Even if it’s only on paper, in the NCAA tournament bracket, North Carolina, Duke and N.C. State are finally together.
The Triangle’s three ACC teams occupy different rungs in different quadrants of the bracket, but they are symbolically together at the same point in the road.
Two wins from the Sweet 16, four wins from the Final Four, six for the national title. It won’t be easy. If the brackets hold, the Tar Heels and Wolfpack, both No. 8 seeds, must shock No. 1 seeds Kansas and Indiana next Sunday to extend their season. Duke, seeded No. 2 in the Midwest, could have to get past No. 1 Louisville to reach the Final Four in Atlanta.
Which way they go will define their seasons, which, heretofore, have been unpredictable.
The Tar Heels, Blue Devils and Wolfpack took different routes to get here, passing each other in the process. They were different paths than expected in preseason and different paths from each other.
So how did we get here?
First, let’s look at where we started. In October, the media, and for the first time the league’s coaches, predicted a 1-2-3 Triangle sweep – N.C. State-Duke-North Carolina, in that order.
The preseason vote was based as much on what the Wolfpack had back, from a Sweet 16 team in 2012, and what North Carolina and Duke lost. N.C. State returned four veterans and added three McDonald’s All-Americans. North Carolina lost four first-round picks to the NBA, Duke lost two.
Neither Duke nor North Carolina was expected to fall off the map, but the Wolfpack was expected to be better than both. For the first time, all three entered a season ranked in the top 15
This was supposed to be a vintage ACC season, one last hurrah for the Big Three (sorry, Wake Forest), before the refugees from the Big East outnumber the original ACC members, which will happen when Louisville replaces Maryland in 2014.
As it so often does, reality interrupted a good narrative. Miami, the football power that was, swept the regular-season and tournament titles, while Tobacco Road was paved with injuries and inconsistencies.
Tar Heels’ switch saves season
Not even coach Roy Williams could have predicted North Carolina would be in its third consecutive ACC title game after a 24-point loss at Indiana in November, or an 18-point loss at Texas in December, or a 26-point loss at Miami in February.
The Tar Heels have a talented roster, especially in the trio of P.J. Hairston, Reggie Bullock and James Michael McAdoo, but they also lost a lot of talent in Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller.
The Tar Heels didn’t just win 28 ACC games with that group, and the regular-season title in 2011 and ’12, they rolled teams with machine-like offense.
“You got to think of it, we don’t have Harrison, we don’t have Tyler Zeller, John Henson,” senior guard Dexter Strickland said after the loss at Miami on Feb. 9. “We can’t just rely on somebody just to – we can’t just outrun teams, play OK defense but outscore them. We can’t do that. We have to bring the whole package, and we’re not doing that.”
North Carolina’s season changed when Williams put the high-scoring Hairston into the starting lineup before a 73-68 loss at Duke on Feb. 13.
The Tar Heels got smaller but quicker. Their floor spacing got better and so did their defense, switching more and making up for whatever they lacked in height with aggressiveness.
It was an idea Williams had tinkered with earlier in the season but resisted, much to the chagrin of the fan base with which he has a strange love-hate relationship.
“I started to do it four or five games ago but everybody was saying, ‘Well, you’re going to put P.J. in for somebody else,’ ” Williams said after the loss at Duke. “But nobody knows my team. It’s popular to say who the (heck) is supposed to be in the lineup when you don’t know what in the dickens you’re talking about.”
Turns out, Williams knew what he was doing. After the encouragingly close loss at Duke, North Carolina reeled off six straight wins. The Tar Heels shot poorly at home against Duke on March 9 and were humbled in a 69-53 loss.
They went to Greensboro and took care of Florida State, the 2012 ACC champion, before dispatching Maryland, a surprise winner against Duke in the quarterfinals.
Finally, the Tar Heels got a third shot at Miami, in a makeshift home game in Greensboro, and all of their strengths, especially from beyond the 3-point line, were on display. Miami just had a little bit more.
Blue Devils enter with a ‘cause’
No one, and not just in the ACC, did more in the regular season than Duke. The Blue Devils will enter the NCAA tournament with wins against the ACC champion (Miami), Big East champion (Louisville) and Big Ten champion (Ohio State).
The Blue Devils did all that despite the 13-game absence of senior forward Ryan Kelly, who was out from mid-January to early March, with a chronic foot injury (it also cost him the postseason in 2012).
Duke started 15-0 and rose to No. 1 with Kelly, whose shot stretches defenses and whose smarts make Duke’s defense go. Duke lost its first game without Kelly, 84-76 at N.C. State on Jan. 12, and went 9-4 without him.
The Blue Devils bottomed out with a 27-point loss at Miami on Jan. 23, complete with Miami mocking them with their signature “slap-the-floor” move, but regrouped to win eight of 10 before Kelly returned.
Kelly’s first game back was a 36-point virtuoso performance in a payback win against the Hurricanes in Durham on March 2. His third game back was a dominating 69-53 win at North Carolina a week later.
As former Virginia coach Pete Gillen used to love to say, “Duke is Duke,” and the Blue Devils looked ready to roll through Greensboro.
Then Maryland happened and brought back some familiar uncomfortable feelings. The Terps got 30 points from wing Dez Wells and ended Duke’s tournament. It looked a lot like Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum doing the same thing to Duke in the round of 64 on the same floor last March.
The loss could be a harbinger for Duke this week, or it could be more fuel for coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 12th Final Four run.
“Mike’s best teams have a cause,” said Seth Greenberg, ESPN analyst and former Virginia Tech coach. “And that’s what this team has.”
Wolfpack: Last opportunity
Coach Mark Gottfried got to the end of his postgame remarks Saturday in the auditorium tucked behind the Greensboro Coliseum. He summed his team’s 81-71 loss to Miami in the semifinals as “one of those days.”
With a disappointed Scott Wood at the table seated next to him and a despondent C.J. Leslie two chairs down, Gottfried didn’t dwell on that loss, or the issues of the regular season; rather, he offered optimism about the NCAA tournament.
“I think we’re an awfully good basketball team,” Gottfried said. “We have a lot of basketball left and we have great basketball in front of us.”
That was Gottfried, who has posted back-to-back 24-win seasons, defending his team. The Wolfpack fell short of the ACC regular-season title, going 11-7 and finishing fifth, and in Greensboro, but there were moments when it was, as Gottfried said, “awfully good.”
Most of those came at home with emotional wins against Duke and North Carolina, both in front ot big ESPN audiences and both the kind of “make room for us in the neighborhood” statements that recent N.C. State teams were unable to make.
Friday’s 75-56 win against Virginia in the ACC tournament was probably the team’s most complete effort of the season. Defensive intensity was a season-long challenge for Gottfried’s talented team, one of the best by any metric on offense.
“There’s no denying their talent or potential,” Greenberg said. “Quite honestly, they haven’t been as focused as you’d like them to be. They have one opportunity to bring it all together.”
After five months, it’s the same opportunity for all three teams.