ACC title comes down to Duke/UNC matchup

It took 10 seconds on Feb. 6 for Greg Paulus to show North Carolina the effectiveness of Duke's new, wide-open style.

After the Blue Devils won the opening tap and crossed half-court, Paulus immediately tossed in a 3-pointer from near the top of the key.

Duke made 13 3-pointers to North Carolina's three in an 89-78 win at the Smith Center to gain a two-game lead atop the ACC standings. Analysts raved about the perimeter-oriented system coach Mike Krzyzewski designed to camouflage Duke's lack of muscle in the post.

"They are one of the best drive-and-kick teams in college basketball that I have seen in a real long time, with a small lineup -- five guys that think as perimeter players and really share the basketball," Virginia coach Dave Leitao said Wednesday night.

But North Carolina quietly has continued using its own fast-paced system to go 7-0 since falling to Duke, climbing back to No.1 in the polls. While the Blue Devils struggled to defend Wake Forest's James Johnson and Miami's Dwayne Collins in the post in consecutive defeats, North Carolina kept winning despite point guard Ty Lawson's sprained ankle.

Now North Carolina (28-2, 13-2 ACC) and sixth-ranked Duke (26-3, 13-2) have identical conference records as they meet to decide the No.1 seed in the ACC tournament at 9 p.m. on Saturday in their regular-season finale at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The Tar Heels' style under coach Roy Williams isn't new like Duke's system. But like classic rock and chocolate chip cookies, it's a proven winning formula that's not in danger of going out of fashion.

While Duke leads the ACC in 3-pointers, North Carolina ranks 10th in the conference with 5.6 per game.

That's because when Williams doesn't get easy fast-break baskets, he likes to feed the post. Williams is a master at recruiting and retaining good post players to succeed with that style.

"You look at his record at Kansas and the big guys that came through that program, Raef LaFrentz, Nick Collison, every year they had two or three top big men recruits," said All-Star Sports recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons. "Dean Smith did the same thing at Carolina. Roy is continuing the tradition."

In his first three recruiting classes, Williams signed two NBA lottery picks (Marvin Williams and Brandan Wright) and national player of the year candidate Tyler Hansbrough.

Wright's class included current sophomore forwards Alex Stepheson and Deon Thompson, players Gibbons said would enjoy a prominent spot on any ACC roster. Williams also has signed McDonald's All-America big men in Tyler Zeller (6-foot-11) and Ed Davis (6-8) for next season.

In the Class of 2009, he has commitments from 6-9 twins David and Travis Wear, plus 6-10 John Henson.

The talented big men more than compensate for the Tar Heels' modest scoring from 3-point range. North Carolina leads the nation in rebound margin at plus-11.8 per game, partly because opponents don't have quality post players to match up because so many leave early for the NBA.

"If you have that, and then you know how to use it, which they do, that's a significant thrust when they're playing," Krzyzewski said. "They know how to do it."

The question of which strategy is better for tournament time isn't easily answered.

Florida won NCAA titles in 2006 and 2007 with a system that emphasized 3-point shooting and 3-point defense, but had two strong post players in Joakim Noah and Al Horford.

Michigan State in 2000 was the last NCAA champion that didn't have a dominating low-post player. Williams said a team has to be balanced to win an NCAA title, but said perimeter shots get more difficult in the tournament.

"If I have to choose, give me the guy that can get the other team in foul trouble, because at the end of the game, you may not have to play against their best players," Williams said. "They may be on the bench."

Williams actually would prefer to play a bit more like Duke. He liked having power forwards Jawad Williams and Marvin Williams hitting perimeter shots in 2004-05 to open the lane for Sean May.

The past two seasons, with Wright and now Thompson/Stepheson, the Tar Heels have lacked a power forward who could make 3-pointers. They don't have a post player who's entirely comfortable guarding Duke's Kyle Singler away from the basket.

But Hansbrough and the system that feeds him have North Carolina in position to finish atop the ACC and take a step toward a No. 1 regional seed if it can win Saturday night.

"I like to run," Williams said. "I like to play man-to-man. I like to attack from inside out. I do believe the way we play is what we're comfortable with."

Before Saturday night's game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke will pay respect to the memory of Eve Carson, the North Carolina student body president who was killed Wednesday in Chapel Hill.

"Our prayers are with the family and the community," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "... I know how devastating it must be in Chapel Hill and for North Carolina, but I think everyone feels that."

North Carolina coach Roy Williams' voice quivered Friday afternoon as he spoke of Carson at his news conference. He said two of his players, whom he declined to name, knew Carson.

"We as old people, we're supposed to die before our children, not have our children die before us," Williams said. "I can't imagine what that young lady's family is thinking and feeling."

The Duke/UNC game was not over in time to meet The Herald's deadlines. A story will appear in Monday's paper. For more, visit heraldonline.com.

Editor's note