GREENSBORO — One changed the face of the ACC when the season began. Another turned it upside down as the regular season ended. In an unusual twist, freshman point guards have held the fate of the conference in their hands this season, and that won't change this week in Greensboro.
Two of North Carolina's teams go into the ACC tournament with a freshman starting at the point, a third is grooming a freshman at the position and the fourth wishes more than anything that it still had its freshman point guard.
For Duke, briefly, and North Carolina, later, it couldn't have worked out any better with Kyrie Irving and Kendall Marshall. For N.C. State and Wake Forest, the growing pains of Ryan Harrow and Tony Chennault have been oh-so-predictable.
"Any time you have freshman point guards, they're going to do some things you like and some things you don't like," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who turned to a freshman himself this season in Pe'Shon Howard. "It might cost you for a year, but the experience they gain will be valuable next year."
In the years since Maryland's John Lucas became the first freshman to start at the point in the ACC in 1972, at no point have all four of North Carolina's schools started freshmen at the position. If Irving and Chennault hadn't gotten hurt, it might have happened this year.
As it is, those freshmen have started a combined 30 games at the point. Another, Tyler Thornton, has started three games for Duke as well.
"They're not usually playing against all seniors," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had. "It's not like when Bobby Hurley or Kenny Anderson (were freshmen), although those were two pretty good freshmen. They're not playing against juniors and seniors. It's never easy, but it's a little bit easier because the league isn't as old. It'll never be as old as it was. Still, it's an accomplishment for all those kids when they do well."
Eight great games
Irving may have been the best player in the league - certainly the most exciting - for the first eight games of the season, before a toe injury shut him down - possibly the rest of his Duke career if the NBA Draft lottery predictions hold true.
Irving was so compelling, he continues to make headlines even as he sits and watches from the bench in jeans and a sweater. Rarely does a day pass without someone, somewhere, speculating about a miraculous Irving comeback.
Krzyzewski has been adamant since Irving was first injured that Duke would do nothing to compromise his future, and his NBA future is bright. Draft Express and ESPN both rate him the top prospect in the draft.
Irving has been cleared to resume some "basketball-related activities," so it's impossible to rule out a surprise Irving appearance before the season is out, but it's foolish to expect one as well - particularly this week in Greensboro.
That will deprive fans of an Irving-vs.-Marshall matchup. In Irving's absence Marshall has emerged as the league's most influential point guard.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Marshall's defense kept him out of the starting lineup for the first half of the season, but the switch at the point in January couldn't have had a more dramatic impact.
The Tar Heels immediately took a dramatic upward turn, with the other four players on the court showing remarkable development with Marshall distributing the ball, and the team's chemistry, if not its depth, improved when Larry Drew II left town in a huff a few weeks later.
"Just from seeing them on film, they're obviously a different team with him running the show," Duke's Nolan Smith said after seeing Marshall in person on Saturday. "He controls the ball and he gives their big men touches and they know what to do with it."
Suddenly, Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller were getting the ball in places where they felt comfortable shooting, while Marshall's ability to run the break camouflaged the Tar Heels' inability to shoot the 3-pointer consistently. And if his defense has hurt North Carolina, it hasn't been noticeable.
There's more to this than making his teammates better, though. Marshall has shown amazing court vision, as exemplified by his long, pinpoint passes to Zeller under the basket Saturday.
"Very few people can see (that pass)," Williams said. "Very few people can execute it. He's one of the guys who can. He's not the most athletic guy, but from the shoulders up, he's hard to beat."
For Harrow and Chennault, the path has not been so smooth. Harrow had to fight his way past senior Javi Gonzalez for the starting spot, and as soon as he did, a virus knocked him out for two games and lingered for weeks.
With electric speed and an underrated shot, Harrow has thrived at times. But in many ways, Harrow's season has been a microcosm of his team's: High expectations, slow growth and, in the end, undeniable underachievement.
Chennault missed the entire preseason with a foot injury, then played in the opener and hurt the same foot again. As the only true point guard on Wake Forest's roster, he was the one player the Demon Deacons couldn't lose, and by the time he returned in January, the season was long ago lost.
Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik said Chennault is about 10 pounds overweight and still learning the Demon Deacons' playbook at this late point in the year, which has limited him to reserve duty.
"Tony is where our freshman were about halfway through the season," Bzdelik said. "He's figuring this game out. ... It's a huge learning experience for a young man, trying to figure out his own game and what his limitations are at this level, coupled with understanding what we need to do offensively."
As the tournament begins today, Harrow and Chennault figure to have a hard time getting out of today's opening-round games, let alone Friday's quarterfinals. But there's always a chance N.C. State or Wake Forest could make an unlikely run in the tournament. That can happen in Greensboro, when everything resets to zero.
It's more likely the title game on Sunday will feature either Duke or North Carolina or both - one team that wishes it had its freshman point guard, and another that finally realized how lucky it is to have one.