Dick Vitale might be out for a while with a throat condition — anyone surprised? — but his absence shouldn't have any effect on the excitement surrounding the two top hoops teams on Tobacco Road this ACC season.
The craziness is already underway.
On Sunday night, I stood in the middle of Duke's media room, having just completed my article on the Blue Devils' non-conference win over Cornell. I know this sounds wrong, but there I was — again, in Duke's media room — watching North Carolina.
The Tar Heels were having a helluva time against the league's third-best team, the Clemson Tigers. In fact, Clemson led almost the entire game before the Tar Heels tied it late in regulation. The game went to overtime, and Clemson held a one-point lead until UNC shooting guard Wayne Ellington drained a 3-pointer with fourth tenths of a second remaining.
And ... let ACC play get under way.
UNC will take on secondary rival N.C. State on Saturday — the Wolfpack's first ACC game — and Duke will begin its conference slate when it hosts Virginia Sunday night.
While Clemson will be tough, Miami and N.C. State could pull some surprises, and no league game is easy, the league title will ultimately come down to — guess who? — Duke and UNC.
Let me try my best to evaluate the two teams:
This is where UNC has its biggest advantage. Did anyone see Tyler Hansbrough dunk over 7-foot-7 behemoth Kenny George of North Carolina-Ashville Wednesday night? Yes, Hansbrough is a shoo-in All-American (although a closer look reveals that he traveled before the dunk).
The big question mark for the Heels hasn't changed in two months. Deon Thompson has yet to prove himself as a consistent player alongside Hansbrough. And his 46 percent free-throw shooting could cost UNC an important game.
Marcus Ginyard isn't a great shooter, but he's a solid defender and team player.
Duke, meanwhile, played without its two biggest players against Temple Wednesday — regular starter Lance Thomas and fill-in starter Brian Zoubek. Neither, however, is a big contributor for the Devils — and I don't see their roles expanding that much during conference play for the fast-breaking Devils.
Senior DeMarcus Nelson, who stands 6-foot-4, plays as if he's 6-8, consistently leading Duke in rebounds. He's also great at getting to the basket. Freshman Kyle Singler is Duke's other top rebounder — as well as one of its leading scorers. He will be counted on greatly against physical frontlines such as UNC's.
... Advantage UNC
Ellington is a different player this season. A lot of that has to do with confidence. You can tell that he believes he's going to make every shot he takes. I'm not sure that was the case a year ago. His 36-point performance against Clemson saved the Heels' perfect record.
His backcourt partner ain't bad, either. Ty Lawson still can be turnover-prone at time, but most of the time he triggers the Heels' fastbreak, forcing the fast tempo on opponents. When he and Ellington both play well, they form one of the nation's most formidable guard combos.
Duke shooting guard Gerald Henderson has great potential, but he doesn't perform at Ellington's level yet. Of course, he's also a different player. Henderson can get his own shot from anywhere on the court by simply elevating over the defense. He's probably the most athletic player on either team. He just needs to refine his moves a bit and take a little more initiative on the offensive end.
Point guard Greg Paulus is a deadly 3-point shooter, making 47 percent of his 3s. He lacks Lawson's speed and ability to penetrate, but he's been nearly as good at taking care of the ball, averaging two assists for every turnover compared to a 2.1-1 ratio for Lawson.
... Advantage UNC
This is where the Blue Devils have an advantage.
UNC suffered a huge loss when it lost backup point guard Bobby Frasor for the season to an ACL tear. Frasor was a nice change-of-pace player, who came in to give Lawson a rest and shot the ball well. Current backup Quentin Thomas is also battling an injury and hasn't gotten into any kind of playing rhythm all year.
UNC's Danny Green has been a great sixth man, playing substantial minutes and hitting key shots when the starters struggle — he made a huge 3 late in the Clemson game. Green is a big reason why UNC remains undefeated.
Green's fellow bench players have been ineffective, however. Forward Alex Stephenson missed a few games while visiting an ill relative in California and hasn't been much of a factor while in the lineup. Freshman Will Graves has seen an increased role of late and showed off his ability to step out and knock down 3-pointers, but he remains very young and inexperienced.
Duke's pair of freshmen off the bench are not inexperienced. Forward Taylor King and point guard Nolan Smith have played substantial roles this season, with King shooting his unlimited-range 3 and Smith relieving Paulus at the point — and, of late, playing alongside Paulus at times. Both players will be key cogs down the season's stretch.
But neither is Duke's best player off that bench. That distinction belongs to sixth man Jon Scheyer, who started all 32 games as a freshman but has graciously accepted his new role. No member of the Blue Devils considers Scheyer a bench player. He plays the second-most minutes (behind Nelson) and is one of Duke's five double-digit scorers.
David McClure is another key Blue Devil reserve. Back from knee surgery, which sidelined him early in the season, McClure is a complementary player who shoots when he's open, makes smart decisions, and is one of the Devils' best defenders. Maybe most importantly, he helps give Duke a 10-player rotation when everyone's healthy (Zoubek is currently out "indefinitely" with a broken foot, but coach Mike Krzyzewski estimates he'll be back shortly).
That rotation allows Krzyzewski to keep everyone fresh and running up and down the court every game, which is when the Devils are at their best.
... Advantage Duke
C'mon, this is like comparing Hawaii and Tahiti. Roy Williams and Krzyzewski are two of college basketball's best, and both will squeeze what they can out of their talent.
... Advantage Even
STYLE OF PLAY
UNC gets a slight nod here, because it is more effective in the halfcourt. Come March, it's harder to get out in transition, and the Devils have a more difficult time scoring when their fast-break opportunities are limited. UNC can always throw the ball down low to Hansbrough, although the Heels have to do a better job of getting him a touch on nearly every possession.
... Advantage UNC
Both teams have had so-called "wakeup calls." UNC struggled against Nichols State, not exactly a tough opponent, and then responded with a blowout win over Valparaiso. Duke blew a large lead against Pittsburgh and ended up losing its only game of the season, 65-64 in overtime. It then took a 16-day break, which showed in rusty offensive showings against Cornell and Temple. It will be interesting to see how the Devils shoot the ball against the Cavaliers.
Both teams have upperclassmen to lead them. While Duke is extremely young, Nelson is a senior who leads by example. Hansbrough is your consummate team player. He's said that he won't leave Chapel Hill until he wins a national title. What more can you ask?
Both teams have similar goals of winning the league and the national title, although the Heels' goal of taking home the main price is more pronounced. I'm sure, however, that if you ask Nelson what his ultimate goal is, it's to win Duke's fourth national title.
... Advantage UNC (by a hair)
I can't wait for these teams to meet on the hardwood. Like every year, I'm sure the games will be epic. I'm sure they'll be close. I'm sure they'll come down to the end.
While I believe UNC and Duke will split their two games, I'll take UNC to win the regular season title by a game or two over the Devils and then defeat the Devils for a second time in the ACC title game.
Get your couches ready for some serious sitting, folks. It should be another heart-pounding season of ACC hoops here in the Triangle.