In this state, that means another exciting season of Atlantic Coast Conference hoops, with plenty of intriguing games on the schedule.
Again, this season, like most years, the two favorites atop the ACC are North Carolina and Duke.
The two longtime rivals will hook up at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill on Feb. 10 and play the annual finale at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham on March 9.
Right now, both teams are ranked in the top 10 — Duke No. 5 and UNC No. 9.
But by the eyeball test alone, the Blue Devils appear to be the better squad. Duke looked impressive in crushing Clemson 74-53 in both teams’ ACC opener last weekend. The 13-1 Devils rolled to their seventh straight win, following an 86-65 route over Iowa State Wednesday night.
Duke has a veteran squad, with its strength a backcourt led by senior point guard Jon Scheyer. Scheyer has emerged as one of the best floor generals in the nation and probably the best in the ACC. Scheyer’s strong play also has put him in the conversation for National Player of the Year.
Scheyer is averaging a team-leading 19.7 points per game to go along with 6.4 assists and has the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the country.
Junior shooting guard Nolan Smith has stepped up his play, averaging 18.5 points per game this season.
Versatile junior forward Kyle Singler leads the Devils’ frontcourt. Though Singler has gone through some shooting slumps this season, he still is averaging 15.9 points a game.
No other team in the ACC has more than one player ranked in the top 10 of ACC scoring, but Duke has three with Scheyer, Singler and Smith. Duke still doesn’t have much of a low-post scoring presence inside, but senior seven-footer Brian Zoubek has done a serviceable job on the boards.
The Devils have played well against quality competition. In addition to beating the No. 18 ranked Tigers, Duke also bested No. 13 Connecticut 68-59 and, surprisingly, pounded No. 15 Gonzaga, 76-41.
On the other end of the spectrum, UNC hasn’t been quite as consistent. Though the Tar Heels are the defending champs, Carolina just isn’t the same team from a season ago and it’s understandable.
North Carolina lost four starters and top backcourt reserve Bobby Frasor from the 2008-09 title team. Tyler Hansbrough, the ACC all-time leading scorer, ACC Player of the Year Ty Lawson, 2009 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Wayne Ellington and swingman Danny Green all went to the NBA.
The Heels are certainly young this season, with their most experienced players being fifth-year senior swingman Marcus Ginyard, who missed much of last season with a broken foot; returning senior starting 6-foot-8 power forward Deon Thompson; sophomore 6-foot-10 forward Ed Davis and sophomore 7-foot-0 center Tyler Zeller. Zeller played in 13 games last season after missing the first 13 with a broken wrist.
It’s no doubt that UNC has replenished the talent lost last season with a roster consisting of four McDonald’s All-Americans.
But the 11-4 Heels are certainly going through some growing pains at this time.
In UNC’s defense, three of the Heels’ four losses came against Top 10 teams — No. 2 Texas, No. 3 Kentucky and No. 7 Syracuse.
However, there’s no justification in losing 82-79 in overtime to the College of Charleston Tuesday night. Carolina’s strength is up front with a big and long front line composed of five players that are 6-8 or taller on the roster.
But UNC’s biggest problem is on the outside. The Heels’ starting backcourt of sophomore point guard Larry Drew II and freshman shooting guard Dexter Strickland shot a combined 5 of 21 from the field for 17 points against Charleston.
Carolina’s success over the years under head coach Roy Williams has come via having a top flight floor general such as a Raymond Felton or Ty Lawson, capable of running his high octane, fast-break offense.
Unfortunately, this season, the Heels lack that element on the hardwood with Drew II or anyone else operating the point.
Until UNC receives better or more consistent play from that position, North Carolina will continue to struggle against quality opponents.
Over the past few years, the Heels have surpassed the Devils as the better program between the two schools. But this year the team with the darker shade of blue appears to be better poised to make a national championship run.
n Contact sports reporter Corey Davis at 997-3111, ext. 44; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org