Saturday’s mammoth meeting between league elites Wake Forest and North Carolina goes far deeper than just two players – battling for position on the same baseline will be Sean May, Jawad Williams, Marvin Williams, Eric Williams, Vytas Danelius and Kyle Visser. And Justin Gray and Rashad McCants could get entangled in a memorable shooting duel.
But no one match-up will garner more of the spotlight than at the point.
“Lots of guys play at 100 miles per hour, but he plays at about 300 to 400 mph,” Paul says of Felton. “He is definitely the fastest player I’ve ever competed against. We’ll have to guard like we’ve never guarded before. They’ve got so many weapons."
Here in mid-January, the inside track to a league regular-season title and top seeds in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments could be up for grabs Saturday at Lawrence Joel Coliseum.
It’s a long season, but it’s hard to find one better game farther down the pre-tournament schedule.
The Deacons are ranked third by ESPN/USA Today and fourth by the AP, while UNC is ranked fourth and third, respectively. Both teams carry identical 14-1 overall and 3-0 conference records into the 210th meeting between these two intrastate rivals.
The game is scheduled to tip-off shortly after 1:30 p.m. on Saturday and will be televised nationally by ABC.
Felton and Paul, who both rely on blinding speed and quickness, may be the league’s best at their position; although that is an arguable stance to take at best. Both have outshined Maryland’s John Gilchrist in games already this season, although Gilchrist hasn’t been 100-percent healthy.
And while Felton has also led the Tar Heels to a decisive victory over Jarrett Jack and 2004 NCAA runner-up Georgia Tech, Jack did score a game-high 24 points in the losing effort – not to mention his game-winning buzzer beater that knocked Carolina out in the first round of last year’s ACC Tournament.
“The biggest similarity is the one that coaches love; they’re all interested in winning,” Roy Williams said referring to Gilchrist, Jack, Felton and Paul. “They put your teams in positions to win. They make other people better.
“[Felton and Paul] are more similar than the others. Their speed and quickness with the ball and the way they attack after a rebound, a made field goal or a turnover…its huge positives for both of our teams. Both of them are really good at keeping the basketball in front of them on the defensive side of the floor.”
Still, Paul and Felton seem to stir the most interest, at least in Big Four country, some of which is stirred by conflicting stories surrounding Paul’s recruitment.
How did Paul, widely believed to have been a UNC fan growing up, slip through the cracks and wind up at Wake Forest? The answer is still a matter of hot debate. And while there are several theories circulating, none have ever been fully substantiated.
Paul averaged 30.8 points per game in his final season at West Forsyth, where he was named the state’s player of the year by the AP. He was actually offered a late-scholarship by former Tar Heels’ coach Matt Doherty, but at the time – with Adam Boone in tow and Raymond Felton on the way – Carolina didn’t seem to have room for Paul, and therefore didn’t get on board with his recruitment early enough to have much impact.
In hindsight, it appears that was a major mistake by the former coaching regime in Chapel Hill. But even 20-20 vision couldn’t project the impact Paul would have at the college level, and the Tar Heels certainly haven’t suffered with Felton at the helm. Both sides are extremely satisfied.
When Felton was asked to comment on what could be the only meeting with Paul this year, he said, “I’m not going to worry about that. All I want to do is get that win. He’s a great player. I don’t want to get into the comparisons.”
“I’m just going play the way we play, get the ball up the court on offense and play great defense,” Felton said.
In their first two meetings, in which UNC and Wake split road wins, the individual numbers are eerily similar, except for a slight scoring edge to Felton.
In the triple overtime classic played on Dec. 20, 2003, Paul’s first game in the Smith Center was one few will ever forget. Wake won 119-114, but Felton had 22 points, while Paul scored 18. Both shot poorly, a combined 2-for-14 from 3-point range. And the last time the two took the court, Felton scored 17 and Paul had 15 in the Tar Heels’ 79-73 at Wake. Felton also hit the shot of the game, a three-pointer that pushed UNC ahead by five with 51 seconds left.
Scoring is only part of the contribution, and the other statistics are also very much alike. Both have averaged 7.5 assists, and about three turnovers in the two previous meetings. Felton (13-for-15) has shot slightly better from the free throw line than Paul (11-for-15).
So the numbers back up the hype. Still, there is no quantitative measure for on the court speed, and that is a guaranteed constant on display when these two meet.
“It’s going to be fun to watch,” Jackie Manuel said.