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CLASH OF THE TOBACCO ROAD TITANS

With the exception of a quick shot to the face in the closing seconds of their last meeting, Tyler Hansbrough has always had his way with Duke.

With no true big man, the Blue Devils will have their hands full again with the star center-but the potential absence of North Carolina point guard Ty Lawson may be the equalizing force in a matchup of two of the nation's top teams.

No. 2 Duke (19-1, 7-0 in the ACC) faces its toughest challenge of the year tonight when it travels across 15-501 to face the third-ranked Tar Heels (21-1, 6-1) at 9 p.m. in the Dean Smith Center. This evening's showdown marks just the sixth time in history that the two teams face off ranked in the nation's top three.

"Both teams are pretty confident," guard Greg Paulus said. "You kind of throw out the records, and it's kind of like one of those backyard games."

Wednesday also marks the first meeting on the court between Gerald Henderson and Hansbrough since that infamous elbow-shot in last year's 86-72 North Carolina victory. Lost amid all the talk about Henderson's elbow, however, was Hansbrough's dominance over the Blue Devils, as he scored 26 points and 17 rebounds.

And so far this season, Duke has yet to show that it can handle a good post player.

In the Blue Devils' only loss this year, Pittsburgh freshman DeJuan Blair dominated inside with 15 points and 20 rebounds. Blair's strong rebounding played a major role in holding Duke to just one second-chance point. Additionally, Clemson center Trevor Booker put up 15 points and 10 rebounds in the team's 93-80 loss to Duke, and Maryland forwards James Gist and Bambale Osby combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds-each more than half of the team's total.

Hansbrough, a second-team AP All-American last year, leads North Carolina with 21.8 points per game and 10.4 rebounds per game.

"Hansbrough is the best college player as far as his value, what he brings and his toughness," Krzyzewski said. "Tyler gets fouled more than anybody in the country. You notice how hard he plays and how well they get him the ball, so he not only can put guys on the bench, he gets their whole team into bonuses by the way he plays."

The Tar Heels also play 6-foot-8 Deon Thompson and 6-foot-9 Alex Stepheson, whereas the Blue Devils' only true post player is Lance Thomas. Brian Zoubek will not play for the ninth straight game.

"We don't have a big, bulky center that can bully his way down there so we have to use what we have," Thomas said. "We have guys that shoot the ball incredibly and our front court is very versatile."

That solid perimeter play might be bolstered by the potential absence of Lawson. Four minutes into Sunday's contest against Florida State, the point guard went down with a left ankle sprain but did not participate in team drills in Tuesday's practice.

"He walked in the trainer's room on crutches," Williams said, "It's awfully difficult to go from crutches one day to playing against Duke the next day."

With junior Bobby Frasor already lost for the year with a torn ACL, third-stringer Quentin Thomas and swingman Marcus Ginyard would handle the point if Lawson cannot play. Losing Lawson, who averages 13.6 points per game and 5.7 assists per game, could be a huge blow for the Tar Heels. The sophomore guard, whom Paulus called "one of the quickest guys in the country," serves as the catalyst for North Carolina's high-octane offense, often blowing by defenders in transition for easy layups.

Lawson's absence may prove to be enough to propel Duke to its 10th straight win, and it would also snap a three-game losing streak to the Tar Heels. But Hansbrough, along with Thompson and Stepheson, will easily be the toughest frountcourt matchup so far for the size-challenged Blue Devils.

"Tyler Hansbrough is a great player and a huge force inside," sophomore Jon Scheyer said. "We've played a lot of big guys who've been tough this year, but he's probably the best one."

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