Defending the '4'

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The old worn-out cliché surrounding the North Carolina-Duke rivalry is that you can toss out records, statistics and the kitchen sink when these two bitter rivals square off. But on Wednesday, a pivotal battle at the four spot will go a long way in determining the victor in this highly-anticipated contest.

There is little to no doubt that the fifth-ranked Blue Devils will be unable to match – or contain – the exploits of reigning national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough (22.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg). Duke center Brian Zoubek and forwards Lance Thomas and David McClure are combining to average just 13.2 points and 11.6 rebounds per outing, and it's worth noting that the Poplar Bluff, Mo. product averaged 22 points and 16.5 rebounds in two games against the Blue Devils last season.

Kyle Singler, however, provides finesse at the four spot that's every bit as dangerous as Hansbrough's tenacity, presenting No. 3 North Carolina with a daunting defensive challenge. The 6-foot-8, 235-pound sophomore is leading the Blue Devils with 15.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, while pulling down a team-high 68 offensive rebounds and attempting a team-high 105 3-pointers.

"He's really a difficult matchup because if you guard him with size, he takes them outside," UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his press conference on Tuesday. "If you go small against him, he takes them inside. He can shoot over smaller guys, and he can dribble past bigger guys. He is really one of the few legitimate threats to score from anywhere. He can score on the block, he can score from mid-range [and] he can score from the 3-point line."

Last season, Singler played significant minutes against North Carolina at the five spot, averaging 12 points and nine rebounds on 38.1 percent shooting in battling Hansbrough for much of the two games. The Tar Heels frustrated the Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor last March, tallying 15 blocks, led by Danny Green's seven rejections and Deon Thompson's five.

But Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has played his sophomore standout more prominently at the four this season, allowing Singler to take advantage of his skills in the post and on the perimeter more effectively.

Williams indicated that either Hansbrough or Thompson could see time guarding Singler, but the three-time All-American's physical style of play would appear best suited for Zoubek's 7-foot-1, 280-pound frame.

Thompson has developed into a solid, if unspectacular, defensive presence for North Carolina, as evidenced by his ability to hold Clemson's Trevor Booker to seven points on 3-of-6 shooting in the Tar Heels' 94-70 rout of the Tigers on Jan. 21. And while Booker is a different type of post player than Singler, their lateral quickness and speed is relatively equal.

"He's a good player," Thompson said. "He can shoot the ball and put it on the ground. They're probably going to try to use that as an advantage, thinking that I won't be able to slide my feet or what not, but I'm definitely going to be prepared to slide my feet and contain him."

Advantages on one end of the court can easily translate into disadvantages on the other end, and Thompson and Hansbrough would appear to have the upper hand against Singler on the blocks.

"He's going to have to guard me as well, so we'll see how he matches up," said Thompson, who is averaging 11.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game this season.

The potential trouble for North Carolina is that if Singler happens to dominate his position matchup, Williams may be forced to go with a small lineup, moving the 6-foot-6 Green to the four spot. The senior wing is accustomed to playing in that role, but the problem that creeps in is that Gerald Henderson – averaging 18.9 points per game in ACC play – would be left to smaller defenders such as Wayne Ellington or Bobby Frasor.

If that happens, Krzyzewski may be caught by a television camera salivating on the sidelines.

"[Henderson] is physically so strong and jumps so high on his jump shots and on his drives that you've got to have size, and yet size can't stay up with him when he puts the ball on the floor," Williams said.

On the flip side, however, if Thompson and Hansbrough can frustrate Singler enough to disrupt his rhythm, Green's length and athleticism could provide Henderson with some measure of difficulty in scoring. Contain just one or even both of those Duke standouts, and North Carolina's opportunity to leave Cameron Indoor Stadium with a victory for the fourth season in a row becomes a distinct possibility.

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