Duke and North Carolina will not merely share a locale this week, as they open the NCAA tournament in South Carolina. They will go there laboring under the same weight of history.
For the Tar Heels, it’s the memory of 4.8 seconds when their goals slipped away. For the Blue Devils, it’s the burden of meeting expectations that never really go away, even with an ACC title. Neither will slip those mental shackles this weekend, but both can get one-third of the way toward the title that would offer both some relief.
Duke already exorcised one demon, winning its first ACC title since 2011 in Brooklyn this weekend, even if that wasn’t enough for a No. 1 seed. But even that doesn’t shake the reality that Duke went into the season as the national-title favorite, before Harry Giles needed more surgery and injuries kept the Blue Devils’ chemistry from truly gelling until the postseason, at which point Duke for the first time looked like the team it was supposed to be.
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The long-awaited title won’t change the dynamic that anything short of a Final Four is never good enough for Duke’s fans – or its critics.
“Our thing is so interesting,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It’s the most interesting thing. It’s the most interesting thing. Because we’re always predicted, so that success is never celebrated. The failure, or less than that success, is talked about. That’s just the way it is. So God bless everybody. And if you don’t think that, then you’re wrong.”
Because of both the method (coming back from three straight second-half deficits against elite opponents) and the manner (the historic four wins in four days), there was more credit directed Duke’s way Saturday night than usual. But as welcome as getting back on the ACC podium may have been, the Blue Devils have bigger goals.
That’s true at North Carolina as well, where the Tar Heels ended a drought of their own last season, getting back to the Final Four for the first time since 2009 and coming within a buzzer-beater of taking the title game to overtime. The Tar Heels remain convinced they would have beaten Villanova, riding the momentum of Marcus Paige’s double-clutch 3-pointer that tied the score.
North Carolina still hasn’t shaken that loss. It sticks with the Tar Heels just as strongly 11 months later as it did 11 hours or 11 days later. It was a thought that flavored their season like bitter quinine. While a repeat ACC title eluded them this time around, tournament redemption remains a possibility.
“We all have to remember that we didn’t win it,” North Carolina’s Theo Pinson. “We lost. We got to the national championship game, but we didn’t complete all of our goals. We did everything else. We did regular season. ACC tournament. We’re in the same driver’s seat as we were last time.”
It has created a funny coaching dynamic. Last year, Roy Williams was constantly defending his “least-appreciated really good team,” as he called it. This year, he’s been loath to give any credit at all. The Tar Heels are the runaway leader in offensive rebounding; Williams likes to complain that it’s just because his team misses so many layups. And so on. There is unfinished business about, and the Tar Heels know it.
“That’s one reason he’s so hard on us: He understands that we have the caliber of team to get back to that point,” North Carolina’s Joel Berry said. “To do that, we can’t get by by just making it by. We’ve got to get by by actually doing what we’re supposed to do and actually buy in to what he’s saying. That’s the reason he gets on us so much. We understand that 4.8 seconds changed the outcome of our season last year.”
This scrutiny, these expectations, this unwillingness to accept anything less than a Final Four or national title as unqualified success characterizes both programs. “It does come with the territory,” Duke’s Luke Kennard said, and that’s true at both Duke and North Carolina, with the two rivals in the same situation in the same place this weekend.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock