Renewing The Rivalry: Previewing Duke vs. North Carolina

Posted by Brad Jenkins & Lathan Wells on February 12th, 2014

After the first week and a half of ACC conference play, Duke and North Carolina were struggling with a combined 1-5 record and fans had to wonder if the ACC’s two flagship programs were headed for disaster. Just four weeks later, these are two of the hottest teams around. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels are a combined 13-2 over that stretch, with the only losses for Duke at Syracuse and at UNC at Virginia. Of course that means that we could be in for another Duke vs. North Carolina classic in Chapel Hill tonight (9:00 PM ET – ESPN). In many ways this game should resemble most of their contests – intense, fast-paced, with several swings of momentum. Also as usual, it looks like it will be a match-up of Duke’s quickness and three-point marksmanship versus North Carolina’s size and inside power. Duke will look to extend an odd trend where the Blue Devils have won the last seven times the team’s first meeting of the year is at the Smith Center, and the road team has won 11 of the last 20 regular season meetings.

Roy Williams and Coach K bring contrasting squads together tonight in renewing their rivalry (credit: gettysports)

Roy Williams and Coach K bring contrasting squads together tonight in renewing their rivalry (credit: gettysports)

Let’s take a closer look at some of the key questions for tonight’s game, as RTC’s Brad Jenkins and Lathan Wells go back and forth on what each team needs to do to win.

Brad Jenkins: Given North Carolina’s lack of perimeter depth and the fact that Duke is second in the country in three point shooting (42.0%), featuring six different players who have made at least 20 threes this season, how can the Tar Heels keep the Blue Devils from shooting them right out of their own gym tonight?

Lathan Wells: North Carolina’s perimeter defense has been impressive in conference play, and it really starts with J.P. Tokoto and Marcus Paige.  Tokoto often draws the team’s best or most versatile perimeter threat, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him shadowing Rodney Hood in this contest. Paige will be tasked with guarding whoever is at the point, presumably Quinn Cook. The Tar Heels have done a good job of rotating to and closing out on shooters, but foul trouble would doom their ability to combat the multitude of outside options Duke will run at them. The backcourt starters will have to play a lot of minutes to keep Duke’s long-range attempts heavily contested. While North Carolina is trying to figure out how to stymie Duke’s perimeter game, how are the Blue Devils going to slow down a reinvigorated James Michael McAdoo?

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A Re-Energized James Michael McAdoo is Igniting North Carolina’s Run

Posted by Lathan Wells on February 11th, 2014

North Carolina is currently riding a five-game winning streak coming into their high-profile match-up with archrival Duke on Wednesday. After a 1-4 start in conference play the Tar Heels suddenly look more akin to previous Roy Williams teams, getting out in transition and putting up point totals (78 points per game in the last five contests compared to 62.4 in the five previous conference tilts) more reflective of the Carolina fast-paced philosophy. This, of course, all starts and ends with energy and effort, which the team collectively has emphasized as a turning point in their recent successful swing. One can look at the recent output of James Michael McAdoo as the most glaring example of North Carolina looking like a much more potent offensive unit than they did early in ACC play.

McAdoo's renewed intensity and effort coincide with the Tar Heels' five-game win streak (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

McAdoo’s renewed intensity & effort coincide with UNC’s winning streak (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

McAdoo has been the subject of tireless scrutiny during his career as he has morphed from a can’t-miss pro product as a freshman two years ago to a player who seems aloof for stretches and confused or overwhelmed by having been asked to play multiple positions this season and last. Even as the 2014 conference season began, with Carolina’s early non-conference marquee wins fading amidst ugly losses to Wake Forest and Miami, amongst others, many still couldn’t figure out why McAdoo wasn’t taking games over and helping Marcus Paige shoulder the offensive load.  Now, McAdoo appears to have settled into his power forward role and is excelling at playing to his strengths on a consistent basis.

The junior has averaged 17 points on 47.6% field goal shooting to go along with 6.2 rebounds over this five-game stretch, numbers that Tar Heels faithful expected to see from him on a consistent basis this year. Whereas McAdoo showed flashes early in the season of taking over games, he was just as likely to fade into obscurity for large chunks of a contest as he was to wow spectators. Now, McAdoo is using his combination of a quick first step to the basket and soft touch on baseline jumpers to become a very difficult player to defend. Still a liability from the foul line, he has nonetheless been unafraid to create contact in going to the hoop. A six-for-six showing from the charity stripe against Notre Dame on Saturday offers glimmers of hope in that department. With Marcus Paige on an odd stretch of having most of his effectiveness scoring the basketball coming in one half, McAdoo’s intensity for an entire contest has proved vital in the Tar Heels’ winning streak.

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Mark the Date: March 1 Will Decide the ACC Regular Season Champion

Posted by Lathan Wells on February 10th, 2014

There are still tons of great ACC match-ups left to be played this season with roughly a month to go until the end of the regular season. Pittsburgh and Syracuse will square off again, continuing the old Big East rivalry in their new home. Duke and North Carolina, the best rivalry in college sports (sorry, Michigan-Ohio State football), will be at the forefront of the nation’s basketball consciousness twice more this season. And following the epic Duke/Syracuse meeting in New York on February 1, the nation gets to enjoy a rematch in Cameron Indoor on the 22nd of this month. However, most should probably go ahead and mark March 1 on their calendar now. That’ll be the day the conference championship will be decided.

Tony Bennett's Cavaliers can claim the ACC if they keep rolling and take Syracuse at home (virginiasports.com)

Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers can claim the ACC if they keep rolling and take Syracuse at home (virginiasports.com)

Syracuse is currently sitting atop the conference with a perfect 10-0 record following their defeat of Clemson on Sunday night. Virginia, following another impressive performance in knocking off Georgia Tech on Saturday, sits at a very impressive 10-1. The two teams are going to square off on Virginia’s home turf in Charlottesville on the first of March, and this game will determine who takes the ACC. Crazy things can and may happen, but in looking at the relevant teams at the top of the conference standings and their respective schedules remaining, the road for these two teams seems destined to collide at John Paul Jones Arena with a title on the line.

Syracuse’s toughest games remaining (outside of the bout with the Cavaliers) are at Pittsburgh and at Duke. While a rematch with Pitt (Syracuse won the first meeting in 59-54 January 18) would appear to be a tough test for the undefeated Orange, it’s hard to project Pitt will overtake the nation’s number one team after struggling to defeat the ACC’s worst in Virginia Tech over the weekend in double overtime at home. That leaves the Duke game as the lone true test for Syracuse prior to meeting Virginia, and even if Duke responds with a win in a frenzied Cameron Indoor Stadium, that would merely move the Orange into a tie with Virginia with a conference loss apiece prior to meeting head-to-head.

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Kennedy Meeks Needs the Majority Of Minutes for UNC Down Low

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 31st, 2014

Even with all the uncertainty swirling around the North Carolina roster through the first half of the season, the consensus among most was that interior depth would not be a problem. And sure enough, Williams has shown that he will play his surplus of big bodies in nearly every game. Each Tar Heel post player has a unique skill set that lends itself to different moments and match-ups, but the center position has been an area that UNC has not been able to count on for consistent production. Recent ACC wins against Boston College, Clemson and Georgia Tech have indicated, perhaps, that this may be a concern of the past.

More minutes has meant more production from Kennedy Meeks and North Carolina. (USA TODAY Sports)

More minutes has meant more production from Kennedy Meeks and North Carolina. (Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports)

One reason for the up-and-down production over the course of the year can be tied to the fact that the individual manning the post at the opening tip-off has not gotten starter’s minutes. Sophomore Joel James started the first 10 games of the year before getting injured versus Texas, and he’s started two games since, averaging just shy of 11 minutes per game. James started all three games against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, and yet played fewer minutes than Kennedy Meeks versus the Cardinals (11 minutes to 24) and Spartans (16 to 18), and fewer than both Brice Johnson and Meeks in the victory over Kentucky (13 minutes compared to Johnson’s 24 and Meeks’ 19). Surely Williams saw something in James to name him the starter for those contests, but if he was going to play so sparingly, why not let someone else man the post to get in an early rhythm?

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London Perrantes Has the Virginia Offense Humming

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 31st, 2014

Virginia’s resurgence is well-known by now, with everyone from this site to Joe Lunardi taking notice — standing firm right behind Syracuse in the ACC standings will do that. But while Virginia’s defense is still as potent as ever (only allowing opponents to shoot 38.0 percent from the field on the year), it’s the Cavaliers’ suddenly white-hot offense that has them racing off to such a commanding ACC start. It would be a challenge to find anyone who projected Virginia would be fourth in the ACC in scoring (70.5 PPG) through eight games, but there’s one obvious catalyst for Tony Bennett’s best offensive team during his tenure at Virginia: freshman point man London Perrantes.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Notre Dame

London Perrantes has Virginia’s offense rolling and the team sitting near the top of the ACC (credit: usatodaysports)

While Tyler Ennis has garnered most of the freshman point guard accolades in the ACC this season, Perrantes can make an argument he’s just as vital to his team’s success as his Syracuse counterpart. He is averaging 4.8 assists per game in conference contests, but more impressively his assist-to-turnover ratio is an astounding 4.2 to 1. Like Ennis, Perrantes is lauded for his calm demeanor under fire and an innate ability to set and maintain his team’s preferred tempo regardless of opponent. Part of the reason the team is scoring at its current clip is because Perrantes is doing a tremendous job protecting the ball as well as knowing when to get the team out in transition (traditionally a rarity for Bennett’s squads). Virginia struggled while the young point guard was getting acclimated to the college game, but with him now firmly entrenched as the starter at the position, this team runs at a much more efficient pace.

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Matchup Zone Continues to Key Richmond’s Run Through A-10

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 25th, 2014

On paper, Richmond, now 4-1 in the Atlantic 10 after a win over St. Joseph’s Saturday, should not be competing with the better teams in the league. The Spiders are a team that is regularly outsized and do not have the same caliber of athletes as many of their opponents, but the reason the Spiders are playing so well is because of their intensity on the defensive end. Chris Mooney’s team boasts one of the best match-up zones in the entire landscape of college basketball, which allows the Spiders to compensate for their athletic and other deficiencies.

Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney presides over one of the best zone defenses in college basketball at Richmond (credit: usatoday.net)

After outclassing nationally-ranked UMass earlier this week, Richmond could have been in for a letdown of sorts on Saturday. Instead, the team came out with an extremely impressive effort defensively. As a team that starts two guards, two wings and just one post player, Richmond is already disadvantaged on the glass before the game even starts. The Spiders aren’t going to match most opponents’ rebounding efforts or their second-chance points, but Mooney expects and seems comfortable with that. Richmond lost the rebounding battle by 10, but still won the game by a 77-62 margin.

The reason for conceding a deficit on the boards is because of what Richmond can do in forcing teams into difficult offensive decisions. For example, a big man may receive the ball in the post to find 5’9” Kendall Anthony guarding him. Instead of a quick and easy two points, an immediate double-team comes from the weak side to force a kickout pass. The zone then resets very quickly, so there aren’t often many wide open looks on the opposite side (a major reason why, despite playing so much zone, Richmond was second in the A-10 in three-point field goal defense at 40 percent coming into Saturday). Perimeter players have trouble driving to the basket, and the amount of time it takes a team to find a decent look bleeds most of the shot clock. Richmond is only allowing 64 points per game (second in the A-10), and can live with the occasional offensive rebound from the other team because it’s so rare that the opponent can come in and dictate exactly what it wants to do.

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UMass’ Stumble at Richmond Exhibits Reliance on Chaz Williams

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 23rd, 2014

When a team has four players averaging  double-figures on the season, it’s easy to assume that an opponent can take any one player away without assurance of success. Massachusetts, one of the media darlings of the first half of the college basketball season, boasts a roster with several multifaceted scoring options. But if anything can be taken away from the Minutemen’s tough 58-55 loss to Richmond on Wednesday night, it’s that they have one indispensable player on the offensive end: Chaz Williams.

Chaz williams

As Chaz Williams goes, so too does the UMass offense and hopes of being serious contenders in the season’s second half (credit: sports.yahoo.com)

Fresh off of a selection to the 25-player midseason Wooden Award watch list, Williams struggled mightily against the Spiders’ defense on this night. While UMass has shown that it can play well at different tempos, the frenetic style of this game exhibited why their point guard is of the utmost importance. The size of Richmond’s Cedrick Lindsay and the other taller perimeter defenders bothered the diminutive Williams — there were no forays into the paint or open shots for the A-10 Player of the Year favorite, and the Minutemen suffered as a result. He seemed to be trying to do too much as Richmond’s defense smothered UMass’ every pass, and he was frequently out of control in trying to make up for an early deficit. Williams finished the night contributing only eight points on 2-of-11 shooting, along with four turnovers.

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Is This Roy Williams’ Worst North Carolina Team?

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 22nd, 2014

When North Carolina was trekking through an up-and-down non-conference season, all of the talk surrounding the Tar Heels was about their inconsistency. Great wins followed by head-scratching losses meant that pundits and fans alike spent their time trying to diagnose the Tar Heels — attempting to figure out which team identity would become the prevailing one. Now, after a 1-4 start in ACC play, talk of inconsistency is a thing of the past. Wins over Michigan State, Louisville, and Kentucky are long forgotten now that UNC has fallen to Wake Forest and Miami in winnable games, was soundly defeated by Syracuse in its first match-up with the new conference member, and was then thrashed by Virginia on Monday night. A solitary win over an uninspiring Boston College team may have allowed temporary relief, but with Carolina now sporting an 11-7 overall record and looking like an unreliable but average team, the question should be raised: Is this the worst team of the Roy Williams era in Chapel Hill?

Roy Williams Frustrated

A frustrating year may lead some to wonder if this is Roy Williams’ least impressive Carolina squad to date. (USA TODAY Sports)

When considering the squads Williams has governed at Carolina (and to his credit, Williams has an aggregate record at the school that speaks for itself), most will point to the 2009-10 season as his worst year at the helm. The Tar Heels failed to make the NCAA Tournament that year, stumbling to an overall 20-17 record (5-11 ACC). That team was crippled by the graduations of three-time All-American Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green and the early entries of Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson. While this year’s team lost only Reggie Bullock to the NBA Draft, the ultimate decision to not seek reinstatement for PJ Hairston left the current version of the Tar Heels without two extremely important cogs in their offensive machine. They weren’t the defending national champions by any stretch, but prior to the season they appeared to be a team at least capable of making things interesting in postseason play. Those personnel losses weren’t as substantial, but they have proven very significant in the roster and rotation upheaval they caused Williams’ team.

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Virginia’s Resurgence Directly Tied to Success of Joe Harris

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 16th, 2014

There is no question that Virginia entered the season fully expecting to be able to count on senior Joe Harris to elevate the team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 and make a serious run at the upper echelon of the ACC. Harris was considered one of the surest bets not only on the Cavaliers roster, but in the entire new-look ACC. He made the all-conference first team last season and received preseason votes for ACC player of the year.  After a non-conference slate from which the Cavaliers emerged an uninspiring 9-4 with zero standout wins and whiffs in statement games versus VCU, Wisconsin and Tennessee along with a bad loss to Wisconsin Green-Bay, fans and analysts alike surmised the Cavs were having disappointing seasons from just about everyone on the roster. But Harris was actually the main culprit, with his scoring way down and, perhaps most puzzlingly, carrying an average of only seven field-goal attempts per contest.

Joe Harris vs Duke

UVA’s long-term fortunes are directly tied to Joe Harris (credit: associatedpress)

Now, four games into the ACC slate, it appears that Harris has finally found his scoring stroke at just the right time. Virginia, needing a strong conference record to offset its non-conference woes, has begun 3-1 in the ACC with only a tough loss to Duke at Cameron Indoor blemishing their conference record. It’s no coincidence that much of what glaringly ailed Tony Bennett’s team early on has seemingly been remedied. The defense is still suffocating; the frontcourt is back to providing secondary scoring options and commanding the glass; and the team is getting better shots as a result of improved ball movement and patience.

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Could This Season Be the Breaking Point for Roy Williams at North Carolina?

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 10th, 2014

North Carolina’s loss Wednesday night to Miami, dropping the Tar Heels to 0-2 in the ACC, was depressing enough for head coach Roy Williams. Where once the storyline of their season was predicated on top-flight performances against the elite versus some head-scratching defeats, consecutive losses to Wake Forest and the Hurricanes have now relegated them to the status of a team merely fighting for relevance. If you watch Williams’ press conference following the most recent defeat (you can do just that in its entirety here), it’s easy to see that this season has already taken a monstrous toll on the legendary coach. Maddeningly inconsistent play has certainly played a major role, but negative headlines that have enveloped the school off the court have played an even bigger role in Williams’ angst. After years of signs that increasing disenchantment with the machine of big-time college sports and its evolution (or devolution, depending on how you look at it), has Williams reached a point where he might consider walking away after this season?

Roy Williams

Is this the year the outside facets of coaching college basketball gets to Roy Williams? (credit: goheels.com)

College basketball coaches will always have their ups and downs. Even the so-called perennial contenders still have years where they fail to fulfill their promise (Kentucky in 2013; Duke in 2012, etc.). Winning on the hardwood, especially with college basketball’s difficult one-and-done playoff system, is never going to be satisfying enough every year. Williams certainly knows that, having gone to seven Final Fours with Kansas and North Carolina and coming home with two trophies — in 2005 and 2009. It’s clear he enjoys coaching. He enjoys teaching and nurturing the players who come through his program. But it has been the outside factors — such as the AAU circuit and player “handlers,” parental involvement that has become rampant, and the enormous role sports plays in a university’s overall public perception — that are seeming to weigh on a self-described “old school” coach like Roy Williams.

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Quality of Depth is Key to VCU Sustaining Its Success

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 10th, 2014

Effective depth is at a premium in college basketball. VCU, predicating its success on a constant full-court game in a frenzied atmosphere, needs to not only have enough players to run at their opponents for 40 minutes, but talented ones as well. As evidenced by their first conference game on Thursday night, a 71-57 victory over in-state rival and A-10 newcomer, George Mason, the Rams have both the depth and the talent that will be required to make serious waves in the Atlantic 10 again this year.

vcu_juvonte_reddic

Juvonte Reddic is a catalyst for VCU, but the Rams reserves are equally as important to a big season (credit: csnwashington.com)

There are obviously players on this squad that opposing teams can look to as the focal points. Juvonte Reddick, the team’s starting center and best pro prospect, mans the middle and is often the sole post presence for the team. His rebounding prowess (14 boards last night, along with nine points) is of the utmost importance to a team that wants to get out and run at every opportunity. Briante Weber, the point guard, is one of the nation’s foremost steals experts, a menace in both the press and in the half-court. Weber’s acumen at the free throw line and an improved tear-drop floater he has developed this season have helped mesh his offensive game with his prowess on the defensive end. Guard/forward Treveon Graham is the steadying force on this team, a player who can bide his time for a half before becoming the go-to threat the team finds late in close contests, as it did in the win over Mason (Graham has now put up double figures in 39 of the team’s last 43 contests).

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Is Wake Forest’s Victory Over UNC a Stepping Stone or an Aberration?

Posted by Lathan Wells on January 6th, 2014

After Wake Forest’s upset win over North Carolina on Sunday night, it’s easy to conveniently revert to the narrative of the “Jekyll and Hyde” performances of UNC at this point in the season. Lost in the conversation could be how big the win could prove for Jeff Bzdelik’s Demon Deacons, a team that may not have dealt with the roster and eligibility concerns of the Heels but have been a program in flux since he took over three years ago and has struggled to resurrect a disenchanted fan base. The momentum this win could carry would be huge for a basketball program that has unquestionably fallen on hard times since the shocking death of Skip Prosser in 2007. The question is whether last night’s win was the work of a team simply motivated to win its conference home opener against an historic rival, or whether the Deacons are finally turning a corner to better and brighter things.

Devin Thomas

Effort and enthusiasm from players like Devin Thomas could mean a statement year for Coach Bzdelik and Wake Forest (credit: accbasketball.com)

The sustainability of Wake’s winning ways can certainly be debated, just as much as the oft-maligned Bzdelik’s ability to reinvigorate its fan base. Wake is coming off of a relatively weak non-conference slate — the Demon Deacons entered the game at 10-3 — and the atmosphere for its ACC opener at the Joel was somewhat disappointing with a strong UNC presence in the stands. Still, a win over the Tar Heels represents a quality victory — perhaps Wake’s second-best in the Bzdelik era behind a win over Miami last season — but certainly not a shocking one given UNC’s own struggles this season. Early foul trouble on James Michael McAdoo and J.P. Tokoto and an inordinate number of sloppy turnovers doomed UNC’s chances at a second half comeback, putting some of the onus on Carolina for the loss rather than Wake Forest manufacturing the victory.

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