Once again, Duke and North Carolina will be in the national-title chase, thanks in large part to the decisions over the past two weeks by Grayson Allen and Joel Berry to return in search of a second ring for each.
And once again, both teams will face the same questions:
Can Duke find a way to fit its veterans around a talented core of one-and-done freshmen?
Will North Carolina’s experience be enough to overcome the loss of some of its key players?
The decisions this week by Allen and Berry to return to school for their senior seasons dramatically changed both of those dynamics. And while both schools are still facing critical go-or-stay decisions by freshmen – Tony Bradley at North Carolina, Frank Jackson at Duke – and awaiting the college choices of some of the top remaining players – Kevin Knox at North Carolina, Knox and Trevon Duval at Duke – the landscape will be similar to last season regardless of those decisions.
Duke, with one-and-dones Wendell Carter and Gary Trent Jr. incoming, will once again try to find the right mix between talent and experience after a season that saw three players turn pro and two more transfer in the wake of an ACC title and second-round NCAA tournament exit. That scenario worked in 2015, with a truly unique freshman class that came in as a group and, minus Allen, exited as a group, but has been less successful otherwise, with the Blue Devils failing to make it out of the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament in 2012, 2014 and 2017 and making it to the Sweet 16 in 2016.
Still, while a return of one national title in five tries is certainly enviable, Mike Krzyzewski has yet to make that formula work on a regular basis, at least by the standard of making the Final Four, which is certainly historically applicable to a program like Duke. Getting Allen back should smooth the way. His presence will be a sideshow, whether he crosses any behavioral lines or not – that’s just the reality of the position in which he has put himself – but he should also be healthy, something he never really was last season after battling ankle problems.
Whether Jackson comes back or not, there will be fewer rivals for the ball this time around, and more opportunities for a presumably healthy Allen to demonstrate the explosiveness that so defined his game in his freshman cameo and as a sophomore and was lacking from his game for almost all of this season.
And just as North Carolina had enough talent coming back to get back to the national-title game even with the departures of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, does this group of Tar Heels have enough to get to a third straight Final Four even without Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks?
Without Berry and Bradley, it would have been hard to say yes. With Berry back for sure, it’s a more realistic possibility even with Knox yet to decide and Bradley and Theo Pinson mulling their NBA futures. Regardless, Berry’s presence makes it possible.
In an era where it seems like there are fewer and fewer senior stars – a narrative that occasionally outpaces the facts – Berry and Allen will vie for preseason ACC player of the year honors with another senior, Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson. While their draft prospects weren’t great, it would have been easy to see one or both deciding it was time to turn pro and make some money. Instead, they’ll come back to school and chase a national title. Once again.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock