The 20-win seasons, national rankings, and NCAA bids come with numbing regularity, as much a part of the men’s college basketball landscape as hoops, sneakers and whistles. Duke and North Carolina remain the most celebrated and accomplished members of the ACC – an expanded league Tar Heels coach Roy Williams caustically estimates to currently include 108 members. Both North Carolina and Duke are national brands in themselves; together they have been the face of the ACC for decades.
But these days, barely noticed by the world at-large, that face is showing more than a few wrinkles, and not just because Williams and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski are in their 60s.
An argument can be made that both programs have hit a bit of a lull. Sure, North Carolina won the 2009 NCAA title, Duke the 2010 national championship. However, over the past four years neither has so much as reached a Final Four. That’s the longest combined drought for the pair since the mid-1970s.
Duke was eliminated on friendly turf in its initial NCAA encounter in two of the past three seasons, losing to Lehigh in 2012 at Greensboro and to Mercer at Raleigh in 2014. In 27 previous NCAA tournament appearances under Krzyzewski, only three Duke squads failed to survive their first outing. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels were 1-1 in their two most recent NCAA forays, their quickest consecutive exits since one-and-done appearances in 1979 and 1980. And they didn’t even make the NCAA field in 2010.
Within the ACC, times have been similarly unkind to the dynamic duo.
After winning 14 of 15 ACC tournaments between 1997 and 2011, the Triangle neighbors were denied the championship in each of the past three years. The only instances of the Blue Devils and Tar Heels going this long without capturing the official ACC title were 1954 through 1956 (N.C. State won all three years) and 1983 through 1985.
North Carolina hasn’t won the ACC tournament since 2008. Duke hasn’t won the ACC regular season outright since 2006. North Carolina did finish first in 2011 and 2012.
The Tar Heels weren’t ranked by The Associated Press at the end of two of the past five seasons – 2010 and 2013. They finished 2014 rated 19th. They suffered double-digit losses in three of the past five seasons; during Williams’ first six years back at his alma mater they endured double-figure defeats just once.
There’s more. Williams’ best teams suffocate opponents with offensive pressure. This season’s players expect to ratchet up the tempo, reflecting improved talent, depth and experience. “That’s what we’ve been focused on in practice, just going up and down as much as we can,” said a slimmed-down Kennedy Meeks, a key low-post presence.
Recent history offers a modest bar to clear. Last season was the fifth in a row North Carolina’s scoring failed to exceed the 81.8-point average across Williams’ 11-year tenure. From 2004 through 2009 the Tar Heels won two NCAA titles, reached a third Final Four and regrouped twice while averaging 85.6 points. Since 2010 they’ve averaged 77.2 points.
The 62.6 percent free-throw accuracy achieved in 2013-14 was the worst in Chapel Hill since the ACC’s founding in 1954. North Carolina last hit a respectable 70 percent at the line in 2009. The 2013-14 Tar Heels attempted fewer 3-pointers than in any season since 1993-94. They were the only conference club on which a single player, guard Marcus Paige, took the majority of his team’s 3-point shots.
Meanwhile, for all the alleged recruiting advantages gained by Krzyzewski as coach of the U.S. national team, Duke has fallen short of its standards, too.
Last season’s 12.1 turnovers forced per contest was the worst yet in 34 seasons under Krzyzewski,, whose program was built on cloying man-to-man defense. The Blue Devils instigated fewer than 13 turnovers per game in two of the past three seasons, their least aggressive ball hawking since 1981-82.
Their three blocked shots per outing were lowest at the school since 1985-86. Not surprisingly, then, Duke’s .456 field-goal percentage defense in 2013-14 was its worst since 1991-92. (That national championship squad compensated by posting the second-highest accuracy from the floor in program history.)
Nor were the 2013-14 Blue Devils particularly adept at cashing in at the line, once a program staple. They made fewer free throws per game than in any season since 2006-07. The 2012-13 club was barely better.
Krzyzewski promises a return to signature strengths likely to shift Duke’s recent anemic numbers. “We’re going to emphasize being a really good defensive team and trying to score off our defense,” he said. Nor were the 2013-14 Blue Devils particularly adept at cashing in at the line, once a program staple. They made fewer free throws per game than in any season since 2006-07. The 2012-13 club was barely better.
None of this means either Duke or UNC has fallen off the edge of the earth or yielded primacy to ACC newcomers Louisville or Syracuse or resurgent Virginia. Both the Tar Heels and Blue Devils are likely to start the season ranked among the top 10 ahead of anyone else in the conference.
To some degree, for all their resources, since 2011 both programs simply lacked their usual abundance of good fortune. Williams is quick to ascribe North Carolina’s recent lowlights to inopportune injuries and a multitude of problems off the court that led to uncertainty as to who exactly would take the court.
“The last two years have been more junk than I wanted to deal with, made the job not as much fun, there’s no question,” the coach said. “If you’re talking about the stuff on the court, in a lot of ways I’ve been very pleased.”
As for the injuries – none more devastating than the one that sidelined playmaker Kendall Marshall during the 2012 NCAAs – he argues that squad was “a broken wrist away from (being) the best team in the country.” Both the 2011 and 2012 clubs reached the NCAA regional finals.
Duke similarly struggled to overcome key injuries – forward Ryan Kelly as tournament play began in 2012, Kelly and shooter Seth Curry in 2013 and, most crucially, playmaker Kyrie Irving in 2011.
Had fortune been kinder, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels easily might have won three straight NCAA championships between them at the dawn of this decade, duplicating their run from 1991 through 1993.
This past spring Krzyzewski publicly shared his evaluation of the Duke program. He divided his analysis into five-year segments rather than focus on single seasons, and he gauged success by noting years that produced “legitimate chances” to win the national championship.
“When I evaluate, do we have a shot?” the coach asked himself. By that reckoning, he counted the stretch in 2010-14 – yielding a national title and an appearance in the NCAA regional final (2013) – as equivalent to the 2000-04 span in which his teams won the 2001 NCAA title and made an appearance in the 2004 Final Four.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the recent past, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels alike talk unabashedly of getting to the Final Four this season. Certainly there’s ample talent on hand, starting with nine McDonald’s All-Americans at Duke, six at North Carolina.
The careers of standouts at both schools are unusually fleeting, based on recent experience: a combined 10 players from the programs have gone pro with eligibility remaining over the past four seasons.
Surely that’s another factor in the teams’ difficulties in sustaining excellence, a task that might be more problematic in the modern game than it has ever been.