The end is now in sight. For N.C. State, that’s probably for the best. For Duke and North Carolina, the end of the ACC season is merely the end of the beginning, given their national-title aspirations.
There are only four ACC games left in the Triangle this season, and thanks to HB2, the Duke at North Carolina game on March 4 will be the final in-state appearance for these teams, since the NCAA games scheduled for Greensboro will now be played in Greenville, S.C. – barring a late surge that somehow gets N.C. State into the NIT.
North Carolina hosts Louisville on Wednesday in a matchup of top-10 teams, N.C. State closes out its home schedule against Virginia on Saturday, Duke hosts Florida State next Tuesday and the season wraps up with Duke and North Carolina. That’s all that’s left on the Triangle’s home slate before the ACC gathers in Brooklyn.
As it turns out, it’s a pretty good way to end the season, and not just with Duke and North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Louisville still has a chance to inject itself into the No. 1 seed discussion, and with a win in Chapel Hill would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over both Duke and North Carolina, potentially making that later game moot for such purposes. (And even if the Tar Heels can get past Louisville, they still have to go to Virginia next week, which is never easy.)
While Louisville has wins at Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Syracuse, the Cardinals have lost to every NCAA tournament team they have played on the road – Notre Dame, Florida State and Virginia. So if Louisville wants to stake its claim to the ACC regular-season title, it’ll have to beat not only the Tar Heels but its own tendencies this season.
After a rough patch, North Carolina’s defense seems to be rounding into form, as it typically does this time of year under Williams. The big question for North Carolina on Wednesday is whether its season-best defensive performance against Virginia on Saturday was a product of the Cavaliers missing open shots – as Roy Williams thought afterward – or the Tar Heels forcing the Cavaliers into missing shots they didn’t want to take. Virginia obviously likes to run its offense deep into the clock, but instead of getting good shots through patience, the Cavaliers were left with rushed 3-pointers and tough 2-point jumpers.
Duke still has go to to Syracuse and Miami before playing its final home game, next Tuesday against Florida State. The Seminoles are a dramatically better team at home than on the road, but their size and ability to score will still be a good barometer for Duke, which has shown steady defensive improvement during its seven wins since the N.C. State loss.
Duke lost by 16 in Tallahassee during one of the grimmer phases of the Blue Devils’ season; this game will be the Seminoles’ best chance to make that kind of statement on the road before the ACC tournament.
And then there’s N.C. State, which will see Mark Gottfried make his final PNC Arena appearance Saturday. N.C. State’s other two games are at Georgia Tech (on Tuesday) and Clemson (next week) which under normal circumstances would be classified as winnable, while Virginia would not. But just as the Wolfpack has lost seven straight going into Tuesday night, which along with Gottfried’s end-of-season firing makes these very unusual circumstances, the Cavaliers have lost four straight – with an offense so stagnant at the moment perhaps even N.C. State can stop it.
A three-game rally to close out the season, plus some kind of a last stand in Brooklyn, might be enough to get N.C. State in the NIT discussion (with Clemson, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Syracuse).
It doesn’t seem like the Wolfpack has that kind of run in it, but the season isn’t over yet, even if the end, for everyone, approaches rapidly.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock