College basketball roundtable: Looking back on Duke, North Carolina and NC State's seasons

From staff reportsMarch 25, 2014 

The college basketball season left us with great games and great moments but, if the NCAA tournament is the ultimate judge, it left us without a great team. At least not one locally.

For the first time since 1996, the NCAA tournament will continue on without a Triangle team in the Sweet 16. There’s no North Carolina, which ended its season on Sunday with a last-second loss against Iowa State in the East Regional quarterfinals. No Duke, which, for the second time in three seasons, was one-and-done in the tournament.

And no N.C. State, which appeared to run out of steam late in its season-ending loss against Saint Louis in the round of 64. For the first time in 18 years – or, for the first time since most area players were toddlers – UNC, Duke and N.C. State could all get together on later this week and host a Sweet 16 watch party.

This won’t be remembered among the finest college basketball seasons in area history. But for a variety of reasons, it was a season worth remembering.

With the season complete for local teams, The News & Observer’s staff of college beat reporters, and columnist Luke DeCock, reflect on the season that was:

Q: For the first time since 1996, the Triangle is without a representative in the Sweet 16. What went wrong for local teams this season?

Andrew Carter (North Carolina beat reporter): At UNC, the answer is pretty simple. The Tar Heels lost their best player, P.J. Hairston, to an impermissible benefits case and he wound up never playing a game for UNC. Who knows how good the Tar Heels could have been with Hairston?

It will remain one of the great what-ifs in UNC basketball history. The Tar Heels became a very good team, and perhaps exceeded expectations without Hairston. Imagine, though, what they might have been had they had Hairston, who likely would have been among the best perimeter players in the nation.

Without Hairston, UNC lacked perimeter depth and scoring.

Luke DeCock: Well, how much really went wrong? Duke lost in its opening game for the second time in three years with a team built around a one-and-done player. OK. That's poor for a team expected to compete for a national title.

But North Carolina came within a possession of the Sweet 16 despite losing its best player, P.J. Hairston, for the entire season because of NCAA issues. N.C. State was supposed to be rebuilding and managed not only to get into the tournament but win a game in the First Four. And N.C. Central might be where Dayton is now had it been in a bracket with Syracuse and Ohio State instead of Iowa State.

Joe Giglio (N.C. State beat reporter): End-game execution.

This was an inexperienced State team with six freshmen or sophomores, a junior-college transfer and a fifth-year senior who began the season with four career starts.

There was a lack of understanding of how to close in big moments, which was most evident after losing a 16-point lead in the 83-80 overtime loss to Saint Louis in the NCAA tournament.

There were also one-point losses to Syracuse, Wake Forest and UNC, which cost the Wolfpack a better ACC finish and a better seed in the NCAA field.

Laura Keeley (Duke beat reporter): The Blue Devils never did learn how to effectively play Krzyzewski's man-to-man defense. The system doesn't build in a lot of help defense if an opponent beats his man off the dribble, and Duke struggled to guard ball screens and backdoor cuts through the final game of the season.

The defense was so bad that it impacted the offense, as Krzyzewski had to sub Jabari Parker out because of his inability to play defense, which left him on the bench for critical stretches of the game. Also, Duke's guard play was more inconsistent than anyone could have imagined in the fall, to the point where Quinn Cook was benched and the Blue Devils went with a point guard combo of Tyler Thornton and natural shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon.

Q: And what went right?

AC: UNC won 12 games in a row in January and February, and the Tar Heels successfully moved on without Hairston. In the end, Roy Williams might have appreciated few teams he’s coached more than this one.

LD: The stars were out: T.J. Warren, Jabari Parker and Marcus Paige treated the Triangle to some of the most memorable individual performances in recent memory. All three displayed truly special talents. Special mention goes to Warren's Wolfpack for vastly overachieving and making it to a third straight NCAA tournament against all odds.

JG: Sophomore forward T.J. Warren took ownership of the team and coach Mark Gottfried made sure everyone understood their roles in support of Warren. If you think that's easy or obvious, check out how Duke (Jabari Parker) and Kansas (Andrew Wiggins) sputtered in the postseason with singular superstars.

Warren, the ACC player of the year, put together one of the best seasons in ACC history. He lost 20 pounds in the offseason and made a seamless transition from a role player to the central figure on an NCAA tournament.

And as Gottfried is apt to say, you have to win your way into the NCAA tournament and with wins over Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Syracuse — all away from home — that's what N.C. State did.

LK: You mean that can be carried forward for next year (thus the problem with the one-and-dones: ultimately, for program building, it's all for naught). Um, at least Rasheed Sulaimon, easily one of Duke's most five talented players, earned a starting spot before the end of the season?

Q: The NCAA tournament regional semifinals will start on Thursday night. What is the biggest single reason no Triangle teams are still playing?

AC: In the end, none of them were good enough to advance. Duke’s hopes always depended on Jabari Parker, and though he was the most talented player in the conference this season he’s still a freshman. As Parker and Austin Rivers both showed, too, it can be difficult to maximize a team’s potential when a freshman is the best player.

Defensively, too, Duke just wasn’t good enough.

N.C. State overachieved, and making the tournament was an accomplishment for a team many expected to finish near the bottom of the conference standings. And UNC also had some flaws – lack of reliable perimeter scoring, woeful free throw shooting, and overall lack of depth – that proved too much to overcome.

LD: Duke dropped the ball. Simple as that. Duke had the expectations, the talent and the seed to advance but couldn't beat a team from the Atlantic Sun while playing 20 minutes from home.

JG: The other 16 teams were better? I don't think there's any thread between the three Triangle teams and their tournament exits.

State had a tough draw (against a veteran Saint Louis team) and couldn't buy a free throw, the clock situation at the end of the UNC-Iowa State game was screwy and there's not enough room to explain Duke's loss to Mercer.

LK: I'm not sure it's fair to lump N.C. State and UNC with Duke on this one. The Tar Heels lost their best player to off-the-court issues, and N.C. State overachieved, frankly, after being picked to finish 10th in the preseason ACC poll. But you can say this about all three teams: They weren't good enough to play past the first weekend. Period.

Q: Did these teams underachieve or was this about what should have been expected?

AC: Duke underachieved. For whatever reason, the Blue Devils’ pieces never quite meshed. I’m an Associated Press top 25 voter, and I voted Duke No. 1 entering the season. When Duke was on and clicking, it was as good as any team in the country.

When the Blue Devils were off, though, they were off. The inconsistency had to be maddening for Mike Krzyzewski. UNC probably maxed out its potential after losing Hairston, and N.C. State overachieved.

LD: It's hard to ask much more of N.C. State or N.C. Central. Given the circumstances surrounding its season, North Carolina probably found the right level in the end. Duke, obviously, fell far short.

JG: There's just no way Duke should have lost five ACC games or to Mercer in any round of the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils had more talent than any team in the ACC and they have the best coach in the country. Like last year's preseason pick (N.C. State), Duke redefined underachieving.

UNC would have been a different team with P.J. Hairston. N.C. State was picked to finish 10th and finished seventh in the ACC. So there's that. The Wolfpack also improved as the season went along and made the NCAA tournament when several times this season (the 31-point home loss to Virginia, the 35-point loss at Duke) it looked like it would be lucky to figure out how to tie its own shoes.

LK: Duke underachieved. Two potential lottery picks and internal expectations for the best Duke teams since 1999 (37-2, Final Four) and 2001 (35-4, national champions) resulted in a first-round loss the Mercer. No spin job can convince me there's a net positive in there.

It was obviously more of a challenge than initially anticipated to teach Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood how to play Duke-style defense (the early season idea of pressing all the time and focusing on intense ball pressure went off the table quickly). And Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook, two returning starters, couldn't ever find their role in the Jabari-and-Rodney-focused offense.

Q: Among teams in the area, which head coach did the best coaching job?

AC: UNC coach Roy Williams called this his most difficult season, but it would have been far, far more difficult if he hadn’t led the Tar Heels through their tumultuous times. They lost Hairston and then started 1-4 in the ACC, and some segment of UNC fans certainly started panicking at that point.

But the Tar Heels turned around their season with a 12-game winning streak, and Williams had a team that many had forsaken one possession away from the Sweet 16.

LD: Mark Gottfried worked wonders with a young team, coaxing a tournament berth out of a group expected to struggle in the ACC. Roy Williams successfully navigated a season full of unexpected twists.

But LeVelle Moton's work at Central the past two years – the Eagles should have gone to the NIT last year, if not for a silly MEAC tiebreaker – is nothing short of stellar, basically starting from nothing and building a team that got more respect from the NCAA committee than any MEAC team ever.

JG: Both Williams and Gottfried, in their own ways, kept their respective seasons from going south and multiple times. Some of UNC's issues were self-inflicted (there's no rule that said they had to wait for the NCAA to jettison Hairston) but there's no doubt Williams did a tremendous job.

The way Warren developed and Gottfried balanced the roles of disparate point guards Tyler Lewis and Cat Barber qualifies as the Wolfpack coach's best work in three seasons in Raleigh. Plus, the trio of freshmen forwards — BeeJay Anya, Kyle Washington and Lennard Freeman — were playing their best basketball in March, which is also a credit to Gottfried's developmental skills.

LK: I was one of the six voters that chose Roy Williams as the ACC coach of the year. His best player (PJ Hairston) never played, his team started out 1-4 in conference play, and he managed to turn the ship around and win 12 straight ACC games and defeat a red-hot opponent in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Well done.

I will say, though, that ballots were due before Mark Gottfried's team made the NCAA Tournament. That's a job well done, too.

Q: Was this season a blip on the radar, with no local teams advancing past the first weekend in the NCAA tournament, or is something going wrong here?

AC: This season proves the unpredictable nature of college basketball. Duke entered the season as a national title contender and didn’t come close to making the Final Four. In October, we all expected P.J. Hairston to be back at some point and he never played. And nobody expected anything out of N.C. State, and it makes the tournament.

Point is: Who knows what to make of this season? Just when we think we have it figured out, we’re proven wrong. There are few locks in college basketball anymore.

LD: It's a blip for North Carolina and N.C. State, both of whom should be substantially improved next year barring any unexpected defections. But given how Duke teams built around Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker both suffered early exits from the NCAA tournament, Mike Krzyzewski has to ask whether the way he has built his program is conducive to success with one-season players.

He needs an answer quickly: Two more, Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones, arrive next season.

JG: It's the first time in 35 years one of the in-state ACC schools is not in the Sweet 16, that's the statistical definition of a blip.

N.C. State turned a rebuilding season into a third straight NCAA tournament. That qualifies as progress, not "something wrong."

UNC had a unique season by anyone's standard but still won 24 games and managed to develop Paige into one of the best players in the country.

That leaves Duke. Mike Krzyzewski has won four national titles. He doesn't need my help. But he does have to ask himself this question: Does the model of relying on one-year players work? With Kyrie Irving (2011), Austin Rivers (2012) and Parker (2014), so far it hasn't. I understand there have been different circumstances for each player and each of those teams, but the results have been the same.

LK: There are philosophical questions that must be answered at Duke, as next year's team is a reload of the one-and-done model, with center Jahlil Okafor and point guard Tyus Jones coming in. Krzyzewski's best teams, the ones that won championships, were led by upperclassmen, and normally seniors. Duke no longer has Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill, Shane Battier, guys that made regular appearances in the Final Four. Now it's going to be more Austin Rivers, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood.

Krzyzewski said before the Mercer game that young teams struggle to play good, solid defense. So if Duke is going to stay young, with the one-and-done model that has only worked for John Calipari, does that mean the defense that the program was built on needs to change?

Q: Which team among Duke, UNC and N.C. State is set up best for next season?

AC: Marcus Paige will be back for UNC, and James Michael McAdoo is likely to return, too. The Tar Heels lose Leslie McDonald but add heralded recruits Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson, who should instantly improve UNC on the wing. UNC’s 2014-15 team should be its best since the 2011-12 team began the season ranked No. 1.

LD: Assuming Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo return, as they should, the Tar Heels are primed to pick up where they left off at midseason, when they ripped off 12 straight wins. Almost the entire roster returns, Kennedy Meeks is primed for a breakout year and the incoming freshmen should contribute right away, wings Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson in particular.

JG: Duke brings in the best talent, guard Tyus Jones in particular will be a revelation, but see previous point about one-and-done players.

N.C. State will again be in NCAA tournament contention but it won't be easy to replace Warren.

The addition of guards Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson pushes the talent level on UNC's roster back to the Final Four-quality that Williams enjoyed in his first six seasons in Chapel Hill. If Paige continues on his current trajectory, there's no ceiling for the Tar Heels in 2015.

Of course, the last two teams (both from Triangle) picked to win the ACC didn't, so maybe it would be better to start with a few doubts, rather than big expectations.

LK: North Carolina. The Tar Heels return all but one major contributor and will have Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo—their best players—to help mentor the three all-Americans coming to town. Duke will once again attempt to be led by freshmen on the court. The loss of T.J. Warren will set State back significantly.

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