Each year, the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Duke Blue Devils go head-to-head in a perennial battle for supremacy in the ACC. Played twice per season, once in Chapel Hill (home of the Tar Heels) and once in Durham (home of the Blue Devils), the Battle of Tobacco Road is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, rivalry in all of sports.
With relatively few exceptions, the series has been competitive each and every year, with each team usually winning one of the two games against each other each season. On occasion, however, one team becomes dominant for a brief period of time. In recent years, North Carolina was dominant over Duke for stretches of the Tyler Hansbrough era, while Duke swept the UNC during the 2009-10 season, when the Tar Heels struggled to a 20-17 season.
This year may be one of those years, and it appears to be North Carolina's turn. The stars appear to be aligning for a potential National Championship run for Roy Williams' squad, and the only opponent standing in their way in the ACC is likely Coach K's Blue Devils.
Here's why the Tar Heels will have no problem dealing with Duke twice* on the way to the National Championships.
*Maybe three times if you count the ACC Tournament, but the reasons are just the same.
Tyler Zeller and John Henson have established themselves as the best team of big men in the ACC, and quite possibly the nation. They each have a unique skill set that complements the other: Henson is primarily a shot-blocker, while Zeller is a charge-taker. Henson himself described he and Zeller as "Fire and Ice."
Zeller and Henson both rip down a ton of rebounds at both ends of the floor, and with the addition of their ability not only score in the paint but step out and hit short baseline jumpers and the occasional hook-shot, these two guys are double-double machines.
Up against them on the side of Duke is likely some combination of three Plumlees (Miles, Mason, and freshman Marshall) and Ryan Kelly. I'm not convinced that any of these players can match both the scoring and rebounding ability of Zeller and Henson.
Sure, the Plumlees (specifically Miles) are decent rebounders, but none of them can contend with Carolina's frontcourt on either front, espcially Kelly. Plus, Miles and Mason get emotionally rattled far too easily, and we've seen them throw more than one temper tantrum on the bench. Zeller and Henson, meanwhile, although prone to some mistakes, more often than not appear in control, and this has so far translated into more productivity.
Kendall Marshall returns to Chapel Hill for his second year as North Carolina's starting point guard, while Seth Curry will assume the role of starting point guard for Duke in the wake of Kyrie Irving's departure to the NBA.
Statistically speaking, this matchup pits a more pure point guard, Marshall, against a more combo guard, Curry. Marshall averages more assists per game, while Curry scores a few more points per game. Last year, Marshall and Curry had nearly identical shooting percentages (.418 vs .423), while Marshall took nearly two fewer shots than Curry, opting to pass the ball off to scorers like Barnes, Henson, Zeller, and Strickland.
I personally favor point guards in the style of Kendall Marshall; the PG's main job shouldn't be to score himself, but rather create scoring opportunities for others through distribution and ball movement. Scoring is nice when you don't have anyone else to do so, but when you're Duke and North Carolina, you shouldn't ever need to.
The edge goes to Marshall here. He's the better passer thanks to a heightened court vision. Seth Curry has talent, but he has a ways to go.
Of the five Blue Devils depicted here, three of them are gone from Durham thanks to the NBA (or some other professional basketball league thanks to the ongoing lockout). The three players that left, Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, and Kyrie Irving, were Duke's top three scorers during the 2010-11 season.
This will no doubt hurt Duke this season, especially against a North Carolina team that returns 90 percent of their scoring from last year. Despite the freshman talent, the Blue Devils will have a far more difficult time matching the Tar Heels' scoring prowess. It'll be even tougher still if North Carolina's scorers, especially Harrison Barnes, can become more efficient down the stretch and improve their shooting percentages in clutch situations.
When you take a look at the Tar Heels' starting lineup and compare it to that of the Blue Devils, you can see that the expected matchups do not match up completely right.
Take, for example, the frontcourt matchups between Duke and North Carolina. On Duke's side, we have Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. Up against them are the Tar Heels' Tyler Zeller and John Henson.
Plumlee comes in at 6'10" and 235 pounds, but goes up against Zeller, at a full 7'0" and 250 pounds. Both on paper and on-court, Zeller out-duels Plumlee, with both a few extra inches and a longer arm span that allows him to both out-score and out-rebound.
Next, we have Ryan Kelly and John Henson. Kelly maybe an inch on Henson (6'11" vs. 6'10") and 20 pounds (230 vs. 210), but Henson seems to have a slight agility edge over Kelly. Henson seems to have a better command of the paint, and uses his presence to score, rebound, and block shots. Perhaps this comes with more experience as a starter, but this will still give Henson an edge over Kelly just the same down the stretch.
Duke once again brings in one of the nation's top recruiting classes this year, led by shooting guard Austin Rivers. Despite all the talent the Blue Devils will have this year, they will still be limited by the huge influx of underclassmen and the loss of senior leadership.
They will go against a North Carolina squad that returns all five of their starters plus a stellar recruiting class of their own. The leadership provided by the likes of Henson, Zeller, Barnes, Strickland, and Marshall, will pay especially huge dividends down the stretch and in the tournament, and while Duke will win a large amount of games and probably contend for the ACC title once again, they will have problems on the road against good teams like North Carolina and will likely have issues come tournament time.
Head-to-head, it's talented freshmen against talented, experienced upperclassmen (Harrison Barnes may be only a sophomore, but he's an exception we will discuss momentarily). All else being equal, you have give the slight edge to experience.
To put it simply, Harrison Barnes is the best player in the country now. His unique size and skill set allows him to score, rebound, and play defense when needed. Barnes was an integral part of North Carolina's 14-2 ACC record last year and their run to the Elite Eight in March.
With a full year under his belt, Barnes can use past experience to further improve his skills and become an even more potent weapon for the Tar Heels. With so much talent to surround him and the expectation of another deep tournament run and a National Championship to boot, Harrison Barnes has all the incentive needed to solidify his position as the best player on the best team.
With this in hand, Duke simply won't be able to stop Barnes and the Tar Heels this year. They may give them two or three good games, in Durham, Chapel Hill, and maybe in Greensboro, but ultimately the Tar Heels have the talent, the experience, and the coaching to prevail each and every time.
Duke may have its year next season. Until then, however, it's the lighter shade of blue that will dominate this rivalry.