Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Duke v. UNC - The Frontcourts

UNC's depth advantage is primarily limited to guards, as both teams go 4 deep in front (ok, Zoubek may be a stretch as the 4th man, but he'll likely see minutes tomorrow). However, the frontcourt is where UNC enjoys the biggest talent advantage over Duke, tossing out a 1st team All-ACCer (and possible 1st or 2nd team All-American) and a 1st team all-Freshman for the ACC (and possibly the country - side note, do they award all freshman teams on a nationwide basis?).

The 4 spot for Duke is shared by David McClure and Lance Thomas. Occasionally Duke will go big and play McClure at the 3, and occasionally they'll go small and play Henderson at the 4 (or Thomas at the 5), but generally, one and only one of these two is on court at all times. Both have been hesitant to look for their shot, and the result of picking their spots is ridiculously good shooting - 30 of 47 from the field for the two combined. Both are also active on the glass - Thomas is Duke's best offensive rebounder, and McClure is the best defensive rebounder. McClure has a much more solid defensive game, and has been rightly acclaimed as a "little things" guy by the broadcast media. The biggest disadvantage McClure and Thomas will face is one of size. Both are athleticly built but not particularly solid, and McClure runs only 6'6" or 6'7". Thomas has had an up-and-down freshman year. He's prone to foul trouble, and extremely turnover prone (the two have gone hand in hand on more than one occasion).

Carolina, on the other hand, has some big fellas to trot out on the front line. Brandan Wright, UNC's starter at the 4, is big and athletic. He's been less dominant in ACC play than he was in the pre-conference, but he still shoots 57.5% from the floor, and is also UNC's best shot blocker. His rebounding numbers are solid, but not great, but it's the all around package that makes him special. Backing up Wright is Deon Thompson, who is a big and beefy 6'8". Thompson has been a big asset off the bench, shooting 63%, and being active on both boards, as well as picking up steals and blocks. Thompson has actually played better against ACC competition, surprising for a freshman who sees only 13 minutes/game. Wright and Thompson are both low post players, and look for Wright especially to do a lot of posting up when McClure is on him. In those situations, the combination of McClure's position defense and perimeter pressure from the Duke guards has been effective at denying entry passes, and it will need to continue to be effective tomorrow night.

The most imporant tasks for Thomas and McClure are to secure rebounds and stay out of foul trouble and on the court. Points from them will be bonuses - neither is likely to have too many plays drawn up for him. For Carolina, they'll want to try to exploit their size and strength in the post and get Duke's big men into foul trouble. Thomas and McClure have been very solid this year, but Wright is one of the best players in the conference (even if he's overshadowed by T-Han). UNC has an advantage at the 4, and how well they're able to exploit it could make a big difference in the game.

Tyler Hansbrough has turned putting a shoulder and elbow down and bulling into the opponent into an art. He initiates more contact than any big man in the conference, and much more often than not, gets put on the free throw line for his troubles. Hansbrough's free throw rate is over 80, which means he takes 4 free throws for every 5 field goal attempts. He has very soft hands and substantial upper body strength, which allow him to finish even after contact and make him an excellent rebounder. Aside from running the break (which he does well), he's exclusively a back to the basket player, and given that he's been given carte blanche to push his way through people on the way to the hoop, there's no reason for him to drift out to the perimeter. Hansbrough has stepped up his play in the ACC, leading UNC in scoring, offensive and defensive rebounding. The only big negative for him is that his turnover rate has gone up as well.

Squaring off opposite Hansbrough is Josh McRoberts. McRoberts was thrust into the center role by necessity after Williams graduated and Zoubek proved unready to step in as a freshman. Defensively, he's done a fantastic job. He picked up some of Williams' natural skill for blocking shots without picking up fouls. He's also very active on the defensive glass shutting down second chances. Even more crucial has been his ability to stay out of foul trouble this year - considering the amount of minutes and the position he plays, the fact that he's barely ever in foul trouble is remarkable. It will be absolutely essential for him to stay out of foul trouble against Hansbrough. On offense, the team still hasn't quite figured out how to use McRoberts. For a little stretch, we were putting him in the high post and running cutters and backdoors, and letting him play a bit of point forward. The last two games, he played much more exclusively inside, with mixed results. He hasn't ever been particularly adept with his back to the basket, as his post moves lack quickness, strength, and explosion.

The backups for the two centers have seen largely limited roles in conference play. Alex Stepheson had a nice game against Arizona, but hasn't done much in the ACC except rebound. For Duke, Zoubek now seems to play only if McRoberts is in foul trouble (rare) or needs a break (rarer). He's seen fewer combined minutes in the last 6 ACC games than he did in the first 3, and has scored only 13 points in conference play.

Hansbrough-McRoberts will be spotlighted as the marquee matchup of the game, and rightly so. It involves the best player on each team, and showcases two big men who play very different styles. Duke's success tomorrow night will be dependent on McRoberts' ability to check and counter Hansbrough. He needs to keep him off the offensive glass and off the free throw line to the greatest extent possible. He'll almost certainly get help from the perimeter, or from weakside post doubles - Hansbrough is not yet a great passer out of double teams. On offense, McRoberts needs to have a controlling influence on the game. He doesn't need to match Hansbrough's scoring, but he needs to have the ball in his hands making plays (or at least make UNC worry about him making plays).

I've mentioned foul trouble a lot, and officiating could be a big key tomorrow night. Last year, there was a lot of whistle swallowing in the Duke-UNC games (especially when going for rebounds), which was advantage Heels because of their more aggressive, physical play. This year's Devils are much more comfortable being physical and mixing it up, and a loosely called game could actually be advantage Duke, given their lack of depth. If the officials show a propensity for calling it tight, Carolina would be wise to go inside early and often and try to get Duke's frontcourt in foul trouble. Even though both teams have equal depth in terms of big forwards, UNC can turn to Terry, Ginyard, and even Green as a smaller 4, giving them flexibility if their starters pick up early fouls.

I'll check in tomorrow around mid-day with a look at the team styles and stats, and the key areas for tomorrow night's game.


Virginia wins their 7th in a row and now sits (at least temporarily) all alone atop the conference at 8-2. Better than 50% offensive rebounding helped them over come a 6-24 3pt shooting and 20 turnover in 70 possession performance. For Maryland, cold shooting and an inability to control the defensive glass killed a valiant comeback effort. They also made it tougher on themselves by going 8 of 15 from the line. Bonus Virginia statistical anomaly - the 'Hoos have the best 2pt% defense in the conference, but are the worst team blocking shots. Truly, this is a testament to the value of good, solid position defense, and very good defensive rebounding. Offensive rebound opportunities are often a team's easiest shots, and denying easy point blank looks is a good way to keep 2pt% down (this formula has worked for Duke this year as well).

NC State jumped out to a 19-4 lead on Tech but then got promptly run out of Atlanta, as the Jackets stromed back to win going away. Javaris Crittenton absolutely had his way with Engin Atsur offensively (21 points on 7-11 from the field with 7 assists) and defensively (Atsur was 1 of 9 with 6 turnovers, and Crittenton picked up 3 steals). Tech clings to tournament hopes yet another day.

Wake Forest beat Winston Salem State behind double doubles from Jamie Skeen (7! offensive rebounds) and Kyle Visser.

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