Resurgent North Carolina visits Duke



A few weeks ago, ESPN was worried that its hype of North Carolina was once again going to be for naught this year.

Last season, the network assured everyone the Tar Heels were going to be a national power. And, even as it obviously WASN'T happening, they kept assuring everyone that the Heels would get things figured out in time. They didn't. And, North Carolina didn't even earn a bid to the Big Dance.

This year, the Heels were going to be back in the thick of things. North Carolina was ranked 8th in the first AP poll, which is pretty darned high for a team that didn't even reach the NCAA Tournament the year before! Last year was a little speed bump. Roy Williams and company would be in the national mix once again.

On Sunday January 16th, North Carolina lost by 20 points to Georgia Tech. That left them at 12-5 on the season. The prior week they were in the "also getting votes" section of the AP Poll, well off the pace of the Top 25. After that, no votes from anyone. Even COASTAL CAROLINA has been getting a vote for 25th place every week! North Carolina was officially off the radar.

And, it was deserved.

BOOM! Carolina has now won five straight games in ACC play, and has stormed back into the rankings (helped greatly by the fact that so many other ranked teams were losing!). A record of 12-5 was bad back when everyone else was 15-2. But, 17-5 looks solid when so many other contenders have similar records.

In the current polls:
20th in the AP
21st in the ESPN Coaches Poll

And, ESPN's Bracketology, always a place where the ACC is going to get respect, is currently projecting North Carolina for a FOURTH seed. That's a top 16 squad.

Duke is currently #5 in the polls, and a projected #2 seed ready to jump up to the top rung when Ohio State, Kansas, Texas, or Pittsburgh lose again. So, tonight's North Carolina/Duke game is matching a pair of top 20 teams in the AP poll, and a pair of projected Sweet 16 teams in the Big Dance. It's relevant again, after a one-year hiatus where little involving North Carolina was truly relevant.

Let's compare the two teams in a few of our favorite indicator stats...

OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY (adjusted for pace and schedule)
Duke 5th
North Carolina 38th

This stat greatly rewards three-point shooting and getting to the free throw line because you really maximize the impact of your possessions that way. Duke typically grades out well in this stat during the regular season, then underachieves in March because it's harder to hit treys consistently under pressure, and officials from other parts of the country don't favor them. Of course, they dodged all that last year and won the national title anyway! You saw what happened at St. John's though when the long range shots weren't falling. The Blue Devils will be at home tonight, which points to a high efficiency game.

North Carolina is fine nationally in this stat (with more than 300 teams being measured). But, in terms of elite basketball, they don't quite measure up to many other big name contenders. The team doesn't try many treys relative to the rest of the sport, and is spotty from the free throw line.

DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY (adjusted for pace and schedule)
Duke 7th
North Carolina 8th

Both of these teams are helped in the regular season by the fact that opponents tend to pressure themselves into bad shooting stretches when playing from behind. Start with good enough defenses anyway, then add that desperation pressure, and these two can grade out like they're the Boston Celtics. In recent Dances, they've been exposed as relatively soft inside compared to other power conferences. So, respect the defenses, but be careful about overrating them. You regulars know we prefer two-point defense to overall efficiency because the focus is on protecting the basket inside.

Duke 43% (21st)
North Carolina 44% (53rd)

These are more realistic. Duke grades out well nationally, but not among the best 16. North Carolina isn't even top 50. When March arrives, we believe the defense will look more like THOSE rankings than anything else you'll see.

In terms of the nuts and bolts, Duke is clearly the superior team right now. They've got the better record. They're playing better on both sides of the ball. What does that mean in terms of scoreboard margin? Let's look at ACC margin averages for some guidance.

Duke +13.9
North Carolina +8.0

Through the first half of league play, Duke is about six points better per game. That might be a smidge high because North Carolina hasn't played Wake Forest yet...and everybody kills Wake Forest. Maybe it's more like 4-5 points for Duke on a neutral court. Home court advantage is worth 3-4 points in college hoops, so we're looking at something in the 7-9 range as a stat forecast for Wednesday's showdown. You may want to give North Carolina more credit than that for being on a roll. You might want to dock them because you think the last few games have been an example of playing over their heads.

JIM HURLEY has looked at this game very closely, as well as other Rivalry showdowns on the ticket. We wanted to spotlight North Carolina-Duke because that's the game most of you will be watching. Here are conference margin averages for two other marquee matchups...

Syracuse: +3.5
Georgetown: +1.8

Syracuse looks to be about 1.5 to 2.0 points better on a neutral court based on those numbers. They'll be playing at home in the Carrierdome this evening. You may think that's a strong home floor. But, Villanova won there by 11, and Seton Hall by a stunning 22 points!

Note that in ESPN's current Bracketology projections by Joe Lunardi, Georgetown is a #3 seed, while Syracuse is a #4 seed. A big Syracuse win tonight might flip those numbers.

Texas +18.4
Oklahoma -3.5

Is Texas really 20 points better than Oklahoma?! We're skeptical that the Horns can keep up their torrid pace. Every single league game has been a double digit victory, including on the road at Kansas. You may have watched that 11-point win, or the 20-point victory at Texas A&M last week. If they play to recent form, they actually ARE that much better than Oklahoma!

Of course, the Sooners will be sky-high for a potential season saver. Oklahoma is only 12-10 this year (4-4 in the Big 12), and is nowhere near the national rankings or Bracketology discussions. The Horns knew to be scared of Kansas and Texas A&M. Will they take Oklahoma too lightly?

We can't say for sure as we go to press whether or not these rivalry games will on the NETWORK ticket. We only release the best plays on the board, and it's a monster schedule. You can purchase JIM HURLEY'S PRIVATE PLAYS (with another winner Tuesday night as the Timberwolves (+9) beat the Rockets outright 112-108) a few hours before tipoff right here at the website. Have your credit card handy when you log on. Full season rates are also available. You enjoy big savings when you make a long term commitment. Now that football is over and done with, you should be thinking very seriously about making through for MARCH MADNESS and beyond.

If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Back tomorrow to talk about the huge LA Lakers/Boston Celtics NBA showdown on TNT. Friday we'll take an early bird look at Ohio State/Wisconsin from Saturday's college card. It's a great week to be a basketball fan. Enjoy North Carolina/Duke tonight. Don't make a move on WILD WEDNESDAY until you hear what JIM HURLEY hast to say!


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