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December 1, 2008
North Carolina has looked almost unbeatable while cruising to a 7-0 start. The Tar Heels' average margin of victory is a gaudy 29.7 points, and the closest anyone has come to them is 15 points.
Still, conference play probably will be a different story. Since the ACC moved from a 14- to a 16-game schedule in 1992-93, only one team has gone unscathed (Duke went 16-0 in 1998-99). The Blue Devils were later upset in the national title game by Connecticut.
Last season, North Carolina lost two ACC games and was fortunate not to lose more. The Tar Heels survived overtime to beat Clemson and needed double overtime to get past the Tigers in their second meeting. The Tar Heels also had one-point wins on the road at Georgia Tech and Virginia.
So which ACC team should the Tar Heels be most wary of this season?
The most obvious answer is archrival Duke. Ranked No. 7 nationally, the Blue Devils return four starters from a team that beat UNC in Chapel Hill last season and finished just one game behind the Tar Heels in the league standings.
Wake Forest, ranked No. 19, also looks dangerous. The Demon Deacons added the nation's No. 3-ranked recruiting class and return every player from an extraordinarily young squad last season.
Rivals.com college basketball editor Bob McClellan believes the Blue Devils present the biggest challenge to the Tar Heels, while staff writer Andrew Skwara leans toward the Demon Deacons. They explain why below.
Skwara's pick: Wake Forest
I'm not entirely convinced Wake will finish higher in the league standings than Duke. But the Deacons do have more balance, more size and consequently more potential. That's why they pose a bigger threat to the Tar Heels.
Duke remains particularly weak on the inside. They lack an inside scoring threat and a shot-blocking threat. Those problems get magnified when you are going up against Tyler Hansbrough at least twice this season.
Compare that to Wake, which has the personnel to rank among the nation's top rebounding and shot-blocking teams. The Deacons' roster includes seven players 6 feet 8 or taller. That includes a pair of ultra-athletic 6-9 forwards, James Johnson and Al-Farouq Aminu. Both can score inside and outside, presenting matchup problems for any opponent.
Sophomore guard Jeff Teague also gives the Deacons a difference-maker in the backcourt. There might not be a quicker and more explosive guard in the ACC. When Teague gets hot, he can single-handedly take over any game. Just ask Duke, which had plenty of problems guarding him last season. Teague scored 26 points in the Deacons' 86-73 upset over the Blue Devils.
The Deacons do have some real question marks. They remain young. Senior Harvey Hale is their only upperclassman. Second-year coach Dino Gaudio has yet to prove he can win at a high level. But a tremendous amount of talent and depth give the Deacons a chance to be special - special enough to even knock off the heavily favored Tar Heels.
McClellan's pick: Duke
The college game is in the midst of a major trend and that trend is three- and four-guard lineups where everyone can handle, shoot from the perimeter, and drive and kick.
People keep knocking Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski for not having enough bigs. Is it a legitimate concern? Probably. But how many teams have really good post players? Ten? Maybe 15?
What the Blue Devils have are four guys who are comfortable with the ball, who can take opponents off the dribble and who can shoot on the perimeter. You can't zone them, and if you play man they spread you out and go by you.
It's a style I'm seeing more and more. Maryland used it to decimate bigger, stronger, taller Michigan State in a major upset at the Old Spice Classic. UAB is starting four guards, as is Oklahoma State.
It's an interesting strategy. A smaller lineup, especially one in which the man playing the 4 or 5 can stroke the 3, not only can create lanes to drive and get layups but also can draw bigger defenders away from the basket. If you've got a small team the last thing you want is a 7-foot flyswatter under the hoop.
No, a smaller team isn't going to beat the bigger team all of the time, or even a majority of the time. But on nights when it shoots the ball well from the perimeter and takes care of the ball, it can spring the upset.
When Duke won in Chapel Hill last season it got 60 points out of its guards and 14 from 6-8 forward Kyle Singler, who likes to step out and pop from the perimeter.
I'm not saying the Blue Devils are the class of the ACC. I like the Tar Heels to win the league and the national title. But when it comes to which team can sidetrack them, I'll stick with a veteran Duke team that has done it before.