The first question may very well go back to the junior season of J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams. Duke was just coming off a Final Four appearance and looked to be getting stronger the next season with the return of ACC Rookie of the Year Luol Deng and the addition of three prospects - David McClure, DeMarcus Nelson, and Shaun Livingston. The following year's lineup looked to include Livingston, Redick, Deng, Williams, and either Daniel Ewing or Shavlik Randolph depending on the match-up.
Then the NBA early entry phenomenon hit in a big way as Luol Deng unexpectedly declared for the draft to be followed shortly by Livingston bypassing college all together. Those two losses left Duke without a lot of depth, and playing Ewing out of position at the point guard. The following season saw Duke take another hit as Randolph unexpectedly left for the league despite being un-drafted.
The Blue Devils, who had originally targeted a three-man class in 2005 all of a sudden needed to add additional players just to fill out the rotation. As many analysts noted at the time the overall strength of the 2005 class was far below that of 2004 and 2006. Duke certainly appeared to hit a home run by signing Josh McRoberts, Greg Paulus, Eric Boateng, Jamal Boykin, and Martynas Pocius. Scout.com tabbed McRoberts and Paulus as the top players at their position (PF and PG). Boateng was a five star center. Boykin and Pocius were rated as four star players.
Nearly four seasons later and the Blue Devils only have Paulus and Pocius remaining - with the New York point guard as the only one of the five who has contributed meaningfully as an upperclassman. Boateng was gone after his freshman season. Boykin left before the halfway point of his sophomore season. McRoberts departed for the NBA at the end of two years. Pocius has been dogged by injuries, meaning he has an extra year of eligibility heading into next year. Still, Duke has received just two productive seasons out of a possible 20 from the current senior class in the latter half of their careers.
Contrast that to what was on display Wednesday night in Cameron from the pastel blue wearing guests who started two members from the class of 2005 (Hansbrough and Danny Green) and got a much needed lift off the bench from a former starter (Bobby Frasor). A fourth member of that class, wing Marcus Ginyard, has a history of impacting the rivalry match-ups, but is lost for the season due to injury.
A purely statistical look at last night's contest reveals the battle of the senior classes to be a big mismatch. Duke got 28 minutes, eight points, two rebounds, three assists, and four steals. Meanwhile North Carolina's fourth year players combined for 87 minutes, 41 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, and one steal. That's a huge difference between the two teams.
Subsequent classes have actually matched up well in the series. The current sophomore and junior classes must be lumped together since North Carolina negated to bring in any players from 2007. Third year players Gerald Henderson, Lance Thomas, Jon Scheyer, and Brian Zoubek have combined to provide the Blue Devils one emerging superstar, one consistent double figure scorer, and depth in the post. Contrast that with the Tar Heels who added Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Deon Thompson, Brandan Wright, Will Graves, and Alex Stepheson. From those six players, the Heels are down to three rotaitonal players in Lawson, Ellington, and Thompson. Wright left after one season, Graves has apparently taken himself out of the program for the foreseeable future, and Stepheson transferred out.
Certainly, on paper, the UNC class was head and shoulders above the Blue Devils. However, further review shows the gap is not as significant over the course of their first three seasons as expected though it is still there. The maturation of Henderson in his third season has given Duke, arguably, the best player in the remaining seven. Certainly Ellington and Lawson have been very good - as you would expect from the top rated shooting guard and point guard in one of the strongest classes in recent memory - but Scheyer has been steady enough to make Duke respectable and an argument could be made that Thomas and Zoubek have been as serviceable to Duke as Thompson, despite the inconsistency, has been to North Carolina even with Thomas more in the middle due to Duke's lack of other viable options (the loss of McRoberts and Boateng - both more suited for the role of a big man in the Duke system looms large here).
Another glance at Wednesday's box score reveals that while North Carolina got the better of Duke in the battle of the third year players, the margin wasn't unworkable. Duke's quartet combined to produce 96 minutes, 44 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, two steals, and two blocks. Their counterparts combined for 92 minutes, 52 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, six steals, and no blocked shots.
The remaining halves of the respective rosters coupled with the recruiting classes of the two programs offer an interesting commentary and possible look at the balance of powers' future leanings. Currently Duke has five players - Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, Miles Plumlee, Elliot Williams, and Olek Czyz - playing in their first or second season while North Carolina has four - Tyler Zeller, Ed Davis, Larry Drew, and Justin Watts. Of these four, only Drew and Davis factor into the current rotation (Zeller is out with a likely season ending injury). Of the players currently enrolled, it's hard to argue that the Blue Devils enjoy the services of the best player in the bunch in the form of Singler. After that, the Blue Devils have Smith making a difficult transition from scoring to point guard (with the expected learning curve yielding highs and lows). The three other underclassmen - all freshmen - have seen spot duty throughout the season though nothing substantial. North Carolina counters with a pair of post players who project to be fine additions to the roster in Davis (8 points 4 rebounds in 14 minutes Wednesday) and Zeller. Drew looks to be a capable backup.
With Singler and Smith (and considering the injury to Zeller), it would appear as though Duke has the advantage in the younger groupings as Wednesday proved. Duke's underclassmen bested UNC's in every category and enjoyed substantial advantages in points (33-8), rebounds (11-4), assists (5-1), and minutes (55-21).
Such advantages in production could lead to Duke tightening the talent and experience gap in the players coming junior and sophomore seasons depending on the NBA attrition level at both programs (i.e. the decisions of Lawson, Ellington, Henderson, and Singler). Those decisions combined with the development and acquisition of additional talented youngsters in the classes of 2009 and 2010 will be the main factors in which way the pendulum on Tobacco Road swings next.