Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Game of the Week: #5 North Carolina at #16 Duke

Game of the Week: #5 North Carolina at #16 Duke (Wednesday, February 7th, 2007, 9:00 PM, ESPN)

Aside from the NCAA Tournament, conference tournaments, Cinderella runs, what makes college basketball special are the rivalries. Nothing is better than those intrastate contests between two neighboring teams for bragging rights. With ESPN introducing “Rivalry Week” a few years ago, we now have all of those rivalry games over the span of a few days. Over the coming days, there is Florida-Kentucky, Ohio State-Michigan (with all respect to hoops, this rivalry is far better in football), Oklahoma State-Oklahoma, Kansas State-Kansas, and many others. However, the game everyone is looking forward to is the one featuring the best rivalry in all of sports—the battle for Tobacco Road, North Carolina and Duke. Separated by only eight miles and a few shades of blue, all records and stats go out the window when the Tar Heels and Blue Devils get together.

Team Capsules

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-five ranking and a potential favorite for a #1 seed come March. They are explosive on the offensive end, and have improved their defense drastically over the past few weeks. Ranked #2 in the RPI, the 20-3 (6-2 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 a few weeks ago, the Tar Heels had dominated their competition, winning five straight games by an average of 27 points per game. However, the fell on the road to North Carolina State this past weekend. The Tar Heels average over 88 points per game, best in the ACC and 2nd in the country. They allow just above 66 a contest. UNC is second in the nation in scoring margin, outscoring opponents by 22 points per game. According to Ken Pomeroy, North Carolina has the 7th-most efficient offense and the 2nd-most efficient defense.

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-3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They played excellent defense, but are mediocre offensively. Ranked #8 in the RPI, the 18-5 (5-4 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 (in which they were aided by a, um, clock malfunction) and Boston College. Coming into the UNC game, Duke has lost two straight games by a total of three points, at Virginia in OT and at home to Florida State. The Blue Devils average under 70 points per game, worst in the ACC, but allow only 57 a contest, 1st in the ACC and 8th in the country. Ken Pomeroy has Duke as the 48th-most efficient offensive team and the most-efficient defensive team in the country.

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 12 minutes per game, and another two getting at least seven a contest. Defensively, they have improved greatly since the start of the season, and have held 14 of their last 16 opponents to below 70 points. 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. 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 two this season. Reyshawn Terry is vastly underrated on a national level, even though his numbers have gone down since last season. 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 in double-figures in only four of his last thirteen games—but three were in the last five contests. He still is one of the best shooters in the conference, 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. Ellington is a shooter, plain and simple. He has one of the nicest strokes in college basketball this season, which has helped him shoot over 40% from beyond the arc. However, in ACC play, he has hit only 13 of 40 three-point attempts (33%). 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 sixteen 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. However, he has been hobbled much of the season by an injury, which has forced Thomas to get more minutes. Thomas is extremely quick who can penetrate into the lane and get assists. He sometimes tries to do too much, leading to a turnover. Wes Miller is a very good three-point shooter who has seen his minutes and three-point percentage drop drastically this season.

Duke Team Breakdown

Duke ran away with the ACC title last season, behind J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams, but they have struggled somewhat 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. The Blue Devils are one of the best defensive teams in the country, allowing only three teams to reach 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. 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 had back-to-back 12-rebound performances two weeks ago, including six offensive rebounds against Clemson. 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 has scored in double-figures in thirteen consecutive games. 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. 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 wildly inconsistent. He has been shut out offensively six 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 since 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. Paulus has improved his scoring since last season, as well, and has scored in double-figures in six of his last seven 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 good passer with very 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 14 times this year. On the wing is DeMarcus Nelson. The team’s leading scorer, Nelson is a good scorer 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 three 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.

Match-Up Analysis

Both teams are coming into this game off of a loss, North Carolina to North Carolina State, and Duke to both Florida State and Virginia. It is not very often that you will see both Duke and UNC coming into the big game off of a loss. With that in mind, both teams need a win. North Carolina is now in third place in the ACC, and really could use a victory to get them back into first-place and in the running for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Duke, coming off of two losses, will drop to .500 in the ACC with a defeat here. With upcoming games at Maryland and at Boston College, the Blue Devils need a victory. Despite all of that, expect a hard-fought contest between two of the best programs in college basketball history.

In order for North Carolina to pull off the road victory in Cameron Indoor Stadium, they will have to do several things. First and foremost, they have to keep their composure under the pressure of the Cameron Crazies. With three freshmen starters, including both of the guards, they could have a tendency to get rattled by the fans. If they stay focused, they will be fine. However, the Crazies have been known to get in the head of a player or two. In terms of the game, 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. 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.

Duke, despite the fact that they are home, is the underdog heading into the game. They are not as talented nor as deep as North Carolina, but in a rivalry game like this, it’s all about effort and execution down the stretch. That gives Duke a chance—since games are not played on paper. 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 play like he did against Florida State. He was hitting his jump-shots and really playing well on that end of the floor. If he turns it over and gets rattled by Lawson’s on-ball defense, the Blue Devils’ offense will suffer. On the wings, DeMarcus Nelson needs to get points. It sounds simple, but Duke’s offense has not been overly successful this season. They will need to be efficient in order to keep up with North Carolina. Inside, McRoberts needs to take advantage of his athleticism edge over Hansbrough. He can take Hansbrough off the dribble and draw him from the basket. If UNC puts Wright on McRoberts, it will open up the driving lanes for Duke’s perimeter players. Defensively, Duke has to keep Hansbrough and Wright off the offensive glass. 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.

In the end, despite the fact that Duke is at home, North Carolina will come out on top. They are simply too deep and too talented for a Blue Devils teams that is struggling mightily offensively, and is not very good defending athletic perimeter players that can create their own shots. However, it’s a rivalry game, so anything can happen.

Prediction: North Carolina 73, Duke 70

Prediction Record: 6-3

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