On the eve of college basketball season, N&O sports columnist Luke DeCock and our basketball beat reporters debate the big issues surrounding the Triangle’s teams.
TRUE OR FALSE: N.C. State has a higher ceiling without T.J. Warren than it did last season with him.
N.C. State beat writer Joe Giglio: TRUE. Warren took the Wolfpack as far as anyone possibly could last season – to the NCAA tournament and a win in the First Four. There will be nights, many of them probably early, when N.C. State’s offense stalls and the reaction will be, “Man, N.C. State misses T.J. Warren.”
But if you look at the depth on this team, and experience especially compared to last season, N.C. State has the potential to get to the Sweet 16. That will take Trevor Lacey, Cat Barber and Kyle Washington playing at a high level, but the ceiling is definitely higher with this group for Mark Gottfried.
DeCock: FALSE. Quite simply, players like Warren don’t come around very often. And the Wolfpack was a handful of free throws away from going a heck of a lot farther than it did in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments. With Warren’s ability to score and take over games, anything was possible for the Wolfpack.
That doesn’t mean N.C. State can’t get back to the NCAA tournament, and the Wolfpack absolutely should, but N.C. State had unlimited potential with Warren on the floor. This season’s team has more weapons, but none of them have the star power Warren did.
TRUE OR FALSE: As talented as Duke’s freshmen are, the Blue Devils will only go as far as their returning upperclassmen can take them.
Duke beat writer Laura Keeley: FALSE. The Blue Devils will reach as high as they can while collectively standing on Jahlil Okafor’s shoulders. Duke needs him to anchor the defense – a feature sorely lacking from last season’s doomed team – and I expect he’ll average at least a touch per possession.
But Jah won’t have to do it alone. He’ll have fellow freshmen Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow to help him. If Jah is driving the car that is the Duke offense, then Jones is the mechanic, keeping everything humming. Winslow, too, will have a chance to be a one-and-done player. So, yes, it would be nice if Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson and Rasheed Sulaimon all could have solid seasons, but I don’t see the three of them setting any type of limits on this team’s ceiling.
DeCock: TRUE. There’s no question Duke’s freshmen are the core of the team and Okafor and Jones in particular are exceptionally talented. But other national-title contenders have superstar players; it’s the supporting cast who can really make a difference. And for Duke, that means players like Sulaimon, Cook and Jefferson, who have not, for various reasons, had a tremendous impact.
Leadership, like defense, too often has been lacking from Duke’s recent teams. While the freshmen can help lead, it really has to come from the upperclassmen. Both on the floor and inside the locker room, they’ll have a big say in just how far the freshmen can take Duke.
TRUE OR FALSE: North Carolina’s big men are good enough to help the Tar Heels contend for a national title.
North Carolina beat writer Andrew Carter: TRUE. No, there’s no Sean May or Tyler Hansbrough here, but Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks don’t have to be as good as those who came before them. Johnson should be in line to increase his scoring to 14 or 15 points per game, and Meeks, who averaged about seven points a season ago, will be in better position to be a double-digit scorer, as well.
If they can be consistent night in and night out, UNC should be among the favorites for the national championship.
DeCock: FALSE. Not right now, they’re not. Neither one is dominant defensively, and Johnson and Meeks have yet to establish themselves as go-to scoring options. That’s the constant among coach Roy Williams’ UNC title teams. They had truly elite big men to anchor the middle. Johnson and Meeks are good, and have the potential to get better, but they’re far from elite.
The good news for the Tar Heels is that they have such pre-eminent talent on the perimeter in Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson that they might not need Johnson and Meeks to play at a Hansbrough/May level to have a shot at a title, but that’s going to be a big question for North Carolina.