Over the next two days, the Chronicle Sports Blog will do a comprehensive, position-by-position breakdown of the crown jewel of college basketball’s regular season: North Carolina at Duke. Today we’ll take a look at the frontcourt, and be sure to check back tomorrow for a closer look at each team’s bench.
Playing the three for the Tar Heels is a player that all Dukies should recognize. He once had benches painted with his name and number on Duke's campus as the Blue Devil faithful hoped the top high school player in the Class of 2010 would take his talents to North Durham. He didn't, and Harrison Barnes was named a Preseason All-American wearing baby blue. Much has been made of Barnes' struggles so far this season: his 13.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game have been underwhelming for a player that was relied upon from day one to carry a heavy load. His shooting touch has disappeared for long stretches, and he's shown a tendency to settle for mid-range jumpers rather than attacking the rim. But don't sleep on North Carolina's No. 40. The incredible talent that made him a No. 1 recruit is still there, and he's shown off his potential over the last three games, averaging 23 points and 7 rebounds against three quality ACC opponents. He could present a significant matchup problem for the Blue Devils, since Duke doesn't have a player with his combination of size (6-foot-8) and athleticism.
The man for Duke here is perhaps the team's most unsung hero: while Kyrie Irving's injury and Nolan Smith's ascent to stardom have dominated the headlines, Kyle Singler has quietly been a versatile force for the Blue Devils. He rarely turns the ball over, shoots 45% from the field and nearly 80% from the line, and is a leading candidate for the nation's least heralded 18-point-per-game scorer. Look for Singler to be his same old reliable self on Wednesday night.
It's almost unbelievable to see any player listed at 6-foot-10 and just 210 pounds, but those are the given measurements on North Carolina's primary power forward John Henson. Another very highly regarded recruit who hasn't exactly lived up to expectations in Chapel Hill, Henson isn't a massive offensive contributor at 11.1 points per game. Putting him on the line is always an option, as he shoots just 40% from the charity stripe. Still, don't ignore Henson's contributions in other facets of the game. He's a good rebounder—his 8.5 boards per game rank fifth in the ACC—and his three blocks per game lead the conference. Like Barnes, he's started to come into his own of late, averaging 15 points and 11 rebounds over the past three games, and he's the sort of mobile big man who could give the Blue Devils fits inside.
Ryan Kelly will likely start at the four for Duke to make for a matchup of lanky power forwards, and his shooting range (42% from beyond the arc) could help keep Henson away from the paint, preventing him from blocking too many shots in help situations. Henson has a clear rebounding advantage over Kelly, though, and Mike Krzyzewski could turn to Miles Plumlee's superior rebounding skills if Kelly can't keep Henson off the glass.
The Tar Heels' biggest offensive threat is their center, Tyler Zeller. He leads the team in scoring at 14.1 points per game, converting at a solid 52% clip from the floor and doing a great job getting to the line (where he shoots a solid 76%). He's not a bad rebounder either, especially on the offensive glass, and at 7 feet tall he's always a threat to block shots. He takes care of the ball as well; he's turned the ball over just 27 times in nearly 600 minutes of play. But he's no great shakes on defense.
Zeller's counterpart Mason Plumlee has been a mystery wrapped in an enigma for much of Duke's season. He possesses rare athleticism, but his play this season has called his basketball IQ into question. He makes nearly 58% of his shots from the floor, but hits an abysmal 39% of his free throws. He's been a good rebounder (8.8 per game, 4th in the ACC) and shot blocker (1.8 per game, 6th in the ACC), though, and he has the talent to put up big numbers against any opponent.