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Big men ready to rumble at Wake

When No. 4 Duke and No. 7 Wake Forest collide for a showdown tonight at 9 p.m. in Winston-Salem, head coach Mike Krzyzewski?s squad will be an underdog for the first time this season.

In the AP poll, No. 4 Duke sits three slots ahead of Wake Forest. But when the two teams collide for a showdown tonight at 9 p.m. in Winston-Salem, head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad will be an underdog for the first time this season.

“[Wake Forest is] pretty much a well-oiled machine,” Krzyzewski said. “They can match up with anyone in the country and they are a national championship contender. We’re not that yet, and we may never be.”

Wake Forest has been blessed by inertia. Its roster did not budge over the summer and starters Chris Paul, Justin Gray, Eric Williams, Vytas Danelius and Jamaal Levy have all returned, as well as key reserves Taron Downey and Trent Strickland.

But the summer in Durham was much busier. The Blue Devils lost former starters Luol Deng and Chris Duhon to the NBA and were also unable to stop Shaun Livingston from making the jump from high school to the professional level. Players like Lee Melchionni, Patrick Johnson and freshmen DeMarcus Nelson, who played no role in Duke’s run to the Final Four last year, are now logging significant minutes.

On paper, the Blue Devils (16-1, 6-1 in the ACC) have the bodies to defend Wake Forest (17-3, 5-2). But North Carolina, arguably the most athletic and talented team in the country, had no defensive answers for the Demon Deacons when they met Jan. 15. Speedy Tar Heel guard Raymond Felton was assigned to stop Paul, but the sophomore scored 26 points and had eight assists and six rebounds.

Last year, Duke and Wake Forest each won the game on their home court. In those contests, Duhon and Daniel Ewing were assigned to guard Paul and Gray, respectively. This year, it’s likely that a combination of Ewing, Nelson and Dockery will have to stay with the explosive tandem.

“It’s going to be a good matchup,” Ewing said. “They might think they have an advantage, and we might think we have an advantage. When it comes down to it, you just have to stop people. They might hit some buckets on us, but you can be sure we will come back and hit some buckets on them.”

Under the basket, two very similarly built big men will go to war. Demon Deacon center Eric Williams has been unstoppable recently, averaging 26 points and 10 rebounds over his last three games against Miami, Georgia Tech and Cincinnati. Shelden Williams is having arguably the best year of any big man in college basketball, registering 16 points, 12 rebounds and 3.5 blocks each night.

In a college game that does not feature many true big men battling under the basket, this is an exception.

“Eric is even bigger than Shelden and has longer arms,” Shavlik Randolph said. “Eric is capable of moving people with his body, and he can create space. Sometimes when people are really big like that, it makes it harder for Shelden to move his arms and block a shot.”

In the past, Eric Williams has been accused of being out of shape and passive, but this year things have changed.

“He’s done a better job of demanding the ball,” Wake Forest head coach Skip Prosser said. “He’s finishing better and he’s making teams pay when they foul him. He’s caught the ball closer to the basket, where he can take quick moves to the basket, and that’s really helped him.”

If either Williams gets in foul trouble it could affect the outcome of the game. Both teams are not shy to admit that they heavily rely on their featured big men.

“We are going to need Shelden on the court,” Ewing said. “Even if he’s not producing the way he has been, we need his presence on the court to match up with Eric Williams.”

For the Blue Devils to win tonight, Redick will likely have to continue his season-long hot shooting steak. The 6-foot-4 guard is averaging 22 points per game, including 20 or more in his last five games, all against ACC competition. Redick has also been efficient, shooting 43 percent from long range, which is four percent higher than last year.

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