So far this year, it appears that there are two teams that are a level above the rest of the ACC (with some apologies to Miami, who can join these two if they keep playing as well as they are right now). These two teams will be meeting with first place on the line at high noon on Saturday at the PNC Arena. #20 NC State hosts top ranked Duke in a battle to see who is the first 3-0 team in the ACC. The Wolfpack will be gunning for their first 3-0 start in the conference since 1988-89.
Laura Keeley, the Duke beat writer for the N&O, wrote her game preview article. She has a section that details who has the edge at each position:
Quinn Cook (6-1, 175) vs. Lorenzo Brown (6-5, 186)
Brown and Cook rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the ACC in assists per game, and both are coming off successful scoring games, as Brown dropped 21 on Georgia Tech, and Cook scored a career-high 27 against Clemson. Cook rarely turns the ball over (a 2.8 assist-to-turnover ratio) and is an effective on-ball defender. Cook has also played well away from home, taking MVP honors at the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament as Duke beat VCU, Minnesota and Louisville. The latter two are both ranked in the top 10 and have only lost to Duke. Brown has struggled in the Wolfpackâ€™s biggest games (Oklahoma State, Michigan).
Seth Curry (6-2, 185) vs. Scott Wood (6-6, 169)
Curry has shown the type of scoring prowess he flashed last year against N.C. State (21 of his 26 points came as Duke erased that 20-point second half deficit) more often this season. Curry has topped 20 points in six of Dukeâ€™s games, including a Duke career-high 31 points against Santa Clara, which gave the Blue Devils all they could handle for the majority of the game. Curry has also developed more of a dribble-drive game and has shored up his defense. Wood is the ACCâ€™s most prolific 3-pointer shooter, and the Wolfpack are 14-0 in the Mark Gottfried era when he hits at least four 3-pointers. Historically, Wood has not shot well against Dukeâ€”in four career games against the Blue Devils, Wood has shot 33 percent from the field. Against everyone else, heâ€™s posted a 42.4 percent mark.
Rasheed Sulaimon (6-4, 185) vs. Rodney Purvis (6-3, 195)
Offensively, the two have similar games and similar numbers, and that trend holds when looking at advance statistics, too. Both have delivered big games when their teams needed themâ€”Sulaimon scored 17 second-half points in a comeback win over Ohio State, and Purvis scored a team-high 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting at Boston College. Sulaimon has a more developed defensive game (issues guarding Santa Claraâ€™s Kevin Foster nonwithstanding), whereas N.C. State as a team, Purvis included, isnâ€™t as sharp on that end of the floor.
Josh Hairston (6-7, 240) vs. C.J. Leslie (6-9, 200)
The one clear mismatch in the game. Hairston is expected to start his first game of the season (and third of his career) in place of Ryan Kelly, who was ruled out indefinitely with a right foot injury he sustained against Clemson. Hairston, who has provided defensive relief for Dukeâ€™s post players this season and averages 11.3 minutes per game, will be hard pressed to stop Leslie, the ACC preseason Player of the Year. Expect to see Mason Plumlee (who guarded him last year) pick him up at times and Duke reserves Alex Murphy and Amile Jefferson take turns on him, too.
Advantage: N.C. State
Richard Howell (6-8, 257) vs. Mason Plumlee (6-10, 235)
Plumlee established himself as the frontrunner for national Player of the Year through Dukeâ€™s nonconference schedule, though his offensive production has dropped off in the Blue Devilsâ€™ last three games (though Plumlee did set his teammates up for four 3-pointers with nice passes out of the post against Clemson). As Hairston isnâ€™t an offensive threat, it wouldnâ€™t be surprising to see Leslie help double-team Plumlee. Both Howell and Plumlee are defensive rebounding machines for their team, and it will be intriguing to see if Plumlee is able to use the few extra inches of reach that he has on Howell effectively. The most important number in this matchup, though, will be fouls. Neither team can afford to lose either player for an extended stretch of time.
Tyler Thronton (6-1, 190), Amile Jefferson (6-8, 195), Alex Murphy (6-8, 220), Marshall Plumlee (6-11, 235) vs. T.J. Warren (6-8, 233), Tyler Lewis (5-11, 157), Jordan Vandenberg (7-1, 264)
T.J. Warren is averages 12.5 points per game, which is actually fourth-best on the team and 26 minutes per contest, but head coach Mark Gottfried prefers to bring him off the bench. Outside of backup point guard Tyler Thornton, none of Dukeâ€™s reserves average more than 8.8 minutes per game. With Kelly out, Duke will need more from the unproven Jefferson and Murphy (and, if possible, Plumlee, who was set back with a foot injury of his own earlier this season).
Advantage: N.C. State
Duke will be playing its first true road game, and it will be without its most effective scorer of late. There is no one on the roster who can truly replace Ryan Kelly. N.C. State was the preseason favorite to win the ACC but saw most everyone jump off the bandwagon after a head-scratching loss to Oklahoma State. The onus is on the Wolfpack to prove they are for real, a challenge Gottfried and Co. embrace. Plus, donâ€™t think the Wolfpack returners from last year have forgotten about blowing that 20-point lead in Cameron after thoroughly outplaying Duke for 30 minutes. Donâ€™t think Wolfpack nation, which will have PNC Arena packed, has forgotten that, either.
Advantage: N.C. State
While I agree with the majority of these advantages, I see some differences. I did appreciate the in depth analysis on Lorenzo Brown (notice big sarcasm), but I would say that even as much as Quinn Cook has improved, he is still not the caliber of player that Brown is when he plays his A game. As long as Brown keeps his turnovers down, this is a Wolfpack advantage. The small forward is a position that I feel is a push, especially with as well as Purvis has played the last couple of games. The one thing that isn’t mentioned at all is how Coach K will create motivation for his team, especially with Ryan Kelly out.
It will be a good game. The key to the game in my opinion is the first 10 minutes. State needs to play better in the first half and not have one of their trademark slow starts. If there is a slow start, the Pack could get down 8-10 points and the Blue Devils could quickly take the crowd out of the game, which is just what Coach K wants. If the Pack starts out like they did against St. Bonaventure, then Duke may be in for a long day. We will see in a few hours what transpires.