Tuesday, February 10, 2009

No. 3 NORTH CAROLINA v. No. 5 DUKE

North Carolina and Duke have one of those famous rivalry games coming up down on Tobacco Road on Wednesday night. ESPN will make you think it’s the second-most important basketball game ever (with the most important game still to come), and while it’s not, the winner will have sole possession of first place in the ACC.

And, then there’s that whole bragging rights thing…

Both of these teams are well known to even casual fans. The book on each is pretty simple. Duke is a very good team that plays great defense. They are well coached at all times and when they shoot well they win.

Oddly enough, the Tar Heels aren’t much different. They too play better defense than you might think, but they also have to make jump shots to win for the same reason as the Blue Devils.

And that reason is that neither team is very big. If the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels can’t outrun a team, they are both at a noticeable disadvantage in the front court.

At the end of the day, the fundamental differences between these two teams are playing style and Tyler Hansbrough. Duke, like most teams, simply doesn’t have a player of his caliber. Nonetheless, both teams are small by “see you in April” standards.

Both Carolina and Duke start front lines that are dwarfed by UConn or Wake Forest standards. Carolina’s front line of Hansbrough, Danny Green and Deon Thompson measure 6’9”, 6’5” and 6’8”. Duke starts out with Gerald Henderson, Lance Thomas and Kyle Singler who measure 6’4”, 6’8” and 6’8” respectively. Coach K brings in 7’1” Brian Zoubek off the bench and Roy Williams counters with Carolina’s leading rebounder 6’10” freshman Ed Davis. Carolina lost talented 7’0” freshman Tyler Zeller to an injury in the second game of the year.

Here’s how they measure up:

DUKE
K. Singler, 6’8” – 15.8 ppg, 8.2 rebounds
G. Henderson, 6’4” – 15.2 ppg, 5.0 rebounds
J. Scheyer, 6’5” – 13.0 ppg, 3.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists
G. Paulus, 6’1” – 6.1 ppg, 1.5 assists*
L. Thomas, 6’8” – 5.5 ppg, 3.2 rebounds

OFF THE BENCH
N. Smith, 6’2” – 9.5 ppg, 1.7 assists
B. Zoubek, 7’1” – 5.6 ppg, 4.4 rebounds

* you can swap Paulus for Smith as Coach K recently did, but the numbers don’t change much.

NORTH CAROLINA
T. Hansbrough, 6’9” – 22.1 ppg, 7.8 rebounds
W. Ellington, 6’4” – 15.4 ppg, 4.5 rebounds , 2.6 assists
T. Lawson 5’11” 15.3, 2.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists
D. Green, 6’5” – 13.5 ppg, 4.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists
D. Thompson, 6’8” – 11.3 ppg, 6.6 rebounds

OFF THE BENCH
E. Davis, 6’10” – 6.7 ppg, 7.4 rebounds
L. Drew II, 6’1” – 1.9 ppg, 2.3 assists
B. Frasor 6’3” – 2.4 ppg, 1.5 assists

As you can see, neither squad is mammoth, and while that won’t be a big factor Wednesday night it may well be in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. Wake Forest can send out a front line that goes 6’11”, 6’11” and 7’0” on any given night. Florida State can come at you with 6’11, 7’1” and three 6’9” kids. And how about No. 1 UConn? Their roster includes Ater Majok (6’10”), Johathan Mandeldove (7’0”), Charles Okwandu (7’1”) and Hasheem Thabeet (7’3”). Yike.

Now both Duke and Carolina compensate for their lack of height with other virtues. Carolina is more athletic and up-tempo, and Duke is smaller and more methodical. The two teams play very different styles, and those styles are born out by their statistics.

Carolina is the second leading scoring team in the nation at 92.3 points per game while the more defensive minded jump shooting Blue Devils average 78.2 per game. That put’s Duke at 29th nationally – the meat in a Big East sandwich between Pittsburgh (28) and Connecticut (30).

The Heels have more rebounds as you might expect (984-910), but they also have fewer turnovers (311-302) which you might not. Carolina also has more blocks (137-101) while the Blue Devils have a few more steals (207-204). Another glaring number is trips to the charity stripe: 601 for North Carolina and 550 for Duke.

All of that aside, what jumps out the most when comparing the two rosters is the simple fact that all five Tar Heel starters are in double figures and they produce over 12 assists per game. Again, part of that is attributed to their up tempo racehorse style of play. If you are going to average 92.3 per game, a bunch of guys have to score in double figures otherwise the math simply doesn’t work.

However, both teams are in trouble when their shooting turns cold. Duke has shot poorly in their three losses and that’s critical for a Blue Devil team with no inside offense. UNC, when they are playing well, run their offense from the inside out relying on Hansbrough to soften up opponents while they throw double teams at him to produce open shots for his mates. In close games, this time tested strategy for success seems to occasionally slip their collective Tar Heel minds.

In their two losses, Carolina shot poorly especially in the second half when they managed just 29 percent against Boston College and 28 percent against Wake Forest. Neither of these teams can survive games like that.

While the Devils are known for their defense, Carolina’s surprises folks when they decide to really work at it. This typically happens at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half. Ol’ Roy’s Heels seem to turn it on and off like a light switch. Their stats are pretty good too as the Heels are ranked nationally in the eight major defensive categories.

The Tar Heels might not be as good defensively as they need to be, but they're not as bad as you might think. According to stat guy Kenpom.com, North Carolina is ranked 21st nationally in defensive efficiency, ahead of such stalwarts as Pittsburgh (26), Arizona State (31), Clemson (32), UCLA (38), Michigan State (42) and Oklahoma (47). On the same system, Duke ranks 18th behind ACC teams Florida State (13th) and Wake Forest (5th) . The most glaring weakness is Carolina’s inability to stop good dribble-drive penetrating guards like Tyrese Rice and Jeff Teague.

So, while Duke is very solid in all the defensive categories, can they keep up with the bigger, faster, more athletic Tar Heels? Probably not.

John Feinstein, who is a Duke grad, summed it up this way recently in the Washington Post:

Here is a fact that Krzyzewski knows better than anyone: Duke is not that good. That might sound ridiculous about a team that is 20-3 and tied for first place in the ACC. But this Duke team, like the past two that didn't play the second weekend of the NCAA tournament -- is very fragile. The Blue Devils have no inside offensive presence -- the Blue Devils attempted a school-record 39 three-pointers Saturday -- and lack quickness on the perimeter. So if they aren't making three-pointers, they can lose to almost anyone. They made 8 of 23 in the second half Saturday. That was enough -- barely.

Wednesday night, if both teams have “average” nights, North Carolina is bigger, faster and better statistically at almost every position than Duke. If one team shoots lights out and the other is cold, it could turn ugly early and not be the barn burner everyone expects from this rivalry. If both teams play and shoot well, fasten your seatbelt.

Hansbrough and Henderson are reliable, they will get their numbers Wednesday night. Singler and Ellington may hold the keys to the game while either Green or Scheyer needs to produce for his team to win. All six of them are capable of breakout performances at any given time. Lawson has to play well and not get frustrated as he did in both previous ACC losses. If Paulson plays well and shoots well, Duke is a different and better team.

Finally, there is one other interesting twist. This game is being played in Cameron Indoor Stadium where North Carolina seniors Tyler Hansbrough, Bobby Frasor, Marcus Ginyard and Mike Coepland have never lost a game.

Never.

They are undefeated (3-0) on Coach K court and, no doubt, looking to stay that way.

(Photos by Sara Davis/AP Photos/Getty Images/Reuters Images)

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