Both Duke and North Carolina – who resume their rivalry on Sunday – are capable of winning the national championship, but the Blue Devils have a smaller margin for error than the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament.
In J.J. Redick, Daniel Ewing and Shelden Williams, Duke has an experienced and talented threesome, but losing Sean Dockery to a knee injury hurts the Blue Devils' perimeter defense. Dockery's absence also places more of a burden on Ewing, Redick and DeMarcus Nelson to be at their best every game.
Williams has been terrific all season but, in order for Duke to make a deep tournament run, he needs some frontcourt help from Shavlik Randolph, who's still recovering from mononucleosis. The play of Lee Melchionni could be something to keep an eye on, though.
Matchups are always significant in the tournament. Because of their limited rotation and suspect frontline, the Blue Devils are more vulnerable to an early exit than UNC.
Assuming that Rashad McCants can return to the starting lineup at some point before the NCAA tournament, Carolina is on the same level as top-ranked Illinois in terms of championship pedigree. Like the Fighting Illini, the Tar Heels have team speed, offensive and defensive balance, power inside, three-point shooting and a solid eight-to-nine man rotation.
Barring a catastrophic collapse or a significant injury before Selection Sunday, North Carolina and Illinois are the only certain No. 1 seeds. However, the one flaw that's permeated the Tar Heels' season is sloppiness with the ball. Turnovers have hurt them in their losses. If they do a better job of squeezing the orange, they might be holding the title trophy in April.
Taking care of the ball and ramping up the game's pace will be the difference for North Carolina in Sunday's rematch with Duke. Being at home will help the Tar Heels, too.
Sean May was terrific in the first meeting with 23 points and 18 rebounds, but he also had five turnovers (point guard Raymond Felton had eight) in UNC's 71-70 loss in Durham. Those turnover numbers have to come down for North Carolina to beat Duke, and I think they will.
The Blue Devils were able to scratch out the one-point win at home by controlling the tempo and playing pesky defense. They yielded just one fast-break basket and came up with 17 steals while forcing the Tar Heels into 23 turnovers. Duke also got a career game from Nelson, a freshman guard who scored 16 points and had four steals.
Carolina will be primed and ready for payback. In the last first games, the Tar Heels have averaged 86 points. Their ability to force the pace and to utilize a deeper and more talented rotation will be the difference in Chapel Hill.
- Tar Heels
- North Carolina
- Daniel Ewing
- Shelden Williams