Luke DeCock

Can Duke, UNC and NC State beat their basketball expectations?

A year ago, Duke was worried how it would fit all of its freshmen onto the court, North Carolina was worried how it would go on without Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson and N.C. State was ready to turn a corner behind Dennis Smith Jr. and Omer Yurtseven.

The litany of how none of that turned out exactly as planned is a good reminder that basketball season, if nothing else, is as unpredictable as it is anticipated around here.

Duke struggled through the middle of the season but won the ACC title before exiting the NCAA tournament early.

North Carolina got along just fine without Paige and Johnson. Just fine.

N.C. State was a flaming disaster that ended up getting its coach fired, with plenty of blame to go around.

All in all, a pretty standard season for these parts, even if all the parts didn’t end up where they were expected to end up.

Duke forward Marvin Bagley III (35) moves the ball inside against Bowie State defenders Tai Marshall (15) and Omari George (20) as Duke defeated Bowie State 116-53 in an exhibition game at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham on Nov. 4, 2017. Chuck Liddy Chuck Liddy

This year, Duke has reloaded with freshmen and will once again have to figure out which six will play alongside senior Grayson Allen.

North Carolina loses even more than it did a year ago, minus Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley, but still has Joel Berry and Theo Pinson.

And N.C. State is a complete wild card, its prognosis depending entirely on how much Kevin Keatts can wring out of a roster he had to rebuild on the fly.

The only guarantee is nothing will go as planned.

The new season that begins Friday night at all three schools will attempt to extend a three-year run of Triangle success – three straight Final Fours and two national titles, after a rare four-year drought – and begins with an air of mystery that has been generally lacking lately.

All three schools face more than their usual share of unanswerable questions, starting with Duke, which once again will try to get a bunch of talented freshmen to be more than a sum of their parts. That worked in 2015, a group that arrived with ready-made chemistry and an adhesive point guard in Tyus Jones. This year, the Blue Devils will ask Trevon Duval to fill that critical role while they attempt to figure out how Allen, Marvin Bagley III and Gary Trent Jr. will share the ball.

It’s going to be a bigger, brawnier Duke team than in years past, one less reliant on outside shooting (and less capable), but Duval has already been suspended once and Mike Krzyzewski asks a lot of himself to rebuild things nearly from scratch every season. It’s a high-wire act, and the Blue Devils made it across once and have fallen several other times. This team has the talent to win a national title, if it can hold it together.

Rebuilding things from scratch has not been North Carolina’s issue lately, but this is the closest the Tar Heels have come in a while. The unexpected loss of Bradley to the NBA draft leaves them a forward short of a full deck, which will leave Roy Williams with a smaller lineup than he normally prefers at times.

In a year when college basketball is full of quality big men, the Tar Heels are oddly lacking. But there’s talent, starting with Berry and Pinson, and as was the case a year ago, opponents will look at who the Tar Heels lost, and not who they have, at their peril.

As for the Wolfpack, no one, Keatts included, has much of an idea how things will turn out. Abdul-Malik Abu is back but the rest of the rotation will have to shake itself out. The good news for N.C. State is that the nonconference schedule couldn’t be easier, so the Wolfpack should have time to figure things out and at least a little confidence heading into ACC play, where N.C. State figures to be overmatched.

Keatts was able to wring 18 wins and a regular-season conference title out of his first UNC Wilmington team, so there’s at least one example in his past of turning a loser into an immediate winner.

The ACC is a little tougher than the Colonial, but it will be fascinating to watch – and, as with the other teams, unlikely to turn out in the end how anyone expects now at the beginning.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947,, @LukeDeCock