The NCAA tournament fled North Carolina this spring, thanks to HB2, which is ironic since the Final Four is likely to be heavily weighted toward the Triangle. Duke is the consensus preseason No. 1, North Carolina is loaded and N.C. State is gunning to shock some people.
This has the potential to be the greatest collective basketball season in the history of the Triangle’s three ACC teams. Whether it gets there is subject to the fickle nature of chance, health and the dastardly interference of teams from outside the area that can’t see the drama potential inherent in a Final Four in Arizona with not one and not two but all three Triangle teams.
Either way, with the Triangle’s Final Four drought – four years in 2011-14, difficult to fathom in retrospect – now utterly and thoroughly vanquished with Duke triumphant in 2015 and North Carolina a shot away from a title of its own in 2016, it will be shocking if at least one of those two teams isn’t back this April.
The recent high-water NCAA tournament mark for the Triangle teams is 2015, when Duke won the national title and North Carolina and N.C. State made the Sweet 16. There was also 1991, when North Carolina and Duke both made the Final Four, without encountering each other, sadly. This season has the potential to blow all of that away.
Duke is obviously the most likely, bringing back a team capable of competing for an ACC title and adding the best recruiting class in the country to that group, even if the Blue Devils figure to bring power forward Harry Giles back from knee surgery with an abundance of caution. Expectations are justifiably high; any team with Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson would be off to a good start even before the freshmen arrived. This will look more like one of Mike Krzyzewski’s Olympic teams than most of his Duke teams, with doling out playing time as much of a challenge as getting the freshmen up to an elite NCAA pace.
The cadre of returning veteran players will give the younger players an early season cushion in that regard, even if the older players find themselves playing less in March as Krzyzewski inevitably narrows his rotation to seven or eight players. The makeup of this roster gives Krzyzewski far more freedom to experiment in games and push hard in practice than he had last season.
North Carolina hasn’t gotten as much attention as Duke, in part because so much was paid to who the Tar Heels lost. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson had such an overwhelming impact in Chapel Hill that it’s easy to wonder how North Carolina will ever fill the void. Losing Theo Pinson indefinitely to a broken foot doesn’t help, but Joel Berry emerged as a star last season and Isaiah Hicks wasn’t far behind.
Even if the Tar Heels don’t have Duke’s talent or depth, they still have a roster full of solid players who know what it takes to get to a Final Four and enough weapons for Roy Williams to do the kind of things Roy Williams likes to do.
The real wild card is N.C. State, which has two lottery picks in Dennis Smith Jr. and Omer Yurtseven, a potential first-team all-ACC player in Abdul-Malik Abu and three perimeter shooter/scorers in Terry Henderson, Torin Dorn and Maverick Rowan. As usual, the Wolfpack is lacking depth, but this is by far the widest array of offensive weapons Mark Gottfried has had in his time at N.C. State.
Defense, as always, will be the big question, but for the most part the Wolfpack’s collection of NBA talent is being overlooked because Smith, Yurtseven and Dorn have yet to play a game in an N.C. State uniform and Henderson has played all of seven minutes. This is a team capable of winning six in a row against anybody. It’s also a team capable of ending up on the wrong side of the tournament bubble with an injury or two.
The Wolfpack has neither the depth nor the experience nor the pedigree of Duke or North Carolina, but it’s impossible to count N.C. State out, either, in what has the potential to be not only a good year for the Triangle, but a truly historic one.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock