Heels ride their recruits

UNC and Duke recruit well, but in recent years, the Tar Heels have pulled ahead

Staff WriterFebruary 11, 2009 

  • 9 P.M. TODAY, CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM, DURHAM TV: WRAL, WCTI RADIO: WDNC-620, WRBZ-850, WCHL-1360, WRDU-106.1 RECORDS: North Carolina 21-2, 7-2 ACC; Duke 20-3, 7-2 ACC


    Paulus has a lot of heart but not the speed to slow Lawson, who has 15 assists and no turnovers in his past two games. Advantage: UNC


    Scheyer has been in a slump, while Ellington has totaled 23 3-pointers over the past six games. Advantage: UNC


    Henderson, averaging 18.9 points in ACC play, is Duke's best player. Green is UNC's most improved player. Advantage: Duke


    Thompson will have difficulty handling Singler on the perimeter if Singler can emerge from his shooting slump. Advantage: Duke


    Like most teams, Duke doesn't have anybody capable of defending Hansbrough in the post. Advantage: UNC


    Ed Davis gives the Tar Heels a strong presence on the boards. Nolan Smith and Dave McClure are skilled defenders for Duke. Advantage: Duke


    Duke's confidence may still be shaken after last week's 74-47 loss at Clemson. North Carolina seems recovered from its 0-2 ACC start. Advantage: UNC


  • UNC's Danny Green, left, and Tyler Hansbrough, hounding Duke's Kyle Singler at the Smith Center, are 3-0 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

    9 P.M. TODAY; WRAL, WCTI, WDNC-620, WRBZ-850, WCHL-1360, WRDU-106.1

  • Everyone has favorite memories from the Duke-North Carolina basketball rivalry. Former ACC beat writer Chip Alexander will share his this morning as The News & Observer continues its expanded online coverage to get you ready for tonight's matchup in Durham.

    In addition to a list of N&O writers' top moments from this series, look for columnist Caulton Tudor and staff writer J.P. Giglio's podcast preview on ACC Now. Today at noon, Ken Tysiac and Robbi Pickeral will be online to answer your e-mail questions about the game.

    E-mail your questions this morning to assistant sports editor Lorenzo Perez at lorenzo.perez@newsobserver.com. We'll answer them online at noon today.

The way Bob Gibbons sees it, North Carolina's recruiting success under Roy Williams is starting to show in the Tar Heels' rivalry with Duke.

North Carolina owns five wins in the rivals' past seven meetings, and as these men's basketball teams prepare to meet at 9 p.m. today at Cameron Indoor Stadium, seniors Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green have a chance to become the first Tar Heels to end their careers 4-0 at Cameron in Duke's Mike Krzyzewski era.

"Not that Duke has recruited badly, but North Carolina has sort of exceeded them in recruiting," said Gibbons, the veteran All-Star Sports recruiting analyst. "And the end result is the differential in the game performance."

No. 3-ranked North Carolina (21-2, 7-2 ACC) and No. 6 Duke (20-3, 7-2) are tied for first place in the ACC, but recent results favor the Tar Heels. North Carolina has won the past two ACC titles and is 14-3 in the past four NCAA Tournaments.

In that same time frame, Duke is 5-4 in NCAA Tournament games.

Gibbons traces the Tar Heels' success to recruiting. Twice in the past three years, North Carolina has landed a better recruiting class than Duke, according to the Scout.com recruiting rankings. The Blue Devils had a better class in 2005, but Duke's gem in that class was center Josh McRoberts, who left after two seasons for the NBA draft.

Carolina's best player in that class was Hansbrough, who's still around.

"You get the national player of the year over in Chapel Hill for three years running ... and he stayed four years," Raycom Sports TV analyst Mike Gminski said. "It was a little atypical in that they've had talent that has stayed.

"But I just think at least from the starting five and a little bit of depth, [North Carolina's] talent has been better."

Rejecting history

North Carolina's recent surge in the series followed years of domination by Duke.

Before the current 2-5 stretch, the Blue Devils had won 15 of the previous 17 in the rivalry. Positive or negative, Krzyzewski said he won't mention the historical numbers to his players.

"Kids can't identify with history," he said. "They're too young."

Because of the way Krzyzewski coaches, it makes sense that he would reject history. Although a high-pressure, man-to-man defense is his staple, he makes significant changes in strategy each season based on his personnel. Krzyzewski said that each season he designs his offense to take advantage of the strengths of his best players.

When the Blue Devils had high-scoring guard J.J. Redick, Krzyzewski designed his offense to get Redick tons of shots. The lack of a strong post presence last season led to Krzyzewski to spread the floor in a freewheeling style, creating open 3-point shots and driving opportunities.

He's still trying to figure out what this team does best. In the meantime, Duke has built its identity around a defense in which switching on screens has prevented opponents from penetrating the lane.

"Our defense and our rebounding, they're up a notch from last year, and that's why we've won," Krzyzewski said. "But the offense has got to get better."

Heels in high gear

Meanwhile, Williams' system has been consistent since he arrived at North Carolina.

Even when it didn't have the perfect personnel for Williams' much-admired, fast-breaking offense in 2005-06, North Carolina ran. And the Tar Heels were ready to reach a high gear when speedy point guard Ty Lawson arrived in 2006.

Like Krzyzewski, Williams is focused more on the moment than the history. He said that when Duke won last season at the Smith Center, he didn't feel like the Tar Heels had nudged past their rival.

"We've been very lucky in a couple recruiting scenarios that we've gotten kids who I thought were going to be big-time players and perhaps maybe even have done better than that," Williams said. "I hope it doesn't go in cycles, because I'd like to keep going straight ahead and not fall back."

The coaches' systems might not be as important as the players running them. Dick Vitale, the Hall of Fame TV analyst who will work tonight's game for ESPN, said a point or two in a few recent games could have turned the results in Duke's favor. But Vitale said North Carolina has superior talent.

"I don't think there's any question with Carolina, they've got the best starting five in the nation," Vitale said. "I think the two most gifted teams in the country are Connecticut and Carolina."

In that respect, Duke's most significant losses over the past two seasons might have come in recruiting rather than on the court. Krzyzewski rarely misses on players Duke recruits as vigorously as Kentucky sophomore Patrick Patterson and Georgetown freshman Greg Monroe.

Either one could have given the Blue Devils the strong post presence they lack.

More of the same?

The alarming thing for Duke is that after the early signing period, North Carolina's 2009 freshman class, like the 2006 class, was rated No. 1 in the nation by Scout.com.

Duke has signed two forwards who are possible McDonald's All-Americans -- Ravenscroft High's Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee of the Christ School in Arden. But North Carolina commitment John Henson of Tampa, Fla., is rated more highly than Kelly and Plumlee in the Tar Heels' deep class. Duke still has a shot at brilliant Word of God Academy point guard John Wall in the spring signing period, but Gibbons said the current recruiting results predict UNC will stay ahead of Duke.

"They've got five kids who are potential high school All-Americans," Gibbons said. "So based on next year's incomers, again, North Carolina dominates."

ktysiac@charlotteobserver.com or 919-829-8942

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