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Next Up - The Other End Of 15-501

Oh, there's a basketball game tonight? Really? Why didn't someone tell us?

We could definitely understand why people outside of the area might be sick of hearing about Duke-Carolina already.  With everyone in the world yacking on about it, if it's outside of your orb, why wouldn't you get sick of it?  We understand.  Honestly we do.

Okay, we were nice to the losers.  Now on to the rest of us!

There is nothing like the attitude for this game.  It's beyond anything we've ever experienced.  And the thing is, as great as it is on TV, the electricity around Cameron cannot really be relayed by TV.  It's a phenomenal experience.  The energy in this game is simply beyond words.

The general opinion this year is that UNC is going to win, and there are some reasons for that.  They have the better inside game, for one, and their outside game is on fire lately. Duke has a tough time matching up with Tyler Hansbrough - nothing new there.  And Ty Lawson is playing his best ball for UNC this season.

But in spite of all this, we think Duke has an excellent chance in this game.  And here's why.

Duke's defense can be absolutely stifling  and it's very versatile as well.  You see Kyle Singler, Lance Thomas, Gerald Henderson, Jon Scheyer, Dave McClure, and those guys can guard four to five positions.  It's not at all uncommon to see any of them guard a three point shooter or a point guard and then get a rebound on the same play.

Duke also has turned into an outstanding rebounding team.  McClure and Singler are the best rebounders, but everyone else has contributed and several players have had big rebounding games throughout the season.

The Devils have also historically defended the three well.  We're pretty sure UNC won't shoot it like they shot it against Maryland. They'll get their share, but they won't be unguarded.

If Duke defends the perimeter well and it's hard to move the ball around, that could also minimize the effectiveness of Hansbrough: if it's hard to get the ball, it's hard to score.

We also expect to see Duke come out at a high emotional pitch, and they often tend to shoot better when they do.  If the three point shooting heats up, and Duke defends the three well, that also tends to counter Hansbrough's effectiveness inside.

Finally, although we're not sure what to expect on this front, there's no question that Duke's going to try to slow UNC down and keep them from running as much as possible. Easier said than done, of course, but it's a strategic requirement when you play UNC.

Like a lot of pressure offenses, they give up a lot by running so much, but expect (and usually do) score more points than the other guys, so giving some up isn't that big of a deal.  You have to pick your poison somewhere.

We're pretty sure both teams are planning on man-to-man, and while UNC has an advantage with Lawson's quickness, team defense can sometimes negate that somewhat.  But here we think Duke has an opportunity, first of all with Gerald Henderson, who has been superb for most of the season.  He's quicker than the big guys he's faced and stronger than the smaller ones, presenting the classic matchup problem, and he can jump over just about all of them.

This brings us to the point guards.  Greg Paulus was spectacular against Miami and, as Coach K said, earned the right to be called this team's leader under tough circumstances.  He's a tremendous outside shooter when he's healthy (injuries have been a big issue for him throughout his career), and at times he's reminded us of Wojo with his tenacity and refusal to back down.  We have always been big fans of his, and games like Miami, and Gonzaga in the Garden, when he was such a huge presence, show what he's capable of.

That said, like the rest of the world, he's not as quick as Ty Lawson.  What can you do?  The guy is a blur.  In a one-on-one situation, he's at an advantage.  One hopes help defense can, well, help.  But there's someone else who can help, too, and that's #2, Nolan Smith.

For whatever reason, Smith was ineffective against Clemson, and then of course was benched against Miami in favor of Paulus.  Here's what we know about Smith:  he can be a devastating defender, and he knows Lawson as well as anyone else in the conference, having played with him in high school. That means, like Henderson and UNC's Wayne Ellington, Smith and Lawson know each other's game intimately, and also each other's on-court personality.  Smith knows when Lawson is frustrated, or confident, or about to go off, and vice-versa.

Duke has a potential advantage with Smith for a couple of reasons, one intangible and one very tangible: UNC has not always handled dribble penetration well this year.  At his best, Smith has been brilliant about getting inside defenses for short jumpers.

An the intangible?  We're guessing that Smith has seen a ton of video, heard some brutally honest comments, and is ready to roll.  If UNC has trouble keeping him out of the lane, although Lawson is quicker, he would have trouble keeping Smith from getting off short jumpers.  Smith is three inches taller and while Lawson is celebrated for many gifts, leaping isn't often mentioned.

An aggressive Smith is a key to a Duke win, in our opinion.

We also think that while UNC started off the season with superior depth, that's really eroded.  They've lost Marcus Ginyard, their best defender, and Tyler Zeller, a promising freshman, to season-ending injuries (there are rumblings that Zeller could return but UNC would be foolish to limit him to a fraction of a season).  They also, for undisclosed reasons, kicked Will Graves off the team.

At this point, Duke probably has the edge in depth.  Against a thoroughly mediocre Virginia team, UNC used a seven-man rotation, with Mike Copeland getting seven minutes.

Against Maryland, they went eight deep,with Copeland again getting seven minutes.

But in their last competitive game, against Florida State, they went with their starting five almost the entire way, Ed Davis got 22 minutes, but the rest of the bench only came up with 14 minutes and nine points, eight of them by Davis.

So add all this up, and what do you get?  A talented and proud team, but one limited by injuries and suspension, which hasn't always played great defense.

We haven't mentioned the still-recuperating Hansbrough or Bobby Frasor, who is not the player he was before his knee injury.  We're not sure, but our guess is that Hansbrough is not completely over his injury and that UNC is managing it with therapy and not pushing him too hard in practice.

If they stick with man-to-man, Duke might try to drive and draw fouls, which UNC can't really afford.  It won't shock us at all to see UNC go zone.

Additionally, while Lawson presents serious problems, a constant, harassing defense could have an effect on a thin team by the end.

And while UNC has an advantage size-wise with Hansbrough, Davis, and Deon Thompson, unless they sit back in a zone, those guys have to move around.  That means following Singler and to lesser extents Thomas and McClure around.  Danny Green is versatile enough to guard Singler on the perimeter, but we're not sure about the big men.

This would be a great time for Shane Battier to slip McClure that Shaolin monks video he talked about after his first offensive explosion at Duke, by the way.

UNC, even though injured and possibly having some personnel issues as indicated by Grave's departure, is a talented and proud team.  They will expect to win and play accordingly.  It's going to be one of Duke's biggest tests of the year, as it always is, and as it should be.