I don't have the chutzpah to predict a Duke victory tonight against Carolina. Last season, I watched as Tyler Hansbrough dominated the Blue Devils' top-recruit-turned-NBDL-journeyman Josh McRoberts in both contests. The year before, Hansbrough torched the national defensive player of the year at Senior Night in Cameron. How, then, can I pick a team without a true post defender to beat a team with arguably the nation's most effective power forward?
Funny I should ask. Obviously, the Blue Devils need to play smart basketball, their shooters need to shoot and their guards can't turn over the ball. But beyond the clichés, Here are five keys, that if executed, will translate into the Blue Devils escaping Chapel Hill with an unblemished ACC record:
- Greg Paulus must play like playoff Eli Manning, not regular-season Eli Manning
The comparison is obvious. Both players can frustrate fans to no end when they deliver the ball into an opponent's waiting arms. At times, each can look like a child who wandered into the middle of a movie.
But with two minutes left on the clock in one of the biggest games of the season, this is the guy who you want to have the ball. During the last two games, Paulus has played like a star when his team needed him most. At both ends of the court, he has emotionally taken over the game.
And in the most emotional of games, in the most hostile of environments, this is precisely the type of leadership the Blue Devils need tonight. When Psycho T bowls people over and Danny Green dances like a classless moron, Duke will need someone to help them match that intensity.
Though DeMarcus Nelson is the team's captain, Paulus has to be this team's heart.
- Run until you can't run no more
It's a shame that Ty Lawson hurt his ankle Sunday afternoon. Truly, it is. But injuries are a part of the game, and Duke must adjust its gameplan accordingly.
With Lawson banged up and possibly out and backup Bobby Frasor sidelined for the season, ballhandling duties will belong to the only point guard left on the roster-little-used senior Quentin Thomas, who has seen just 11 minutes per game thus far this season.
If Lawson is out, Thomas is one of just seven active Tar Heels who sees more than five minutes of playing time per game. With Green as the only wing bench player and Alex Stephenson in the paint, Duke should look to tire North Carolina as much as possible.
The Blue Devils need to take advantage of depth, and, if they get a lead late in the second half, they can't afford to let up at all. Coach K's patented stall-ball has a time and a place, but when the Tar Heels are panting like children, slowing down the game isn't the answer.
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- Let Tyler Hansbrough get his points
The bug-eyed junior is too good and too relentless to take out of the game completely, and Duke does not have the interior strength to hold him down. But he's also one of the strongest players in the country, and he gets over 38 percent of his points from the free- throw line.
The Blue Devils don't have the frontcourt depth to foul him repeatedly and be able to stay in the game. The half-court defensive gameplan, as it has been all season, should be to front him and put significant pressure on the perimeter in an effort to prevent entry passes. Once he gets the ball down low, don't let him turn a layup into three points.
- Make your free throws
Suprisingly, this has been a weakness for Duke this season. It baffles the mind how a team that shoots 39 percent from beyond the arc can shoot just 30 percent better from four feet closer with no defense.
But these rivalry matchups are always physical battles. Over the last four, a maddening 160 fouls have been whistled.
The Tar Heels know this lesson, too. Hansbrough shoots more free throws than anyone in the country and makes them at better than 80%. Starting shooting guard Wayne Ellington shoots 88%, too. They already nosed Clemson in a game earlier this season because the Tigers threw up bricks from the free-throw line. It's the first step to ensuring that debacle isn't repeated.
- Make Tar Heel big men play defense
Sure, the Blue Devils have a small interior. Not only must they limit that deficiency on the defensive end, but they've also got to exploit it at the offensive end. When Duke gets into its halfcourt offense, either Hansbrough or lumbering big-man Deon Thompson will be matched up with freshman stud Kyle Singler.
As he has shown, he'll knock down an open shot from the perimeter, so he'll draw Tar Heel bigs out of the paint. Making them run and play defense at our end for 40 minutes will certainly make them less effective at the other end.
No matter how you slice it, two of the nation's top three teams-and offenses-will take the floor of the Dean Dome tonight. But I think the Blue Devils can follow through on these points and set themselves apart. Ok, I've talked myself into it. Duke wins, 85-83.