As he demonstrated a year ago, Roy Williams is often at his feistiest when he likes the cards he’s holding, which means his shot at Donald Trump on Thursday is probably a pretty good sign for North Carolina heading into a third meeting with Duke.
In this ACC tournament brought to you by coaches talking about Greensboro, Williams took his turn and qualified for the same PG-13 rating as Jim Boeheim when, in discussing markets, he noted that social media has disrupted the entire information ecosystem, especially in the White House: “You know, our president tweets out more (expletive) than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Budding political rivalry will have to step aside for decades of basketball rivalry. As good as the Tar Heels looked in a 78-53 win over Miami, the Blue Devils weren’t far behind in a dramatic 81-77 win over Louisville that saw Grayson Allen recapture his verve after a dismal opening game and Duke going to a 2-3 zone out of desperation with shocking success.
It was the best game of the tournament so far on every front, with the best atmosphere of any, especially after Allen and David Levitch were involved in a tussle under the basket. Levitch fouled Allen while shooting a 3-pointer moments later, and the deeply divided crowd alternately booed and cheered as Allen took, and then made, the free throws.
Expectations will be high for Friday’s first semifinal to top that, even in this unfamiliar territory.
“We’re accustomed, and they’re accustomed, to playing in buildings that have a lot of energy, for or against them,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “That’s why the kids go to those schools is to be in those moments, be in a moment like today. So to be in that moment (Friday), the people who are in the stands, they have a chance to enjoy that, because these moments don’t happen all the time. Our two programs have created a lot of them.”
Krzyzewski equated the two-game run of playing Louisville and North Carolina to a Final Four, and Friday’s game will have the feel of a championship no matter what happens in the late-night half of the bracket.
Either Duke or Louisville would have provided a tough test for North Carolina in the semifinals, but the way the Tar Heels are playing, they don’t seem to care who they face. They have managed to tap into last year’s mojo, right down to following the same script in their ACC opener. The Tar Heels may not have Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, but they remember what it took to win, to get as far as they got.
“I saw a glimpse of what we did last year in our first game, when we played against Pitt,” Joel Berry said. “We had an OK first half and then we came out in the second half and just totally blew them out of the gym. So I see a glimpse, but I don’t want to jinx anything.”
At one point, when Miami couldn’t find any way through North Carolina’s defense and scored all of six points in nine minutes of game time, the Tar Heels scored accidentally when Theo Pinson tried to throw an alley-oop but threw it through the hoop instead. It wasn’t even the best inadvertent bucket of the week – Wake Forest’s Greg McClinton clinched that honor Wednesday with his 85-yard toss – but it had a better coda. Pinson, shortly after, airballed an actual 3-point attempt by a wide margin.
“That was the basketball gods telling me they owed us one,” Pinson said.
The basketball gods were not merely equitable Thursday. They were also kind. Not only did they provide an epic battle between Duke and Louisville, they bestowed upon this tournament the first postseason meeting between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels since 2011, a game that may serve as the litmus test for the ACC’s time in Brooklyn.
The atmosphere has to be Greensboro on the East River. Anything less would be a tremendous disappointment. As the ACC tournament goes, you can’t ask the basketball gods for more than this.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock
Duke vs. UNC
When: 7 p.m., Friday
Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn
TV: ESPN, WRAL