For the first time in years, it might not be so easy for North Carolina to push Duke around tonight.
After years of getting manhandled by bigger, stronger North Carolina teams, the eighth-ranked Blue Devils finally bring some height and girth to college basketball's most celebrated rivalry as the teams meet at 9 p.m. today in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina senior forward Deon Thompson said the Blue Devils are more formidable on the front line.
"On the defensive end, they're better inside than they have been in the past, definitely," Thompson said.
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Three Duke starters - Kyle Singler, Lance Thomas and Miles Plumlee - are 6 feet 8 or taller. The first two players the Blue Devils usually bring off the bench are 7-1 Brian Zoubek and 6-10 Mason Plumlee.
It's a welcome change for a team that has relied more on finesse than muscle in recent seasons.
"To have the bodies to bang inside and rebound takes a lot of pressure off us guards," Duke guard Jon Scheyer said, "and also it adds to our team, having a presence inside to score."
Duke's lack of size and strength has been exploited by North Carolina over the past six seasons as Sean May and then Tyler Hansbrough controlled the area around the basket.
The teams have met 12 times since coach Roy Williams left Kansas to coach North Carolina. The Tar Heels have outrebounded Duke every time. The average rebounding margin was plus-10.6 per game. Six times the margin was plus-11 or larger. North Carolina is 7-5 in those games, but has won seven of the past nine meetings.
"The talent that those kids [May and Hansbrough] have had has had the most to do with it," Williams said. "The fact that we emphasize it has had something to do with it, and the fact that Duke hasn't had that size would be a part of it as well."
Despite Duke's improvement in the post, it might be up to North Carolina starting post players Thompson and Ed Davis to create some sort of advantage to give the Tar Heels a chance to win.
North Carolina's perimeter players have faltered this season, while Duke guards Scheyer (18.9 ppg) and Nolan Smith (18.1 ppg) rank second and third in the ACC in scoring, respectively.
"Jonathan Scheyer has done a fantastic job with his assist to error ratio and is not playing conservatively," Williams said. "I think he still attacks the defense and makes good decisions. Nolan, same way, and Kyle Singler as well. For us, it's got to start with guarding the basketball."
Rebounding, though, has been the Tar Heels' strength. Although North Carolina (13-10, 2-6 ACC) has struggled in many ways this season, the Tar Heels have continued their strong play on the boards.
Thanks in large part to post players Davis and Thompson, North Carolina leads the ACC in rebound margin at plus-7.1 per game. But Duke (19-4, 7-2), which is vastly improved in this area, ranks second in the ACC at plus-6.5.
The Blue Devils' rebound margin is their best since 1998-99, and they have outrebounded seven of their nine ACC opponents. They lead the ACC with offensive rebounding percentage of .408 (meaning they've rebounded 40.8 percent of their own misses).
Coach Mike Krzyzewski said Duke's post players are doing a good job defending and screening as well as rebounding. The Blue Devils count on Scheyer, Smith and small forward Singler to do most of their scoring.
Krzyzewski said seniors Thomas and Zoubek in particular have played their roles well, and said the team's performance suffers when Thomas is on the bench. He called Thomas one of the nation's best defenders.
"We're making the plays in front of us, whether it's a rebound, a charge, a block, or going up to the line and knocking down free throws," Thomas said. "I think we're doing a really good job of that."
If they can do it against the always formidable Tar Heels front line, it could tip the rivalry game in Duke's direction.