Battle on Tobacco Road
How Duke can beat UNC; what can stop Memphis
Posted: Wednesday February 6, 2008 11:25AM; Updated: Wednesday February 6, 2008 2:08PM
Any time you have bitter rivals squaring off while they are ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the nation, you're going to get a must-see game. But make no mistake: This season's first Duke-Carolina showdown is a much, much different contest if Tar Heels point guard Ty Lawson is unable to play.
Lawson, who sprained his ankle Sunday, is questionable for the game. If Lawson is unable to play he may not totally eliminate North Carolina's chances of winning, but it seriously reduces them.
One ACC coach whose team has played both Duke and North Carolina this season put it thusly: "I don't believe Carolina can beat Duke without Lawson. Duke defends you every single possession, and their pressure will cause all kinds of problems for a team that is headless."
To make things worse, North Carolina is also missing its backup point guard. Bobby Frasor, the 6-foot-3 junior from Blue Island, Ill., suffered a season-ending ACL injury Dec. 27. That leaves the third option, 6-3 senior Quentin Thomas, as the starter. Thomas played a season-high 36 minutes after Lawson went down Sunday, and while Thomas did have six assists to two turnovers, the Heels needed overtime to beat the 11th-place team in the ACC.
"Thomas has shown a penchant for turning the ball over," the unnamed coach says. "Not only does he have to penetrate, he has to deliver. There's just a huge difference between him and Lawson."
So what can Carolina do to win without Lawson? Four things:
1. Run a crisp half-court offense. We all know the Heels are deadly on the break, but they need to withstand Duke's half-court pressure. That will enable them to get the ball to Tyler Hansbrough inside, where Duke is at a severe disadvantage. "Duke has only one big body in [6-9 freshman] Kyle Singler, and he's not that big," the coach says. "Carolina's got three big bodies, but most important they have the best one in the country in Hansbrough."
2. Pound the glass. Despite Duke's lack of size, the Devils are only sixth in the ACC in rebound margin during league play. North Carolina, however, is first at plus-11.9. Since the Blue Devils have adopted the warrior's mentality to rebound over bigger teams, the Heels cannot take this advantage for granted. If North Carolina does not win the rebounding battle by at least 10 boards, it will have a hard time winning the game.
3. Take away Duke's three-point shooting. This is easier said than done -- but it's possible if the Heels prioritize. "You need to get up on Duke's shoetops and make them either score inside or by driving because, guess what -- threes are worth more than twos," the ACC coach said. To the extent that it is impossible to prevent Duke from getting open looks, the Heels have to hope the Blue Devils are having an off night.
4. Get some production off the bench. Roy Williams lit a spark under his team in the first half against Boston College last week when he pulled the old Blue Team stunt and ordered a five-man substitution. The tactic worked, but there are only so many times a coach can reach into his bag of tricks. Duke will try to wear down North Carolina with its depth. If the Tar Heels' reserves -- namely Alex Stepheson, Will Graves and Mike Copeland -- don't answer it could be a tough night.
All this aside, I still think the Blue Devils are playing too well for the Tar Heels to handle at this point. I might have been tempted to pick Duke even with Lawson healthy. But with Lawson injured, the Blue Devils should emerge from the Dean Dome with a victory.
Final prediction: Duke 79, North Carolina 74
Other Hoop Thoughts
I am starting to think that Memphis cannot win a national championship because of the way it shoots free throws. The Tigers are ranked 323rd out of 328 teams in Division I in foul shooting. They were 21-for-41 from the stripe in the near-loss to UTEP last Saturday.
It was a great sign for Marquette to get a season-high 19 points and 10 rebounds from 6-10 senior Ousmanne Barro in last Saturday's win at Cincinnati. Barro is the Golden Eagles' only bona fide big man, but he has been playing pretty uninspired basketball for most of the season. He followed up that performance with only eight points and six rebounds in Monday night's loss to Louisville, so it's not clear whether he's turned the corner yet.