All-Star Weekend Recap

Posted in NBA with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2010 by 25ftrange

Just a few thoughts about the all-star game and all the festivities.

The Slam Dunk Contest, if you can even call it that, was terrible. It was, by far, the worst ever. We’ve gotten to the point that just because some guy is our size, and can dunk, we deem him a great dunker. That’s stupid. Nate Robinson is athletic and has amazing hops. He’s not a great dunker though. Look, we all know that the dunk contest isn’t what it used to be. As Rick Pitino would say Dr. J, Dominique, MJ, Vince Carter, they aren’t walking through that door. The best players in the NBA are not going to compete in the dunk contest. We won’t ever see LeBron, Wade, Melo, etc. That doesn’t mean the dunk contest has to lay a big one. There are tons of athletically gifted players in the NBA who do not get much playing time or aren’t well known to the average fan. If they compete in the dunk contest, they should take that opportunity to get their name out there. Shannon Brown, Gerald Wallace, and DeMar DeRozan all had that chance, but they failed. You would think they would take advantage of being in the national spotlight. Instead, it seemed like they really didn’t care. I was very disappointed. Hopefully Dwight Howard will come back next year and add some excitement to the slam dunk contest again.

The All-Star game played out like it normally does. For the first three and half quarters, we get to see the most star-studded pick up game. Then for the last 6 minutes it becomes a real competition and the players actually care who wins or loses. While it’s hard to judge players based on one exhibition game, there were a few who stood out to me.

  • Deron Williams: I stated in an earlier post that Chris Paul was much better than Williams; that the debate between them shouldn’t even be a debate. Well, I was wrong. Paul is still better than Williams, but the difference between them is minimal. Williams is a great jump shooter, and while he isn’t the quickest PG, he is very strong and can get any spot on the floor when he wants to. He’s also taken charge of the Jazz and become the leader of the team. The Jazz are 9-1 in their last 10 games and are only 2 games behind the Nuggets for 2nd place in the division. They’ve always had enough talent and coaching to be contenders in the West. Now they have a leader to match.
  • Chris Bosh: Toronto doesn’t get much national attention, so Bosh doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, which is a shame. He has led the Raptors to a 29-23 record and he consistently puts up a 23 and 11 every game. Take into account that Jose Calderon has been plagued by injuries this year and Andrea Bargnani hasn’t progressed as the Raptors had hoped, and it becomes very obvious that Bosh is one of the top 10 talents in the league. It will very interesting to see where he goes after this year, along with LeBron and Wade.
  • Speaking of LeBron and Wade, they put on quite a show playing on the same team yesterday. Heat fans can only hope that LeBron joins Wade next year in Miami, forming the greatest duo since Shaq and Kobe. ESPN’s John Hollinger has more information about it here.

With the all-star game behind us we can get on with the final third of the season. There are many questions still to be answered. Is Stoudemire going to the Cavs? Who else is going to make a big trade? Can the Celtics and Spurs get healthy and make a strong run into the playoffs? Can any team or teams keep a Lakers-Cavs final from happening? I’m a fan of the unpredictable, but I hope the answer to the last questions is no. I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see and enjoy the rest of the season.

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Durant over Lebron for MVP? Better Believe it.

Posted in NBA with tags , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2010 by tonysinclair

The conventional wisdom is that Lebron James has already wrapped up the MVP award.

With Kobe Bryant being unable to compete at the level necessary to merit the award because of injuries, Lebron James had a clear path to grab the award for the second consecutive year after the Cavaliers demolished the Lakers for the second time in as many tries last month. Then Cavs point guard, Mo Williams, went down with an injury along with Cavs guard, Delonte West, who has not been playing. How does Lebron respond? By become the best playmaker in the league by averaging over 10 assists since Mo Williams went down. Even more amazing, Lebron has taken over the NBA scoring lead in that same span. Lebron’s PER this season is 31.64 and if he keeps it at that pace, it’ll be a top 5 PER of all time. The only other players in the top 5 in PER? Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan. That’s how good Lebron James is this season. That the Cavs are the best team in the league record wise and that James is routinely considered, along with Kobe Bryant, to be the best player in the league only helps his case.  Add all this to the fact that the Lakers have been playing superb without Kobe and it seems difficult to see anyone challenging Lebron James for MVP honors.

Enter Kevin Durant.

I’m going to put it out there. If the Oklahoma City Thunder win 50 games, my vote would go to Kevin Durant. The Oklahoma City Thunder are on pace for 48 wins right now, but John Hollinger’s nifty ESPN playoff predictor has the Thunder winning 50 games by season end. Perhaps that didn’t register. The Oklahoma City Thunder might win 50 games this season!

If it still hasn’t registered, let me kindly put it in perspective. The Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to be an embarrassment. Mediocre at best. Teams were supposed to look at the Thunder as a gimme win. If a team was in need of a pick-me-up, they would look to the Thunder as a sure victory. And  who could blame them? Last year, the Thunder only won 23 games all season. They’ve already surpassed last season’s win total by 7 wins. If the Thunder make it to 50 wins, then they would have improved by 27 wins. That’s double the number of wins they had all season – and they’d make the playoffs in the tough Western Conference.  No longer are teams going to Oklahoma with a smile on their face. They know what I know. Kevin Durant is a bad, bad man.

It may take a while for the world to notice, but Kevin Durant is a top 5 player in the NBA. He is the reason why the Thunder are playing so well. Give credit to Scott Brooks for infusing this team with a defensive identity and Jeff Green for being a consistent stud, but it is Durant who is the floor general. Durant’s individual play is every bit worthy of MVP honors. He is second in the league in scoring pouring in 29.7 points per game (Lebron is #1 at 29.8) while pulling down 7.4 rebounds per contest. His shooting percentage is 48.5% which is exceptional given the amount of jumpers that he takes. He’s top 5 in PER and he’s been worthy of second team defensive honors this season.

Compared to Lebron, Durant isn’t nearly as dominant statistically. He doesn’t need to be. After winning 66 games last season, Hollinger’s predictive model puts the Cavs finishing at 62 wins – 4 games worse. This is after adding considerable talent to the Cavs roster including Shaquille O’Neal and Anthony Parker. Lebron, for all his stellar player, hasn’t been as good individually as last season either with his PER down a notch this year. As good as Lebron has been and as good as the Cavs are, they are merely meeting expectations. Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder are exceeding expectations.

But here’s what convinced me to put Kevin Durant over Lebron James if the Thunder win 50 games. Lebron plays in the Eastern Conference which is clearly inferior to the tough Western Conference. The Celtics haven’t been nearly as good as expected and Orlando has been considerably worse than last year after losing Hedo Turkolu to the Toronto Raptors. Consider this, the Thunder are 16-6 against the Eastern Conference. That’s almost a 73% win rate. If you put the Thunder in the East, where Lebron James plays, they’d win 55 games. And admit it, if the Thunder won 55 games, you’d have to give the award to Kevin Durant, wouldn’t you? I can’t in good conscience punish Durant for playing in a tougher conference.

Perhaps all this talk about individual play and wins is missing the point, though. Kevin Durant has also given Oklahoma City something to cheer about. A franchise that couldn’t give tickets away a few years ago is selling out 90% of their home games. The team is going to make the playoffs for the first time since they moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City and they are built for the future. Just as Lebron put Cleveland on the map; Durant is doing the same for Oklahoma City. He’s doing it in a tougher conference and massively exceeding expectations.

Next time I see Kevin, my only two words to him will be: MVP, MVP!

Best NFL Team Never To Play Football

Posted in NBA with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2010 by 25ftrange

I already know what you are thinking. “Come on Subhodaya, this is a basketball blog and here you are writing ANOTHER post about football. Do you know what the hell you are doing?” Of course I do.

My cousins and I always discuss athletes playing other sports than what they went pro in; so, with the NFL season ending and the NBA approaching the all-star break, I thought it would be appropriate to answer this question: If the NBA had to put together a professional football team to play in the NFL, who would be on the team? The biggest problem this question poses is there are so many players to choose from. Out of the 3 major sports (sorry Canada, hockey doesn’t count) basketball players, as a whole, are the most athletic and well-rounded athletes, unless they are 7′ 7″, from Romania, and starred in the movie My Giant. To narrow down the field, I have decided to only pick players who were productive during the last decade and the reason for that is this is my list so I make the rules. Also, when you imagine each player on the football field, imagine them during their prime. Without further ado, here is the greatest football team never to play football.

Offense

QB: Allen Iverson. With NFL defenses getting faster and faster, you need a QB who can avoid pressure and also present the threat of the run on every play. Who better than AI? During his prime Iverson was one of the quickest and most tenacious players. He drove to the hole without hesitation and was not afraid to get hit. You need that type of toughness in the leader of your offense. After a sack or a knockdown, it always helps keep morale up when the quarterback bounces back quickly and moves on to the next play. No one got up more after being sent sprawling to the hardwood than Iverson. Also, Iverson was the center of the Philadelphia 76ers offense and everything ran through him, causing people to label him as a ball hog. Well, by making him my QB I’m making sure the ball is in his hands on every play. Some people might argue that he is too small. To channel my inner Joy Behar so what, who cares? People said Drew Brees was too small and he just won some big game or something. If you still don’t like my choice of Iverson, watch this.

RB: LeBron James. With all due respect to every other RB who has ever played in the NFL, LeBron would be the most feared one. Who wants to try to tackle a 250 pounder running full speed? I have an answer. NO ONE. With his speed and strength he could score 6 anytime he touched the ball, no matter where he was on the field. LeBron also has great vision and would be able to see holes before they opened up and would also know when to break a run outside or just barrel up the middle for 4 yards. He would make Adrian Peterson look like Betty White.

WR1: Kobe Bryant. At 6’6″ he would tower over any defensive back who played against him. If he is covered one on one, just throw it up and there’s a 90% chance Kobe is coming down with it. Hell, even if he’s covered by three guys throw it up to him. He’ll come down with it 80% of the time or draw a penalty. Another reason Kobe would make a great receiver is his footwork. What sets 24 apart from his peers in basketball is his impeccable footwork. He is by far the best at the pump fake, spin on your pivot, and score…without traveling. To be a great WR you need great footwork. You need to be able to make tight cuts and not lose speed while making them. Kobe would be a master at doing this. Also, with his amazing stamina and competitiveness, Kobe would not take plays off a la Randy Moss.

WR2: Leandro Barbosa. He’s fast. With Kobe dominating on the other side, I need someone to stretch the field. I was looking at Tony Parker, but he’s French…not that there’s anything wrong with that. You guys make excellent toast. Anyways, all Barbosa needs to do is run down field and occupy one of the safeties, and block every once in a while. He’ll have no problem doing that.

TE: Joakim Noah. Yeah he’s annoying, but if he’s on your team that’s okay. He’s a hustle guy and does a lot of the little things that help your team win. With Kobe and LeBron getting most of the touches, I don’t need my TE to be a pass catching TE. I need him to block, make a big play here and there, and pump the team up. I will get that from Yannick’s son. Also, like I said he is really annoying, so there’s a good chance that at least once a game he pisses off the opponents so much that they do something stupid and get an unsportsmanlike penalty.

FB: Anderson Varejao. I want my fullback to not care about anything except blocking for the RB. Believe me when I say the fullback is not going to get any touches. When you watch Varejao play, you can tell that he enjoys getting rebounds, playing defense, and most importantly setting screens for LeBron. Well on my football team he can enjoy blocking for LeBron. He can also use his hair to clear space.

Guard, Center, and Tackle: Shaquille O’ Neal. Trust me, Shaq will be enough. If not we can throw in Robert “Tractor” Traylor to help him out. And yes, that is really him.

Defense

CB1: Bruce Bowen. Would be great at bump n run coverage. The key to bump n run is to use your hands to knock the receiver off his route. Bruce was great at using his hands to defend players during his run with the Spurs, even though most of the time it was illegal. Now he can do it legally. Also, he had very quick feet and anticipated well, so he could definitely cover a receiver one on one. Most importantly, Bowen was regularly touted as the league’s dirtiest player, so he would trip, claw, and bite the opponent’s number one receiver into submission.

CB2: Josh Smith. Might not be quick enough to cover a receiver one on one but my safeties can help with that. With his height, length, and leaping ability, he would be hellacious in zone coverage. He could basically cover two zones by himself. Might gamble a little bit too much to get a pick (similar to him shooting so many 3’s even though he has a horrible percentage) but I can live with that.

FS and SS: Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul. Neither of them is very big but I do not need them to make big hits. Both of them are among the league leader in steals, which makes them perfect as my safeties. They have great instincts, would get good jumps on the ball, and would definitely be able to read the eyes of the opposing QB. Both of them are very smart players and would most likely always be in position to make a tackle or make a play on the ball. If they are ever out of position, they have enough speed to make up for it.

MLB: Ron Artest. Very strong and versatile. In the NBA, Artest is one of the few players who can guard anyone from a point guard to a power forward. On the football field, I could put him on a tight end, the third receiver, or have him blitz and cause havoc in the pocket. Also remember, this is Ron Ron in his prime aka Crazy Ron Artest so opponents would definitely be afraid of him because there would be a good chance he would punch them in the face. I would have Stephen Jackson chilling on my bench just in case Ron needed help.

Defensive End and Tackle: Shaquille O’ Neal and Robert ‘Tractor’ Traylor. Trust me, they will be enough.

Secret Weapon: Dwight Howard. Anytime the opponent is lining up to kick a field goal I’m bringing in Howard. With his height and leaping ability he is going to block every kick or at least make the kicker push the ball wide right or left. No field goals against my team I guarantee it.

Personnel:

GM: Me. I put the team together. I’m the GM.

Coach: Jim Caldwell. Just seeing if you are still paying attention. I would only have Caldwell as my coach if this was a team full of mimes. The coach would be…me. As the GM, I would play the loyalty card and hire myself as coach. Hey, that’s just the way it goes.

Offensive and Defensive Coordinator: Me…again. What did you expect?

With the athletes on this team, and with the great coaching I would provide, we could just fill up the other positions with random scrubs and the team would still go 16-0 in the regular season and destroy everyone in the playoffs. First team to go 19-0. Take it to the bank.

Marketplace Economy or Greed: Are NBA Salaries Out of Control?

Posted in NBA on February 10, 2010 by tonysinclair

A spectre is haunting the NBA – the spectre of salary caps.

It’s the classic case of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. The high, mighty and powerful NBA owners are ganging up against their poor and overworked players. Or are they?

You see, this isn’t a case where the executives are gaining unreasonable profits while the factory workers suffer. This is a case where individual greed on the part of the NBA players has reached the point of absolute hilarity. How can you keep a straight face when Adonal Foyal, the Vice-President of the NBA Players’ Union, calls an attempt to bring some reasonableness to the NBA salary structure “ridiculous” and “unfair?”

If you haven’t heard, the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement expires at the end of the 2010-2011 season. Negotiations for a new agreement have already begun. Despite the negotiations, little headway is likely to made and a lock-out is all but assured. The conflict, essentially, is one of money. The owners do not want to continue to pay NBA player exorbitant amounts of money while average NBA players insist that they can’t feed their families off of $5,000,000.

I can see both sides (sarcasm alert).

Owners of the NBA Teams are generally smart business people. They want to invest in enterprises that make money. The best way to make money is to ensure that revenue exceeds expenses. Well, as any owner of a business will tell you, hiring the right people is probably the biggest expense a company will have. Payroll can be a tremendous expense and in the NBA that is an understatement.

Take Adam Morrison. His wild wild west mustache puts him in the running for ugliest NBA player and his 2.5 points per game on 37% shooting puts him in the running for worst player in the league. He was a national embarrassment after crying on the floor during a nationally televised NCAA game and has only played in 21 games this season. He is a bona-fide scrub. He gets no respect from the national media or bloggers. And you know what? I would trade places with him tomorrow…without question. I can make fun of and insult Adam Morrison all I want and he doesn’t care. He’s laughing all the way to the bank. This season he’s due to make over $5 million.

You see, when I pay my ticket prices, I’m not just paying to see Lebron James, Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant. Those high ticket prices are also designed to absorb some of the costs to pay Adam Morrison’s salary of $5,257,229. Larry Hughes shoots a worse percentage than Adam Morrison and yet he’s due to make over $13,000,000 this season alone. And I wonder, why do I have to pay money so that Adam Morrison can sit on a bench and smile because every game he’s $60,000 richer? And why do I have to subsidize Larry Hughes’ bad play? What incentive does he have to shoot better when he collects a check for over $150,000 every single game?

I’m sorry, Mr. Foyal, but it is the salary structure in the NBA as it exists that is ridiculous.

Some will counter with the idea that the market sets the salary. In some cases, that is true. Owners have vigorously competed with other owners over player talent. The battle over potential and prospective talent has led to over-inflated salaries for many players. The idea is that the more talent a team has, the better chance the team has to win. The better the team is, the more fans who will come to the games. Fans attending games means major money for owners.

Here’s the truth, though. Most NBA players shouldn’t be making more than teachers, doctors, scientists and engineers. Most NBA players are riding on the coattails of great, great players. Because, when I think about it, I pay my entire ticket price to see Lebron James or Kobe Bryant or Dwight Howard or Kevin Durant. You can bring their teammates along if you have to, but that’s who I’m paying to see. In rare cases, I’ll pay to see a team – a team that truly plays inspired, team basketball. But let’s face it, teams that work together and win without a superstar are rare in the NBA.

What has been lost in the negotiations between what owners want and what NBA players demand is what the fan is willing to pay for. It’s like we have to buy an extra value meal when we only want the fries. And I suppose that’s the luxury of having a superstar. You can raise ticket prices to absorb $5million for Adam Morrison as long as you put Kobe Bryant on the floor. But what happens when there’s no Kobe to back Adam? What happens when you’re the Nets? Empty seats.

Why should any player on a team that has only won 4 games and lost 47 be able to collect full salary? In the real world guaranteed contracts don’t exist. If you are bad at your job, you get fired. At will employment is a harsh reality. But NBA players can produce a poor product and still get paid more in one year than most hard working and competent people will see in their lifetimes.

You know, I don’t have a monopoly on morality, but that’s what seems unfair. It isn’t just unfair to the teachers and doctors and engineers. It is also unfair to the NBA fans who want a better and more cost effective product on the floor.

The owners are expected to ask for a hard salary cap and shorter contracts for NBA players. That is a step in the right direction. But let’s not take baby steps here. Let’s also eliminate the guaranteed contracts and put more incentives in the contracts for winning. Let’s reward players who are good at what they do and get rid of players who are not good. This doesn’t just make good financial sense, but getting rid of guaranteed contracts really allows players who aren’t yet in the NBA to compete for open roster spots when guys who aren’t good enough get ousted from the league. A better and more robust D-League would result along with more inspired play from all players.

The offseason negotiations to create another collective bargaining agreement is not just a chance for players and owners to outlet their grievances, but also an opportunity for the fans to demand a better, more cost effective product.

Best Player in NBA, according to Transition3 readers

Posted in NBA on February 10, 2010 by oneskinniej

Evidence UNC-Duke is ALWAYS Worth Watching.

Posted in NCAA with tags , on February 10, 2010 by oneskinniej

Ball don’t lie, baby.

The Tobacco Road Shootout ’10 – Worth Watching?

Posted in NCAA with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2010 by oneskinniej

Tonight, Duke University and the University of North Carolina square off in the first of at least two matchups this season.  For years, Duke/UNC has been the premier rivalry in NCAA basketball, arguably in American sports as a whole, yet when I heard the game was on tonight, I wondered why I didn’t have it circled on my calendar weeks ahead of time like I have in the past. 

Full disclosure – I’m a big UNC fan, but I don’t have any direct ties to the school, and as I simply like watching good basketball, if “my” Heels are having a relatively down season by their standards, such as this one, I don’t make catching every game a priority.  Call me a fairweather fan… call me whatever you want – I don’t care what you think.  My reasoning for liking UNC in the first place is incredibly shallow.  I grew up a Chicago Bulls fan, as did most of us, but I felt a special affinity for the team since Chicago is the city of my birth, yet I was always far removed from it growing up.  I naturally gravitated towards the Bulls and the Bears, though, as well as MJ23 . . . because, let’s be honest, who didn’t?  I became aware of UNC first as “the school Jordan went to” and second as “the OTHER Carolina,” the one I didn’t live in.  Problem was, I didn’t have a connection with Clemson or South Carolina, the two basketball programs worth following in the state, and the school my parents went to, the University of Virginia, hasn’t been relevant in basketball since Jeff Jones decided to leave his wife for a cheerleader in the mid-nineties (a shame, actually, given their tradition).  I liked UNC’s colors, I liked their former players, so it was settled. I was a fan, and have been ever since. And screw you for thinking what you’re thinking.

Anyway, this year’s matchup is the first battle between Duke and UNC in seven years in which both teams have not been ranked within the Top 25.  Duke’s in the top 10 this year, but after being stunned by College of Charleston on 1/4, the Tar Heels have lost seven of nine, beating only Virginia and NC State in that span.  Duke, on the other hand, has been consistent but not transcendent.  They deserve their Top 10 ranking, but I haven’t given them serious consideration for my short list of national-title contenders, at least yet.

Playing Duke after an uncharacteristically bad losing run probably isn’t the most desirable scenario for the Tar Heels, but there’s so much animosity between these two squads that this game has real potential to be a turning point in each team’s season.  Nobody denies the Heels are loaded with talent.  Big man Ed Davis is the Heels’ best player, and he does a pretty convincing Marcus Camby impression.  The unfortunate thing about this season for Davis is that if Ty Lawson were still the Heels’ PG, he’d probably be averaging upwards of 20 ppg and in consideration for National POTY honors.  As it is, though, Davis is saddled with a young point guard in Larry Drew II who is equally as frustrating as he can be dazzling at times.  The positive for the Heels heading in to tonight’s matchup is that there’s no game the players are more mentally prepared for.  A win against Duke in these circumstances could turn the Tar Heels’ season around.  Nobody’s denying they have the talent to do it. 

Duke enters the game as the heavy favorite.  For precisely this reason, however, this game is a “must win” for the Blue Devils.  The Tar Heels have taken six of the past seven games from the Blue Devils, and after Roy and Psycho-T cut down the nets last season, and scored a commitment from the No. 2 ranked recruit in the class of ’10 when Harrison Barnes‘s choices were narrowed down to Duke and UNC.  These factors led to an assumption that the ever-tenuous balance of power on Tobacco Road had shifted.  However, as we now know, it turns out the drop-off that everyone expected from UNC after losing four NBA draft picks (Tyler Hansbrough, Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green) was much more severe than anyone predicted.  The young Heels have struggled to score at times, and have lacked the killer instinct in finishing games that has been a trademark of Roy Williams teams in the past.  As perception is as important as performance in NCAA basketball, UNC has afforded Duke a rare opportunity to pull firmly ahead in the perpetual race between these two teams.

An upset from North Carolina is hardly out of the question, however, and if there were ever a night that betting on the favored team might not be the smart money, it’s tonight.  UNC always gets up for Duke, and it will be an especially emotional night at the Dean Dome as Tyler Hansbrough’s #50 jersey is being retired in a pre-game ceremony, only the 8th Tar Heel to earn this distinction.  It’s also important to remember that although UNC isn’t ranked in the Top 25 right now, that’s simply a matter of perception rather than reality – this is the very same UNC team that beat Ohio State and Michigan State early in the season, both Top 15 teams currently, and each worth considering for the short list of realistic title contenders.  Beating Duke tonight could be exactly what UNC needs to turn their season around, and you can bet that they’re aware of that fact.

Duke won’t be an easy out, though.  Mike Krzyzewski is the best coach in the entire sport – professional or collegiate – and he knows how to get the most out of his players.  Watching Duke’s players warm up before the game at Clemson I was able to attend earlier this year, I wasn’t at all impressed, and expected a repeat of last season, when the Tigers humiliated the Devils, and the game was over before the second half was half-over.  Coach K knows how to coach, though, and he gets the most out of those players.  Jon Scheyer is an underrated ball-handler and well-regarded shooter, who’s proven to be as accurate creating his own shot off the dribble this year as Duke’s primary ball controller, as he has been on the catch-and-shoot in recent seasons.  Kyle Singler has been able to play facing the basket this season instead of playing out of position as a Stretch-4 last year, and the results have spoken for themselves.  Both Scheyer and Singler should be in the discussion for All-ACC 1st team when the dust settles this season, as well as scoring guard Nolan Smith, and the rest of Duke’s roster is made up of hard-working and talented players who take their coach’s instruction as scripture, such as the Plumlee brothers, Brian Zoubek, and Lance Thomas.  There’s probably not a lot of NBA star power on this roster, but the Devils play suffocating defense, don’t turn the ball over, and make a high percentage of their shots – recipes for success any way you look at it.

The Tar Heels, on the other hand, are all talent and no substance, at least so far.  Despite their athleticism, they’ve really struggled with their transition defense, and opponents have picked up on this.  Pushing the ball against the Heels and turning the game in to a track meet, an unthinkable strategy in years past if beating them was your objective, is the path to success this season.  Despite Davis’s talent and potential, and the experience of senior Deon Thompson, the Heels also have been relatively unaggressive, for a Roy Williams team, in the low block this year.  The Devils actually have a size advantage over the Tar Heels tonight, especially since the Heels are missing 7-footer Tyler Zeller for the remainder of the season due to injury.  Larry Drew II and senior defensive stopper Marcus Ginyard figure to have their hands full chasing Smith and Scheyer around, as they both move with and without the ball so efficiently.

The Tar Heels have their backs against the wall.  The Blue Devils smell blood in the water.  For the first time in a long time, national title hopes aren’t at stake (at least right now) for both teams, and first place in the ACC isn’t on the line tonight.  But, if you choose to skip the game, don’t be surprised if your morning SportsCenter is dominated by back-and-forth highlights from each squad as the game works towards an exciting finish.  When one team is playing for redemption, and the other for validation, a game that looks routine on paper is often anything but.  Specifically quantifying the emotional impact this game already has on each team as they prepare for it, and will have on each team based on the results, is impossible, but knowing that whatever that impact is will be severe on each team is key in understanding this matchup’s significance.  Don’t be surprised to see whichever team emerges victorious tonight as one of the last few standing as the season winds down this March.

And don’t worry, I’m too bold not to make a prediction after giving a preview.  I’m a homer, and think that tonight is where the young Tar Heels resurrect their season.  After all, it’s not over until it’s over.  A losing streak in January and February doesn’t mean anything in March as long as you’re playing with confidence, and I think tonight is when the Heels get their mojo back.  Final score: Tar Heels 75, Blue Devils 71.