It has to happen again one of these days, doesn’t it?
The Sports Law of Averages – it finally came through for the Chicago Cubs, 108 years later – demands that there will come a time, perhaps sooner than later, that some combination of Duke, North Carolina and, yes, even N.C. State, will make the same Final Four. Maybe this is the season.
Maybe this is the year, at last. It seems as good of a year as any.
There’s Duke, with the kind of veteran leadership and anointed freshmen that defined the Blue Devils’ run to the national championship in 2015. They start this season No. 1, the favorite again, and if Duke doesn’t end up in Phoenix, at the Final Four, it might be considered a lost season.
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There’s UNC, with a nucleus of returnees who came close to a national title last April. The Tar Heels, who began last season No. 1, aren’t quite the sure thing everyone thought they were a year ago but, still: coach Roy Williams has a roster that remains the envy of most coaches in the country.
There’s revamped N.C. State, with more depth than usual and two freshmen who could become NBA draft lottery picks. One of them is point guard, Dennis Smith Jr. - perhaps the future No. 1 overall pick, according to some - who just might be the Wolfpack’s greatest talent since David Thompson.
So dream the dream. Envision the usual madness of March, and multiply it by a degree of two (or three?). If there ever was a season built to end with multiple Triangle teams among the last four standing, this might just be it.
Maybe we’re greedy. There are few entire states, after all, with a legitimate hope of ever sending multiple teams to the same Final Four. Kentucky, with Kentucky and Louisville. Michigan, with Michigan and Michigan State. And then the Triangle is a neighborhood where it’s usually possible.
There is a precedent for such a thing. Go back 25 years, to Indianapolis.
Two police officers escorted UNC’s Dean Smith off the court after his ejection and Roy Williams, his hair still dark, coached his Kansas team into the national championship game. It was 1991, the first time and last time that two Triangle schools reached the same Final Four.
Dean Smith then was in his 30th season at UNC. Williams, now entering his 14th season as the Tar Heels’ head coach, was still in his early years at Kansas.
Later that night, after the Jayhawks’ 79-73 victory against the Tar Heels, Duke beat UNLV in the second national semifinal. Two nights later the Blue Devils won the first of their five national championships under Mike Krzyzewski.
Who could have know then that we’d still be waiting 25 years later for another Final Four with two Triangle teams? It seems like something of a statistical oddity, given how often the Tar Heels and Blue Devils are among the last four teams playing.
Duke and UNC have been back to the Final Four a combined 16 times since 1991. Yet during that span they’ve never made the same one. Twenty-five years, 16 trips to the same place – but never together. They haven’t even been all that close to reaching the same Final Four.
It’s been 25 years
Last April, UNC advanced to the national championship game in Houston after Duke lost in a regional semifinal. The year before that, Duke won the national championship in Indianapolis after UNC lost in a regional semifinal.
And so it’s gone for most of the past two decades. A weird rule of the college basketball cosmos has taken hold: When UNC makes a deep NCAA tournament run, Duke doesn’t. When Duke does, UNC doesn’t.
In the past quarter century, Duke and UNC, together, have been among the final eight teams standing but one time. That was in 1998. UNC advanced to the Final Four in San Antonio with a victory against Connecticut. Duke lost to Kentucky in a memorable South Regional championship game.
In the 18 years since, the Tar Heels and Blue Devils have reached the Final Four a combined 10 times – five times each. In the years when one of them has made it, the other has never advanced past the Sweet 16.
Which brings us to the here and now, at the start of a season in a year when long-held rules of futility have died. If the city of Cleveland can win its first major professional championship since 1964, and if the Cubs can win the World Series for the first time in 108 years, then two Triangle teams can reach the same Final Four for the first time in a quarter-century, and for the second time ever.
Another Final Four with two Triangle teams – shoot, make it all three – is our destiny. It is our right as the nation’s greatest college basketball region, however such nebulous things are defined.
The people here demand such a Triangle-infused Final Four - especially long-suffering N.C. State supporters, assuming the Wolfpack are a part of the history.
For outside of 1991, two of the best chances for a multi-Triangle team Final Four involved N.C. State. The Wolfpack would have faced UNC in a national semifinal in 1983 had the Tar Heels not lost against Georgia in a regional final.
In 1986, Krzyzewski coached Duke to the first Final Four of his coaching tenure. The Blue Devils would have played against N.C. State in the national semifinals – if only the Wolfpack had defeated Kansas in a regional final.
With the exception of one time 25 years ago, though, that’s how it has gone in the Triangle’s not-so-cursed college basketball history: By the time one of these three teams reaches the Final Four, the door has long shut on the other two.
Three teams with stars
Maybe that changes this year. There’s hope. After all, Duke, at No. 1, and UNC, at No. 6, are both among the top six teams in the Associated Press’ preseason poll for the first time since, um … last year. And the year before that.
And, yes, OK: those two more often than not enter the season ranked among the top 10.
Duke, with preseason player of the year candidate Grayson Allen and freshmen Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles (assuming he recovers from another knee surgery), enters the season the clear national championship favorite. Tatum and Giles are both projected as top-5 NBA draft picks.
At UNC, Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige are gone – their numbers hanging in the rafters of the Smith Center – but everyone else is back. That includes Joel Berry, the MVP of the ACC tournament, and Isaiah Hicks, the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year last year.
The Tar Heels ended last season on the other side of one of the most dramatic finishes in NCAA tournament history. They walked off the court in Houston, heads hanging, moments after Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer gave Villanova a national championship victory as time expired.
And then there’s N.C. State, which might be home to the best point guard in college basketball. Smith, the freshman who graduated early from high school, spent most of last season with the Wolfpack, recovering from an ACL injury.
“There are no parts of me that think I’m not ready for anything,” he said recently.
Smith will have help from a strong supporting cast that includes freshman Omer Yurtseven, a 7-foot Turkish center who’s also projected as a top-25 NBA draft prospect. Still, Smith alone carries the burden. He has become the greatest hope of ending the Wolfpack’s prolonged basketball misery.
N.C. State hasn’t reached the Final Four since it won the 1983 national championship. Since, Duke and UNC have combined for 22 Final Four appearances. It has been 30 years, meanwhile, since the Wolfpack advanced through an NCAA tournament regional semifinal.
Mark Gottfried, the N.C. State coach, recently attempted to temper expectations. He spoke of the ifs, those questions surrounding senior guard Terry Henderson, who is back from injury, and Smith, and Yurtseven, who will serve a nine-game suspension because of his involvement with a Turkish pro team.
But if those ifs became reality …
“We have the potential to be a really good basketball team,” Gottfried said.
Every coach is asking those kinds of questions. At UNC, Williams is wondering how his team will adjust to life without Paige and Johnson, who will fill those voids in leadership and production. At Duke, Krzyzewski is wondering how the old and the new will fit together.
He compared preseason expectations to Internet dating. Sure, a profile might look like nice, as the Blue Devils do now, just before the start of the season, but how will they look in reality, live and in person?
“We can create a big, nice picture of who we’re supposed to be,” Krzyzewski said.
And yet if the ifs become affirmatives, if the reality for Duke, UNC and N.C. State is as pretty as the preseason hype indicates it could be, then maybe this is the year. Maybe a multi-Triangle team Final Four is in order. It seems like it has to happen again sometime, one of these years.