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A Few Words on Duke-UNC

The Duke-Tennessee game got a fair amount of hype, but things are really
heating up for the huge conference showdown between Duke and UNC. Both teams
are a perfect 20-0. Both have knocked off top ten opponents, with Duke beating
Tennessee and Maryland while the Heels defeated UConn on the road. Before I get
into matchups and such, let's have some links:
The Rivalry
Defense Is Key
Harding Vs. Latta
The Chronicle

The Heels don't have super-quick wing Nikki Bell or versatile guard Leah
Metcalf anymore, but they've overcome their absence with the elevated play of
Ivory Latta and Erlana Larkins, plus solid showings by their role players. The
Heels play 8 in their shortened rotation, though one of the starters plays only
about ten minutes a game. That would be Jessica Sell, a shooting specialist.
I imagine Hatchell starts her to stretch out defenses a bit and to have more
experience out there, but she's simply not quick enough to handle good
opponents, nor is she capable of defending quick foes. The Heels have done a
nice job in developing speedy backup point guard Alex Miller. She isn't much
of a scorer, but she can handle the ball and play defense. Her presence has
aided Latta considerably, allowing her to shift to off guard when needed. In
the post, big and quick center LaToya Pringle has played some productive
minutes. Pringle gets about 5 ppg, 5 rpg and nearly 2 bpg. She's by far UNC's
best shotblocker and will likely get significant minutes against Duke's big
frontline. The last significant bench player is Rashanda McCants. The sister
of you-know-who has had a solid frosh campaign, averaging 8 ppg. She's long
and versatile, but not a great shooter. McCants is pretty good at most things
but not great at anything in particular. I should note that frosh Heather
Claytor and Christina DeWitt have gotten more playing time as of late, but I
don't think we'll see anything more than spot duty for either player in this

Those four are the role players. Let's look at UNC's big guns. They are led
by quiet senior La'Tangela Atkinson, who simply does everything on the floor.
While she only scores 8.5 ppg (shooting 56%), she also gets 5.9 rpg and over 3
apg. She's the team's glue, which is why Alana Beard used to be assigned to
guard her. Duke mustn't allow her to have a floor-general kind of game, where
she gets multiple rebounds and assists and opens things up for others. At
forward is long and versatile Camille Little. After putting up spectacular
numbers as a freshman, she regressed a bit as a sophomore. As a junior, her
stats are solid but not eye-popping. This is misleading, because she's become
a much deadlier perimeter threat, along the lines of an Iciss Tillis.
Currently, she's averaging 9.9 ppg and 5.3 rpg, shooting 41% from three.
Little is quite capable of putting up big numbers if Duke isn't careful.

At guard is love-her-or-hate-her star Ivory Latta. After an extremely erratic
freshman year and an improved sophomore season, she has truly become a great
player as a junior. She's averaging 16.8 ppg, 5.5 apg and 2 spg, but it's her
greater efficiency and improved shot selection that's truly impressive. She's
shooting 45% from three and has cut her turnovers to about 3 a game. Still not
ideal for a point guard, but she takes a lot of risks. She's a gamer who loves
to shine in marquee matchups, and will certainly relish a chance to hang
another "L" on Duke. In the post is UNC's most important player, Erlana
Larkins. She is the model of efficiency and intensity, averaging 12.1 ppg on
65% shooting. She leads the team in rebounds (6.7 per game) and steals (43).
Larkins holds on to the ball, sets brutal screens, attacks the offensive glass
and is a relentless defender. Her presence inside allows the rest of the Heels
to freelance on defense, and forces opponents to send extra forces into the post
to stop her. Larkins has excellent chemistry with Latta and is the recipient of
many of her assists.

This is a tough Heels team because they have style and substance. As always,
they try to overwhelm opponents with quickness and physical play in hopes of
intimidating them. Unlike many recent UNC teams, they have a plan "b" when
this doesn't work. With Larkins inside, their halfcourt defense is extremely
hard to score against. The Heels do have weaknesses. They are not especially
tall. Pringle is 6-3, Atkinson & Little are 6-2 and Larkins is just 6-1. They
make up for this a bit with length, power and quickness, but they will be at a
serious disadvantage inside against Duke. The Devils must hold their ground,
not bite on fakes, and swat shots away. Establishing proper blockout position
is also key; the Devils must not allow Carolina to get a lot of offensive
rebounds because they will convert them.

UNC likes to score via turning the ball over and fast breaks, pushing the ball
much like Duke does. If either team holds a significant advantage in turnover
+/- (say 5 or more), that could tell the tale, because both squads convert at a
high rate. Transition defense will be absolutely crucial as well, because both
teams love to score when the other team lets down its guard.

Duke's squad last year matched up very poorly with UNC. Without a steady
point guard who dominated the ball, UNC attacked the passing lanes and came up
with lots of easy steals. Duke had no one who could slow Latta down, and she
wound up with lots of open looks. UNC neutralized Duke's size advantage inside
by double-teaming Mistie Williams. It was a great move for a number of reasons.
Williams was the only Duke player at the time who was a real and constant
scoring threat inside, especially with UNC's diminutive frontcourt. But she
wasn't a great passer, and so if she had the ball, it was tough to get open
shots. Duke's guards also tried to force the issue inside to her too many
times. UNC gambled that they could get away with leaving Bales open, and while
Ali got to the line she couldn't convert. They also gambled that they could
leave Duke's shooters open off the dribble, thinking that they'd have a hard
time creating their own shots. They were right on all counts. UNC didn't have
anyone who could guard Monique Currie (and they still don't), and while Mo
almost single-handedly brought Duke back in the first meeting, she wasn't
enough to stop the Heels the last two times they played.

What a difference a year, and the return of Lindsey Harding, makes. Harding
has evolved from being a top-notch defensive point guard who takes care of the
ball into an all-around star. While not as prolific a scorer as Latta, she's
been much more aggressive in looking for her own offense--especially against
big-name opponents who isolate on her. Her shooting is remarkably improved to
the point where she's still averaging over 50% from three. Defensively, she's
better than ever. The battle between Harding and Latta should be a terrific
one. Meanwhile, another key for Duke could be the play of Chante Black. A
non-factor against UNC last year, of late she's been consistently aggressive at
both ends of the floor. If she can score against the Heels, that will open up a
lot for Duke. Look for her to use her length and quickness to bother Little.
Currie will likely match up against Atkinson, who will try to use her height to
slow Mo down. Currie's jumper needs to be working, because I sense that the
Heels will sag off on her to start the game. Larkins and Bales will take on
Larkins, and both must concentrate on finishing with contact and blocking out.
If they can get her in foul trouble, things suddenly become easier for Duke.
Smith will take on the Sell/McCants slot with Abby Waner backing her up, while
Jess Foley will also take turns at off guard.

Look for Harding and Latta to play 40 minutes, for foul trouble to play a
major part in the game's outcome, and for a close overall game with the
eventual winner taking control with about four minutes left. One thing to
watch is the reaction of either team if the opponent goes up by double digits.
Past UNC teams have tended to fold under pressure, but this is a veteran group.
At the same time, this is also a seasoned Duke squad. Regardless of the
outcome, this is just round one between these two teams. The winner simply
gets a leg up in the ACC race, for now, and the #1 ranking. The loser will
still have plenty of chances to make up for it.

One last bit of news regarding this game: a number of recruits will be watching the game. That includes junior guard
Jasmine Thomas (Duke's top perimeter recruit in the class of 2007), sophomore
guards Elena Delle Donne and Caroline Doty, and senior forwards Joy Cheek and
Bridgette Mitchell. The latter two are already Duke commits, but they're
taking their official visit. Delle Donne is the #1 player in her class and one
of the greatest shooters at any level of women's basketball. Her size (6-4)
makes her very difficult to stop. Thomas is a lot like Lindsey Harding, only
with more offense, and Doty is another scoring machine.