Game of the Week: Duke at North Carolina

February 6th, 2008

Game of the Week: No. 2 Duke at No. 3 North Carolina (Tonight, 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. And, of course, it features the biggest rivalry in all of college basketball and arguably 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.

Duke Team Breakdown

Duke has bounced back from a disappointing season last year, in which it was bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Eric Maynor and Virginia Commonwealth. The Blue Devils have just one loss on the season, a one-point defeat at the hands of Pittsburgh when Levance Fields hit a step-back three with three seconds remaining. Duke owns impressive victories over Wisconsin, Marquette, Clemson and nearly everyone else in the Blue Devils’ path. Duke is ranked No. 5 in offensive efficiency and No. 6 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 16 minutes and 6.7 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 rebounder, and is second in 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 year 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.

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 21-1, with the lone loss a two-point defeat at the hands of Maryland in Chapel Hill. UNC owns wins the most top-100 wins in the country, with 14. That includes victories over Ohio State, Clemson, Kent State and Davidson, as well as many other solid teams. The Tar Heels are ranked No. 4 in offensive efficiency and No. 30 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 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 is averaging about 13 points and five rebounds over his past three games. 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, it is questionable that Lawson will be able to play against Duke tonight after spraining his left ankle against FSU Sunday. "Right now I don't think the chances are real good (that Lawson will play)," coach Roy Williams said Monday. His status for the game won’t be known until today. If he is out, either Ginyard (who has turf toe currently) or senior Quentin Thomas will handle the point guard responsibilities. Thomas tends to be out of control at times and turn the ball over, but he played well in Lawson’s place against FSU and has experience. Luckily for him, 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 struggling lately, though, averaging just 11.3 points per game in his last six contests.

Game Analysis and Prediction

Although Duke vs. North Carolina is always one of the best games on the college basketball schedule in February, this game has taken on added importance as it pits two of the top-three 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 six occasions this year.

If Duke is going to go on the road and pull off the upset, 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 on the roster since Brian Zoubek broke his foot, 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 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 healthy, and if not, Quentin Thomas will have to take care of the ball. 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. 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.

In the end, the most important aspect of tonight’s game – aside from the return of Dick Vitale, of course – is going to be the health of Tywon Lawson. If he is able to play – and perform well – on a sprained ankle, UNC will receive a huge boost at both ends of the floor. More likely, however, Lawson will have to sit out and Quentin Thomas will see extended minutes. He is nowhere near the player Lawson is, and could have trouble against Duke’s perimeter defense. Therefore, I’m leaning towards Lawson not playing – and Duke picking up a huge win on the road. They have the offensive firepower to exploit UNC’s defensive liabilities and the defensive pressure to stifle the Tar Heels explosive offense.

Prediction: Duke 81, North Carolina 78