North Carolina used an explosive second half to bomb the Blue Devils 101-87 at Duke in the first meeting this season. Will history repeat Sunday, or will Duke continue the success of the road teams in this series?
This is the end. Championship Week is already here for many of the smaller programs in Division I; after this weekend, the big boys will have their conference tourneys leading into the Big Dance itself, the 2009 NCAA men’s basketball Tournament.
All four of the teams in our weekend betting preview are going to get March Madness invitations. But this pair of must-see contests is far too important for anyone to be looking ahead to the postseason.
Connecticut at Pittsburgh (-3½, 140½)
Saturday, Mar 7, 12:00 p.m. (ET) CBS
The UConn Huskies (27-2 SU, 11-12 ATS) have lost one game in 2009 – to the Pittsburgh Panthers (27-3 SU, 15-8-1 ATS). And that was in Storrs, where the Huskies fell 76-68 as 2.5-point faves. So Pitt must be salivating at the thought of beating UConn at the Petersen Events Center, thus creating a three-way tie for first place in the Big East with the Huskies and the Louisville Cardinals.
There are two immediate obstacles in Pittsburgh’s path. One is the bruised tailbone suffered by point guard Levance Fields in Wednesday’s win over Marquette. Fields is going to be a game-time decision for this matchup, according to coach Jamie Dixon. It could be strategically useful for Dixon to intentionally rest Fields, the thought being that Pitt is in line for a No. 1 seed in the Tournament and would not be “penalized” on Selection Sunday for losing to UConn minus Fields (10.9 points, 7.5 assists per game).
The second obstacle is Connecticut’s impressive performance on the road. Both Huskies losses were at home – in away games, they’re 9-0 SU and 6-2 ATS. On the other hand, UConn is guaranteed to be without guard Jerome Dyson (13.2 points, 3.2 assists per game), who is out for the season with a torn meniscus in his right knee. The Huskies are 4-1 SU and 1-4 ATS without Dyson.
The Panthers also have one of the few players who can compete with Hasheem Thabeet in the post. DeJuan Blair scored 22 points with 23 rebounds in February’s meeting; he’s the leading offensive rebounder in Division I, grabbing 25.1 percent of his opportunities and making Pitt the most efficient scoring team in the nation. But again, if Fields is kept out of this game, the Panther offense will be operating in a lower gear.
Duke at North Carolina
Sunday, Mar 8, 4:00 p.m. (ET) CBS
The circumstances surrounding the marquee rivalry in college basketball are pretty much the same as what’s happening in the Big East. The Battle of Tobacco Road sees the Duke Blue Devils (25-5 SU, 14-14-1 ATS) one game behind the North Carolina Tar Heels (26-3 SU, 11-16 ATS) for first place in the ACC. The Tar Heels (-2) won their first encounter with Duke this year, 101-87 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. And sure enough, injuries have been a problem for both teams at guard. Duke is without Nolan Smith (concussion), while UNC has missed Marcus Ginyard (foot) for most of the season.
In this case, there’s plenty of perimeter talent to go around for both teams. Duke in particular has gotten its act together at 5-0 SU and 3-2 ATS since moving Jon Scheyer to starting point guard. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, are 4-1 SU and 1-4 ATS in their last five (just like UConn) since beating Duke. But the Blue Devils will have their depth tested even more with forward Lance Thomas (17.7 minutes per game) spraining his left ankle and center Brian Zoubek (12.9 minutes) breaking his nose on Tuesday versus Florida State. Both are listed as day-to-day.
While neither team has done much against the betting odds this year, North Carolina has the over at 17-10, and Duke has been a strong under club at 17-11-1. However, the Blue Devils have found an offensive spark this past month and drove the over to the pay window in six of their last eight games. Credit freshman guard Elliot Williams, who’s scored in double digits in four of five games since his promotion to regular duty. Considering these two archrivals combined for 188 points last time, there’s every reason to believe we’re in for another shootout on Sunday.