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Big Game Analysis: Duke vs. North Carolina...By S. H. Austin

Sunday's Duke/North Carolina game was supposed to be the showcase finale to the college basketball regular season. It's the final big TV game of the final weekend of action in the major conferences before the postseason begins.

According to the computers that rank college basketball teams, it's STILL the marquee event of the weekend.

USA TODAY: North Carolina ranks 1st in the nation, Duke ranks 12th according to the computer evaluations posted by Jeff Sagarin.

KENPOM.COM: North Carolina ranks 1st in the nation, Duke ranks 9th according to the computer evaluations posted by college hoops enthusiast Ken Pomeroy.

Carolina's rankings aren't old...subject to change after losses in their last two games to Georgia Tech and Maryland. The Tar Heels are STILL number one in both sets of ratings even with those losses!

Duke's loss to Maryland the other night is included as well.

Now, a skeptic might wonder about all of this. How could one of the biggest games of the year be featuring teams that aren't at the top of their own conference standings? How could a showcase event like this feature one team that's on a two game losing streak (while also having lost three of its last five straight up), and an opponent that will finish the year 8-8 in its conference barring an upset win.

This is the best college basketball has to offer?

Yes and no. College basketball has a lot of good teams, but no really GREAT teams. The way the media, fans, and even most handicappers have come to define "greatness" actually creates illusions about how teams stand against each other. We've touched on this in recent articles, and it was a theme during last year's March Madness discussions in the Mess Hall here at Competitive balance is such that the differences amongst the upper echelon are negligible within a 40-minute game. Anything can happen at the whims of shooting percentage, officials' calls, or just the bounce of the ball.

Rating mechanisms have chosen to:

*Reward teams that win HUGE when things are clicking
*Penalize teams that only win by moderate scores when things are clicking
*Punish teams for blowout losses, even if they're relatively rare
*Stick numbers by teams that don't really mean anything at all. If the 2nd ranked team in the country is playing the 25th ranked team in the country, those numbers just don't matter in terms of who's going to win that day

What the rankings actually mean (whether it's from the computers, the pollsters, handicappers doing power ratings, or fans making predictions for fun) is that the 2nd ranked team wins more blowouts against lesser teams when things are clicking.

Let me give you an example. I know we're talking about North Carolina and Duke in this preview (well, eventually!). North Carolina currently trails Virginia in the ACC standings. If Virginia wins as a favorite at Wake Forest, North Carolina will have the honor of being #1 in the country in the computers even though they aren't #1 in their own conference. In fact, if favorites win out in the ACC this weekend, North Carolina would rank as the third best team in the ACC because of a tie-breaker loss to Virginia Tech.

Here are North Carolina's scoring margins in ACC play this year, going left to right from worst to best:

-7, -6, -4, -2, -1, 5, 6, 10 (median), 16, 19, 22, 26, 28, 37, 41

That's 11 wins and five losses. The midpoint performance is a 10-point win. The average performance is a victory of 12.7 points. Note the huge margins on the right end of the spectrum. Note, in fact, how rarely North Carolina plays a game close to their median or average. They either win huge or they play well below expectations.

Here's the same graph for Virginia:

-27, -10, -8, -5, 1, 2, 3, 4 (median), 5, 6, 11, 12, 12, 13, 13

Run your finger across those numbers. There's a huge loss right off the bat in a game where Virginia just played horribly. The median only registers at four points. The big victories all hang in the 11-13 range. For comparison's sake, the average performance is a victory of 3.3 points.

A computer sees edges of 10-4 and 12.7 to 3.3 in the median and averages. The pollsters see all the blowout victories. The fans know Virginia got routed in a game, and that North Carolina runs away and hides when things are clicking. Handicappers compiling power ratings have to give North Carolina credit for all of those blowouts too. How can you not lift a team in your ratings after they've posted wins of 37 and 41 points?

In the ACC standings though, we see this:
Virginia: 11-4
North Carolina: 10-5

In the USA Today's rankings, we see records against the top 25 that show this:
Virginia: 6-2
North Carolina 5-4

If you're trying to project what's going to happen in one game, a series of games, or the NCAA tournament, it just doesn't matter that North Carolina can win by 25, 30, or 40 sometimes. They have to string together six victories to win a national championship. A team that's 5-4 vs. top 25 competition, or a team that's lost five times in league play will have the odds against them when trying to complete a 6-0 sweep.

Of course, ALL teams have the odds against them in that light. That's why the Big Dance is such a crapshoot. The mistake people make is in assuming that teams that win huge blowouts when things are clicking have some kind of edge that matters in a big game against a top opponent, or in a tournament. Superfluous points in blowouts don't get you anywhere in the non-blowouts.

Okay, let's get to Duke.

*Duke is 8-7 in the ACC, currently sitting in sixth spot. If they lose as an underdog Sunday to North Carolina, they'll finish with just a .500 record in league play.

*Duke is 2-5 straight up vs. teams in the top 25 of the USA Today computer ratings.

*Duke has a margin line in ACC play that looks like this:
-12, -11, -8, -6, -2, -2, -1, 2 (median), 5, 8, 9, 14, 22, 22, 23

That's a median of two, an average of 4.3. Despite all of that, the most respected computer rating systems in the country have them as top 12 or better nationally. Duke gets rewarded for the blowouts (particularly in non-conference play this year). Virginia gets penalized for peaking at 13 points in their conference victories. And an 11-4 team ranks well below an 8-7 team in the national consciousness as a result.

Time to make a pick. Sunday's pointspread will be very near North Carolina's conference median...and Duke represents something close to the midpoint of the ACC with a record near .500. In that light, the line will be reasonable. You can see from Carolina's volatility that they're fully capable of covering by double digits in a win, or of losing outright. In fact, if you like North Carolina coming off back-to-back losses and playing in front of a home crowd, you should consider alternative lines that offer bigger payouts at blowout spreads. If Carolina is going to click, they have a good chance of doubling the spread.

Are they going to click? Recent games have shown a very tired defense that seems to have been worn down by an up-tempo season (Carolina ranks 7th in the nation in the tempo of their games). This is likely to be a high energy track meet because it's a rivalry, and because neither team will have to play another game until very late in the week in the ACC tournament. Duke has also shown defensive weakness lately in league play. They're allowing 45% shooting to ACC opponents this year (quick five games as an underdog this season, Duke has allowed it's opponents to shoot a combined 50% from the floor). To me, this suggests an OVER play rather than a team side.

High energy, tempo, tired defenses, good shooters, the potential for a free throw parade at the end all suggest a good shot at reaching the 160's or 170's. Last year's season finale between these teams landed on 159 even with JJ Redick going 5 of 21 from the field for Duke. We'll call it Over in the first half for a unit...and Over in the full game for another.

Feel free to share your thoughts about Duke/North Carolina with us in the MESS HALL!

S.H. Austin

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