It had been a long time – about 18 years – since Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State all lost on the same day. Then came Saturday.
It was a day to forget for the No. 16 Blue Devils, who suffered an embarrassing defeat at Clemson, and for the Tar Heels, who had no answers for No. 2 Syracuse’s zone defense, and for the Wolfpack, which suffered its worst home loss in more than 20 years.
College basketball royalty once lined Tobacco Road. Now, one week into the ACC schedule, these teams are weaving around potholes, past shady street corners and cheap motels, trying to find their way.
What’s wrong with Duke, UNC and N.C. State? Our college beat reporters – Andrew Carter, who covers UNC; Joe Giglio, who covers N.C. State; and Laura Keeley, who covers Duke – have the answers.
Q: Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State are all off to disappointing starts after the first full week of conference play. What are the main problem points for each team?
Joe Giglio: N.C. State gave up 48 points in the second half of a Jan. 4 home loss to Pittsburgh and 48 in the first half of Saturday’s home loss to Virginia. Plain and simple, you can’t give up that many points in a half of college basketball, let alone to teams like Pitt and Virginia, who are not exactly the most advanced offensively.
Compounding the issue for the Wolfpack, outside of the Notre Dame win, points have been difficult to come by. Pittsburgh and Virginia are excellent defensive teams, but the Pack has to shoot better (39.3 percent vs. Pitt, 28.9 vs. UVa).
Andrew Carter: North Carolina at times has looked like one of the best teams in the country. With victories against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky – all of which were ranked among the top three to start the season – UNC has proven it can play with, and beat, any team.
The opposite is true, too, though. The Tar Heels have been infuriating to try to figure out, but their main problem has been a lack of consistency. Coach Roy Williams never knows which version of his team will show up, and that has to be frustrating.
UNC’s primary flaws are a lack of reliable outside shooting, and the absence of a go-to player beyond Marcus Paige, a sophomore guard.
Laura Keeley: At Duke, the issues all start with defense. The Blue Devils guards can’t keep drivers in front of them on the perimeter. That amplifies the fact they don’t have a traditional post defender to protect the area around the rim. Defending ball screens, too, is an issue, and, with the charge call basically nonexistent thanks to the new rules, opponents are driving at will (particularly on the baseline) and finishing with some momentum-changing dunks.
Beyond that, the undersized Blue Devils aren’t psychologically tough and they wilted on the road in tight games at Notre Dame and Clemson. Postgame talk by the players focused on a lack of toughness and maturity and the need to grow up. Not good, no matter how you slice it.
Q: What are some reasons for hope that things will get better?
JG: Wake Forest and Duke, the next two opponents, aren’t nearly as good on defense as either Virginia or Pitt. Senior forward Jordan Vandenberg and freshman guard Cat Barber, who were instrumental to the team’s seven-game winning streak during late November and mid-December, have played better than they have shown for the better part of the past two weeks.
If both can get back on track, and sophomore forward T.J Warren rebounds from a tough outing against Virginia, then the Pack can string together some ACC wins.
AC: UNC is mired in a shooting slump that can’t possibly last, can it? In each of their first three ACC games, the Tar Heels shot less than 40 percent from the field. UNC hasn’t had a shooting stretch like that since the 2010-11 season.
Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, the players UNC most relies upon for scoring in the post, should also improve as the season progresses. If UNC avoids the kind of miserable shooting performances that have become routine of late, and if Johnson and Meeks are productive inside – and these are big ifs – then the Tar Heels can turn things around.
LK: Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski didn’t win 969 games by accident. There is no one better at coaching basketball. The attributes that had Duke people dreaming of the Final Four all summer and preseason long – talent and athleticism – still are there. Jabari Parker has been everything that was expected, and maybe even a little more, the past three games notwithstanding. Rodney Hood has put up three straight 20-point games when the rest of his team was struggling. There are some great pieces on this team – would you bet against Krzyzewski finding the right (or at least a better) combination?
Q: Which of the three schools has been most underwhelming after one week of conference play? Is it Duke, which began the season with national title aspirations? UNC, which beat three highly ranked nonconference opponents before starting 0-3 in the ACC? Is it N.C. State, which followed a win at Notre Dame with its worst home loss since 1993?
JG: The answer is Duke and, really, it’s not even close. The Blue Devils lost at Notre Dame, which is missing its best player, and at Clemson, which has an eighth of Duke’s overall talent.
I’m genuinely surprised Duke hasn’t been better. I thought the Blue Devils would be more athletic than recent seasons and really be a juggernaut inside the league and out. Maybe the team picked by the media in the preseason to win the ACC is somehow doomed to failure?
AC: The expectations surrounding UNC aren’t as high as those that have surrounded Duke, but the Tar Heels’ 0-3 start in the league is no less disappointing than the 1-2 conference records at Duke and N.C. State. UNC has victories against two top-five teams, and another against Kentucky.
It makes no sense, then, that UNC would lose to Wake Forest and Miami – let alone Belmont (Tenn.) and Alabama-Birmingham. Even without P.J. Hairston, the Tar Heels still are significantly more talented than the Deacons and Hurricanes.
LK: It has to be a two-horse race between Duke and North Carolina. N.C. State was picked to finish 10th in the league, and that’s still doable. But raise your hand if you think Duke is going to finish ahead of Syracuse at the top of the league, as predicted, and the Tar Heels will be third. UNC, though, thought it would have Hairston all preseason, so he was a significant loss, to say the least.
So that leaves Duke. A team that began the season among the top five already has lost to a Notre Dame team just two weeks removed from losing its best player and to Clemson. The Tigers defend well, yes, but against Duke looked like an offensive juggernaut, too.
Q: What needs to happen for Duke, UNC and N.C. State to “right the ship,” as Paige described it Saturday, and recover from their poor starts?
JG: The Wolfpack needs to defend better, which requires better ball pressure and for Vandenberg to protect the rim. Vandenberg, who has 27 blocks in 12 games, is not going to fix everything, but if he gets back to his early-season form, that would be a lift.
Barber needs to rediscover his shot and his shot-selection filter. In his first seven games as a starter, he shot 45.8 percent (33-for-72). State went 7-0 in those games. In the past five games, Barber has shot 24.5 percent (13-for-53) and the Pack is 2-3.
AC: UNC needs to develop more offensive balance, and someone needs to emerge to take the pressure off of Paige. He’s good, but he’s not good enough to single-handedly carry the Tar Heels.
James Michael McAdoo, a junior forward, is the closest thing UNC has to a second scoring option, but he is prone to disappearing for long stretches. Johnson and Meeks have to produce down low.
Leslie McDonald, who has struggled at times since returning from his early-season suspension, needs to make a difference on the perimeter. The Tar Heels have rebounded and defended well enough to win their first three ACC games, but the offense hasn’t been there.
LK: Fixing the defensive issues, outlined previously, would be a nice start. But here is another thought. I was under the impression this Duke offense was going to be fast-paced and high-flying – remember the opener against Davidson? Duke scored 111 points in 70 possessions. But in their first three ACC games, the Blue Devils haven’t topped 64 possessions. Duke ranks 179th nationally with 68.8 possessions per game and 144th in average possession length (17.4 seconds on offense). In summary, the Blue Devils don’t play fast. Could speeding up the offense take some pressure off of the defense?
Also, some toughness would help. Someone needs to light a fire under the rest of the team so when it’s a two-possession game at Clemson with three minutes to go there aren’t players hanging their hands before the final whistle.
Q: Which coach – Duke’s Krzyzewski, UNC’s Williams or N.C. State’s Mark Gottfried – faces the most difficult challenge in reversing his team’s fortune? Who has it the easiest?
AC: All three teams seem rattled. UNC isn’t playing nearly as well as it believes it is capable. The Wolfpack is coming off a humbling, humiliating loss.
Gottfried faces the least pressure among these three, and so he might have it easiest just by default. The pressure was off the Wolfpack entering this season.
It’s a different story at Duke and UNC. Krzyzewski probably faces the most difficult challenge. Duke looks nothing like the team he lauded throughout the preseason, and getting the Blue Devils to play at that level likely will require one of Krzyzewski’s best coaching jobs.
JG: Tough question. It’s difficult to change who you are as a team, especially in midseason. Of the three teams, Duke has the most talent but toughness has been scarce, which is the equivalent to punching Krzyzewski in the solar plexus.
UNC won three great games (Louisville, Michigan State, Kentucky) without P.J. Hairston, but the Tar Heels really miss his, or Reggie Bullock’s for that matter, ability to consistently make outside shots.
N.C. State has the least talent and experience of the three and the most difficult conference schedule. That being said, it’s easier to bounce back after a no-doubt, no-show loss like N.C. State had Saturday, than it is from a close call.
I’m not sure that answers the question, but I will add, the Greensboro Coliseum folks who were worried about selling tickets on Wednesday or Thursday for the ACC tournament feel a lot better than they did a week ago.
Conversely, the PNC Arena peeps are seriously sweating ticket sales for an NCAA tournament subregional with Pitt and Villanova, instead of Duke and North Carolina.
LK: Hard to say. Krzyzewski has the most to work with talent-wise, but it’s the same group that has faltered in conference play thus far. Williams’ team can’t shoot, and it’s hard to win games when one struggles to put the ball through the hoop. Gottfried’s team apparently didn’t realize it was playing a Virginia team with above-average talent, and T.J. Warren isn’t going to score just four points on a regular basis. Expectations were lowest for N.C. State, and the Wolfpack had done pretty well until Saturday’s debacle. So let’s say Gottfried has the easiest job.
I think Williams’ task of figuring out how to win with a poor shooting team is a slightly tougher task than Krzyzewski needing to figure out how to make his group tougher. Neither, though, will be easy.
Q: After the struggles of the past week, how have the expectations changed for these teams? What’s the best-case scenario for each team going forward?
AC: I voted Duke No. 1 on my preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll ballot and at this point it’s fair to wonder whether the Blue Devils will make it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The expectations still are there, but now they’re accompanied by a lot of questions. I still say Duke is a national title contender if it puts things together.
UNC remains an enigma. The three big wins mean UNC likely would be an NCAA tournament lock even with a 9-9 finish in ACC play. If the Tar Heels make the tournament, the only guarantee would be that no team would want to play them.
Entering the season, it appeared N.C. State’s ceiling was the National Invitation Tournament. After what the Wolfpack endured Saturday, getting there might be an accomplishment.
JG: Expectations never change for Duke or North Carolina. They are expected to win and that’s it. N.C. State, with wins at Tennessee and at Notre Dame, showed signs of being in the neighborhood of the NCAA tournament bubble. The problem for the Pack becomes can it survive a brutal ACC road schedule? If it can’t, even the NIT won’t be a possibility.
LK: Expectations always are sky high for Duke. I still think anything less than a Final Four will leave a trail of articles wondering what went wrong. While no one wants to be reminded of this now, people inside the Duke program thought this would be an elite team before the season. That has not been the case.
Best-case scenario? I mean, shoot, Duke runs the table the rest of the way in league play, having figured something out after the Clemson debacle, and competes for a national championship. UNC rediscovers the mojo that led to wins against the preseason top three teams (Kentucky, Michigan State and Louisville) and is a nightmare matchup in the NCAA tournament. And N.C. State finds itself on the right side of the bubble for the second time in three years.
If things don’t turn around quickly, though, we could be in for more dubious hoops history: the first Duke-North Carolina game without a team in the AP Poll since Feb. 27, 1960 (136 straight games). The teams will tip Feb. 12.