There remain only two seasons in North Carolina, beach season and basketball season, and the worst part of the year is always the interregnum between the two that ends Tuesday night.
At last the old honored rituals can begin – and once again conclude at home, after three years away, with the ACC tournament back in Charlotte – and for a change those rituals on the court will be as formulaic and predictable as any in the stands.
Any of this sound familiar?
Duke will once again try to win a national title with half of the first round of the NBA draft, and what the Blue Devils lack in consistency they will make up in SportsCenter highlights.
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North Carolina has a bunch of veterans, an electric freshman coming off the bench and is locked in a perpetual struggle to find a big man who can play the way Roy Williams wants him (and the team) to play.
N.C. State will again try to cobble together a roster out of newcomers and transfers and confound the pessimists before it’s all over – which, given Kevin Keatts’ record, seems eminently possible.
And let us not overlook the equal consistency of N.C. Central, with every chance at its fourth NCAA tournament appearance in the past six years. The Eagles get their annual shot at an ACC upset Friday at Clemson.
These have become familiar, seasonal rhythms. Comforting, even. It has not always been ever thus, but it has been this way the past few seasons. The patterns repeat. The results differ.
It seems likely the Triangle’s one-year gap in Final Four appearances will end, one way or another – and since it’s in the Twin Cities this year, it’s an “-apolis,” so look out for Duke – but a mere one year away does not have that jarring unfamiliarity the way that four-year drought from 2010 to 2015 did.
Maybe there’s a third national title in five years out there, maybe there isn’t, but the chase is genuine, and in November, that’s the important part.
Next year at this time, N.C. State and North Carolina will open the season against ACC opponents (while Duke plays Kansas in the Champions Classic) and that will swamp these beginnings in novelty but you don’t have to dig too far in ACC history to find something similar, and is this the appropriate time to lament the (understandable but unfortunate) passing of the Big Four tournament?
This year, the oddball is North Carolina opening at Wofford on Tuesday (and then Elon in its tour of new arenas), but the headliner is Duke against Kentucky in the Champions Classic while N.C. State hosts Mount St. Mary’s in its first of six warmups before it meets a power-conference opponent.
This is how it begins, and no one knows how it ends. The latter is what everyone remembers, the former is what everyone anticipates. We mark our years by ACC titles and Final Fours and national titles, but we reset our body clocks by this day, when midnight madness has come and gone and exhibitions are concluded and the rest of the year can begin, when the crashing of waves gives way to the blaring of pep bands.
It is gray and rainy at the beach, but gyms and arenas will shortly be awash in optimism and hope. For the next five months, one sport will dominate conversation, unifying the state in attention despite the blind sectarian allegiances that divide it. As it always does.