. ACC play didn’t start well for the Blue Devils. They fell at home in overtime to Virginia Tech, and then lost by double-digits at Georgia Tech. Duke bounced back to pull off five straight wins, including home wins over Clemson and Boston College. However, after that, they lost four straight games, including two home losses to North Carolina and Florida State. Since then, though, the Devils have won four in a row, with three of the wins coming on the road. The Blue Devils average under 70 points per game, worst in the ACC, but allow only 59 a contest, 1st in the ACC and 17th in the country. Ken Pomeroy has Duke as the 37th-most efficient offensive team and the 2nd-most efficient defensive team in the country.
North Carolina is the deepest and possibly the most talented team in the country, which has helped in leading the Tar Heels to a top-ten ranking and a potential #1 seed March. UNC is explosive on the offensive end, and has improved their defense drastically since the start of the season. Ranked #3 in the RPI, the 24-5 (10-4 in the ACC) Tar Heels have been near the top of the rankings all season long. They opened the season with three victories, most notably over Winthrop, but lost their next one to Gonzaga in New York City. UNC bounced back to string together 12 consecutive wins, including victories over Tennessee, Ohio State, Kentucky, and Florida State. After their disappointing loss at Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels dominated their competition, winning five straight games by an average of 27 points per game. However, they then fell on the road to North Carolina State. That started a stretch in which UNC has lost three of seven, including this past weekend at Maryland and at home against Virginia Tech two weeks ago. They did win at Boston College and Duke during the stretch, though. The Tar Heels average almost 88 points per game, best in the ACC and 2nd in the country. They allow just under 68 a contest. UNC leads the nation in scoring margin, outscoring opponents by almost 20 points per game. According to Ken Pomeroy, North Carolina has the 3rd-most efficient offense and the 3rd-most efficient defense in the country.
Duke Team Breakdown
Duke ran away with the ACC title last season, behind J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams, but they have struggled—by Duke standards— this year. With only two returning starters and four freshmen receiving significant playing time, Mike Krzyzewski has not had it as easy as a year ago five teams to score more 70 points this season. Offensively, they are nowhere near as good. They lack playmakers that can create their own shot, and don’t have the athletes they are used to having at both ends of the floor. However, they are still fundamentally sound, and can get the job done. Like most Duke teams, they don’t have a lot of quality depth, with four players averaging over 30 minutes per game. The Blue Devils struggle against teams with athletes who can spread the floor and get baskets, as well as teams who can force turnovers. However, they are still Duke—and we all know what that means.
Duke’s frontcourt is a young group, mixing lots of talent with solid role players. It starts with big man Josh McRoberts, one of the best players in the ACC. He can do it all. He is a very good scorer, and can get points in a variety of ways. McRoberts can drive to the lane, post up defenders, and also shoot the mid-range jumper. He is also a good rebounder, at both ends of the floor. He has had double-figure rebounds seven times this year, and he crashes the offensive glass. Additionally, McRoberts is an outstanding passer who can also handle the ball extremely well for a big man. Defensively, McRoberts block shots and also racks up steals. He had scored in double-figures in thirteen consecutive games, but has only reached that mark three times in the last six contests. Starting next to him is role player David McClure. Hampered by injuries throughout his career, McClure was not expected to start this season. However, with the inconsistent player of the freshmen, he was thrust into a starting role. He is not a big scorer, but can get points on occasion. He hit the lay-up at the buzzer that knocked off Clemson in the infamous clock game. McClure is a solid rebounder and defender that plays bigger than his 6-6 size. Backing up the big men are freshmen Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek. Thomas has shown flashes of his potential, including a 10-point, 9-rebound game against Boston College, but is inconsistent for the most part. He has been shut out offensively seven times this year, but is very athletic and can run the floor well. Zoubek was expected to see more time, but his minutes have been up and down all year, and have decreased in ACC play.
The perimeter for Duke is the key to this team. Greg Paulus had a very good freshman season, leading the ACC in assists. However, he has been extremely inconsistent this season. Paulus has played a lot better lately, though. He is a very good long-range shooter who can get hot from deep at any time. He has improved his three-point range drastically since last season. He is a decent passer but turns it over too much and does not make great decisions all the time. He struggles against pressure defenses at times, as evidenced by his seven turnovers against Maryland and nine turnovers against Clemson. Paulus has improved his scoring since last season, and has scored in double-figures in twelve of the last thirteen games, after doing it only five times the entire season prior to the recent streak. Next to him is Jon Scheyer, who has been a very solid player thus far in his freshman year. He is a very good three-point shooter who has put up some big numbers this season in certain games. Scheyer is also a decent passer with good vision. He is unselfish, and, at times, too unselfish. He is also a good ball-handler and can run the offense very well. Earlier in the season, it seemed like the offense ran better with him rather than Paulus at the point. He has scored in double-figures 20 times this year, including the last six games. He had 26 points against North Carolina in the first meeting. On the wing is DeMarcus Nelson. The team’s leading scorer, Nelson can get points from a variety of spots on the floor and is one of the only players on the team with the ability to create his own shot. Nelson is a strong swingman that can shoot the three and drive past his defender for a mid-range jumpshot or a finish at the basket. He is also a good rebounder and defender who uses his athleticism to get boards and steals. Nelson has scored double-figures in all but four games this season. Coming off the bench is Gerald Henderson, another strong, powerful wing in the mold of Nelson. He is not as good of a three-point shooter as Nelson, but he can drive to the basket and finish and can also hit jumpers from inside the arc. He is also a good rebounder and a decent defender. Henderson had a season-high 14 points in the first meeting with the Tar Heels.
North Carolina Team Breakdown
After last season’s success, in which the Tar Heels surprised everyone by replacing four lottery picks and receiving a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, North Carolina is even better this year. They are terrific on the offensive end, nearly unstoppable in an up-tempo game, and also very efficient in the half-court. The Tar Heels are ridiculously deep, with ten guys averaging at least 11 minutes per game, and another two getting at least seven a contest. Defensively, they have improved greatly since the start of the season, but have not played as well lately. Five of their last seven opponents have scored at least seventy points on the Tar Heels. Not surprisingly, three of seven were losses. They have athletes and talent up and down their roster, meaning they don’t see a lot of mismatches on the defensive end. They might be the most complete team in the country.
North Carolina’s frontcourt is one of the best in the country, and the Tar Heels revolve around their trio up front. It all starts with Tyler Hansbrough. My preseason pick for National Player of the Year, Hansbrough is a beast on the interior. He is absolutely relentless around the basket, and never stops working when he is on the floor. He is very efficient shooting the ball and is a dominant scorer and rebounder. With more help inside this season, Hansbrough has had an even better season but has received less recognition due to his outstanding supporting cast. He has scored in single-digits only twice this year, and has yet to foul out of game. Brandan Wright has been one of the best freshmen in the country, and looks like a sure-fire lottery pick. He is extremely long and athletic, and is an excellent shot-blocker and rebounder. Wright is very efficient scoring the ball inside due to his finishing ability and variety of post moves. Additionally, Wright is outstanding at running the floor and getting points in transition. He has scored double-digits in every game but three this season. He can be a go-to-guy at times, but at other instances, he seems to lose interest and focus. Reyshawn Terry was vastly underrated on a national level last year, but he has been somewhat of a disappointment this season. His scoring and rebounding numbers have gone down, but he has improved his shooting. He is very smooth on the offensive end, and has the ability to shoot from long-range as well as drive along the baseline for baskets. Terry has been wildly inconsistent this year, however. He has scored only eight points in the last two games combined. He still is one of the best shooters in the conference, though, and is also a very good defender. Leading the way off the bench are wings Marcus Ginyard and Danny Green. Both are swingmen, with the ability to play both shooting guard and small forward. Ginyard is a lock-down defender who is very athletic and can really shut down the opposing team’s best scorer. He is also very long, which helps him rack up steals and rebounds. Green is a better offensive player, but he also is a very good defender. He can shoot the three with efficiency, and is one of the best free-throw shooters in the ACC. Green can do a little bit of everything on the court. Inside, Deon Thompson gets the majority of the bench minutes. He is a physical player who has shown the ability to get points and rebounds. Alex Stepheson also sees playing time.
The backcourt for the Tar Heels is also extremely deep and talented. Tywon Lawson and Wayne Ellington form one of the best freshmen backcourt duos in the country. Lawson is an extremely quick, explosive point guard who has improved in many ways since the start of the season. He loves to push the ball in the open court so he can use his speed and vision to get easy assists. Lawson is a good defender who can disrupt an opponent’s offense with his ball pressure. He does not turn the ball over much, and is a big-time playmaker. Lawson has one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the country, which is unbelievable for a freshman in this sort of offense. Ellington is a shooter, plain and simple. He has one of the nicest strokes in college basketball this season, but is shooting under 38% from behind the arc. His struggles have been magnified in ACC play, he has hit only 20 of 66 three-point attempts (30%). Nonetheless, he is also a solid rebounder and passer who can really fill it up if he gets hot from outside. He is third on the team in scoring, and has scored in double-figures 20 times this season. Ginyard and Green can swing to the backcourt off the bench to provide defense and size. Bobby Frasor and Quentin Thomas help out at the point guard spot. Frasor started last season for Roy Williams, and provides a steady influence at that position. He was hobbled by an injury earlier in the year, but has played 14 minutes in each of the past two games. Thomas is extremely quick who can penetrate into the lane and get assists. He sometimes tries to do too much, leading to a turnover. Since Frasor’s health has improved, his minutes have dropped Wes Miller is a very good three-point shooter who has seen his minutes and three-point percentage drop drastically this season.
Last time these two teams matched up, both were coming off of a loss, and Duke was in the midst of what would be a four-game losing streak. This time around, the struggles might be the other way around. North Carolina has lost three of their last seven, and while it might not be panic time, they need to turn it around for a #1 seed. On the other hand, Duke has won four in a row, with three of the wins coming on the road. They have played themselves right back into the mix for a protected seed in the NCAA Tournament. Aside from the rivalry aspect, this game has plenty of meaning. North Carolina needs to win to keep their tenuous grasp on a #1 seed and the ACC title, while Duke would love to keep their momentum going into the ACC Tournament. Expect a hard-fought contest between two of the best programs in college basketball history.
In order for Duke to pull off the upset on the road, the Blue Devils will have to do several things. First, they will need to execute in the second half, and down the stretch. It seems like every Duke-UNC game is close, meaning that the Blue Devils need to make plays in the end. They need to make this game a half-court contest, and force North Carolina to defend. UNC will wear the Blue Devils down in an end-to-end game, so Duke needs to slow it down. Offensively, Greg Paulus needs to take care of the ball and make perimeter shots. If he gets rattled by Tywon Lawson’s on-ball defense and turns the ball over, the Tar Heels will get their transition game going. On the wings, the Blue Devils need to get points. DeMarcus Nelson needs to assert himself as a go-to-guy, while Jon Scheyer will have to take open shots and knock them down. Inside, Josh McRoberts needs to take advantage of his athleticism edge over Tyler Hansbrough. He can take Hansbrough off the dribble and draw him from the basket. If UNC puts Brandan Wright on McRoberts, it will open up the driving lanes for Duke’s perimeter players. Most importantly, Duke needs to score. UNC will get their points—Duke has to match them. Defensively, Duke has to keep Hansbrough and Wright off the offensive glass. David McClure does not have the size or athleticism to guard Wright, but Lance Thomas might be able to slow him down. They also have to keep Lawson out of the lane. If he is able to penetrate effectively and create shots for himself and his teammates, that will spell trouble. As stated before, though, Duke needs to make this a half-court game. If that doesn’t happen, they won’t win.
For North Carolina to complete the season sweep of Duke, the Tar Heels just have to play their game and not allow their inexperience to get the best of them. First of all, it will be imperative for the Tar Heels to get their up-tempo offense going. The Blue Devils are not deep, but they are terrific in the half-court on the defensive side of the ball. They really guard the ball and cut off passing lanes. If UNC can get it into a running game, Duke won’t be able to set up their defense, and the Tar Heels will get easy baskets. Offensively, they need to get the ball to Tyler Hansbrough and Brandan Wright inside. Wright is too long and athletic for David McClure, and he could be primed for a huge game. Hansbrough needs to try to get Josh McRoberts in foul trouble. If Duke has to go to Lance Thomas or Brian Zoubek for an extended period of time, their offense will take a severe hit. On the perimeter, Wayne Ellington and Reyshawn Terry will have to hit open threes. The double-teams that Duke will have to use on Wright and Hansbrough should give the Tar Heels wings jump-shots. Also, Tywon Lawson needs to take advantage of his big-time quickness advantage on Greg Paulus. Paulus is not a good defender, and Lawson should be able to get into the lane. Defensively, North Carolina needs to pressure the ball. Greg Paulus is prone to turnovers against tough on-ball defense, and Tywon Lawson is as quick as they come. Points off turnovers will be huge for North Carolina. On the wings, Terry and Ginyard will have to force Nelson into tough jump-shots. Making him one-dimensional is key. Inside, keeping Duke off the offensive glass will be important for Hansbrough and Wright. The duo has the ability to dominate the paint.
In the end, North Carolina is simply too talented and deep for Duke. They have the advantage on the perimeter and in the paint, as well as on the bench. Moreover, the Tar Heels will be at home, and hungry for a win to keep their #1 seed hopes alive. Additionally, this game could be the difference between an ACC title and a third-place finish for North Carolina. They might be the more desperate team in this one. They’ll get the victory.
Prediction: North Carolina 72, Duke 65
Prediction Record: 9-3