Nelson or Paul? Point to a winner

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jameer Nelson won the Naismith Award. The Sports Illustrated cover boy and ESPN.com player of the year was a unanimous choice for first-team All-America this week.

The only thing the senior hasn't won this season is a one-on-one matchup against another elite playmaker. He certainly hasn't faced anyone in the category of ACC freshman of the year Chris Paul.

He will Thursday night.

Yes, Nelson had to deal with Xavier's Lionel Chalmers twice, splitting the teams' two games this season. But Nelson wasn't the only Hawk defending Chalmers. Nelson had help from senior Tyrone Barley.

He might call some switches Thursday night as well, but Nelson's toughest test this season will come in St. Joseph's biggest game. And, as has been the case in 29 wins -- and St. Joe's 20-point loss -- how Nelson fares against Paul will go a long way toward saying whether St. Joe's goes any further than this Sweet 16 matchup.

"I don't know if he has ever played a guy in college as good as Chris Paul," a candid Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said Wednesday as teams prepared for the East Rutherford Region semifinals. "He's being described as a young Jameer Nelson, but he's different because he's a better scorer and shooter than Jameer was as a freshman.

"I'm enamored with Chris Paul ... He's T.J. Ford. They've got T.J. Ford in that uniform. That's not a freshman. That's a pro."

There is a mutual respect between the two players. Paul, who won't turn 19 until May 5, is genuinely one of the nicest players in college basketball. Nelson, who turned 22 last month, treats his opponents with respect and genuinely is looking forward to "meeting Paul."

"I can't wait," Paul said. "He's in charge the whole time. He's got control of the tempo of the game and knows when to speed it up and slow it down. I'll try and do the same thing.

"He's a great player and coach [Skip Prosser] always said to be the best you've got to go against the best."

Nelson, however, isn't ready to pass the point guard torch just yet.

"He's talented," said Nelson. "A lot of freshmen get nervous out there. He doesn't."

Regardless of the age difference or NCAA experience (Nelson is playing in his third Dance and sixth NCAA game), the East Rutherford nightcap shapes up to be the best individual matchup involving the player of the year of the season. Nelson faced Blake Stepp in the Hawks' season opener, but Stepp isn't a true point guard and the Hawks hounded Stepp as a group in its 73-66 victory over Gonzaga.

Paul, meanwhile, is the new breed of point guard. In fact, going up against the taller Paul is more akin to what Nelson will face next season in the NBA. Paul is a scoring point who is averaging 25.5 ppg in two NCAA games. He's also extremely quick. The matchup will test the potential consensus player of the year's ability to disrupt an opposing team's offense. Nelson averages nearly three steals a game.

Paul, however, has handed out 13 assists and committed just two turnovers in his first week of NCAA action. He's also grabbed 11 rebounds to go along with his 51 points in close wins over Virginia Commonwealth and Manhattan. Wake is in the Sweet 16 after two wins by a combined five points.

"Jameer can hold his own," said an understated St. Joseph's sophomore guard Chet Stachitas. "He was all-defensive in our conference. But we usually put Delonte (West) and Tyrone on the opposing team's point guard."

"It's going to be a great matchup," Saint Joseph's junior guard Pat Carroll said. "Paul is a great penetrator and is really fearless for a freshman. But Jameer is one of the best defenders I've seen."

And it's not as if Paul will be able to rest on defense, either. Nelson is leading the tournament with 28.5 points per night. In fact, Paul won't be asked to handle Nelson alone. He will need, and will get, help from his fellow Deacs.

"I can guard him for a while," Wake Forest junior guard Taron Downey said of helping out on Nelson. "We all will have to help on him."

"Whenever Jameer gets into the lane we'll have to jab him," Wake Forest sophomore guard Justin Gray said. "We can't be scared of him. (But) the last couple of games Chris has played like a big-time player."

Yes, Paul has been special in the past two weeks. Oh, add Paul's 30-point performance in a ACC tournament loss to Maryland into the postseason equation and he's averaging 27 points, 7.3 assists and five rebounds, while shooting 53.3 percent.

Go back to the ACC tournament and Paul said playing the Terps' red-hot John Gilchrist, even in a loss, prepared him for Thursday's matchup. But he isn't going to get caught up in any one-on-one macho moments. At least he and Nelson are saying the right things, trying to keep the focus on Saint Joseph's vs. Wake Forest ... not Jameer Nelson vs. Chris Paul.

But Barley knows otherwise, or at least he'd like to make it personal to get himself motivated. He's willing to come in off the bench and take Paul one-on-one. And, look for Martelli to slide Barley over and defend Paul for stretches, assuming the frosh get the hot hand.

"We're hoping Tyrone can go in there and wear him out," Martelli said. "We've got to make [Paul] go faster than he wants to go. Tyrone has the ability to make him do that. We're willing to play at a pace, but not his pace. We can't guard them if we're scrambling. We have to get our feet set."

"We'll play the matchups," Saint Joseph's assistant coach Monte Ross added. "We'll just go by feel on this one. Paul is a really quick point guard, just like Jameer. The last point guard he faced kicked his butt [in Chalmers]. So I'm sure he'll be motivated."

If he isn't, it would be news. Nelson hasn't lacked motivation since returning for his senior season. But for now, Nelson isn't showing his cards.

"It's not about me," Nelson said. "But I know I can hold my own."

The national player of the year should be expected to in a game of such importance. And, no matter what they said Wednesday, both Nelson and Paul understand they will be watched as closely as any matchup over the next eight games and 48 hours.

Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said the point guard matchup will be great, but the final score will depend as much on how the players around Nelson and Paul compete. Gray is convinced an "X" factor will decide the game. Someone like Eric Williams for Wake Forest, or Carroll for St. Joe's?

That may be the case. But another player deciding things will only happen if the point is a draw. If either Nelson or Paul get the better of the other, the score will show it.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.