It may only be April, but there’s a long, dark basketball winter ahead.
The savage disappointment of neither Duke nor North Carolina making the Final Four, a sweet-and-sour sort of situation for partisans of both sides, may seem like the glory days by this time
That looming realization added a tinge of wistfulness to this year’s what-might-have-been wondering, when North Carolina was outrun by Auburn and Duke was outfinished by Michigan State, both wrestling with the stigma of underachievement afterward.
For the Tar Heels, this was the final shot for the last key members of the 2016-17 Final Four squads, unable to build on the legacy they inherited from their predecessors. The losses – three senior starters and at least one and presumably two one-and-done freshmen – will be severe, and pending the decision of guard Cole Anthony, there may not be an obvious star on the roster.
With Nassir Little already declaring his intention Monday to enter the NBA draft and Coby White pondering his exit – and, without question, he should – a starting five of Seventh Woods, Leaky Black, Brandon Robinson, Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley may be both coachable and competent, but it isn’t going to put the fear of God into anyone nor leave NBA scouts salivating. (Anthony, on the other hand, would.)
Like a pro franchise grappling with salary-cap issues, North Carolina’s window appears to have closed for the moment. It’ll be a bit of a rebuilding season in Chapel Hill, especially without Anthony, and while those always have the potential to surprise, especially if Brooks or freshman Armando Bacot turns into the back-to-the-basket post scorer Roy Williams seems to need for his teams to be at their best, expectations will be lower than they have been for a while.
The same will be true at Duke, where nothing short of a national championship was expected from Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, perhaps the most talented team of one-and-done players since Kentucky in 2015 but equally unable to finish the job. Those Wildcats at least made the Final Four; Duke led with 101 seconds to go Sunday night but couldn’t close it out. Basketball minds will be debating for years how Williamson became a nonfactor late in Duke’s loss to the Spartans after an utterly dominant opening to the second half.
Williamson’s failure to touch the ball with the Blue Devils down two at the end while Barrett missed a 3-pointer and a crucial free throw was an eerie simulacrum of the Blue Devils’ loss to Gonzaga in Hawaii that saw Barrett take all the shots at the end while Williamson watched as an irrelevant bystander. He put the Blue Devils ahead for the last time Sunday. It was his last shot of the game.
Duke has another solid class of NBA-bound freshmen coming in next year, but there’s no one even close Williamson or Barrett’s caliber, and the star, Vernon Carey Jr., is a traditional post player who will inevitably shunt veterans Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier out of a job. Williamson and Barrett and Cam Reddish are as good as gone. If Tre Jones turns pro as well – something that seemed a foregone conclusion at midseason, but seems anything but now – the Blue Devils will be starting over without a point guard or proven perimeter scorer.
Meanwhile, the ACC’s lone Final Four team, Virginia, returns everyone but De’Andre Hunter and Jack Salt, pending Ty Jerome’s pro decision. The Cavaliers will be a unanimous preseason pick to win the league with or without Jerome. Duke and North Carolina, after a season when they went toe-to-to with Virginia only to fall short when it mattered, will be playing catchup from the beginning next fall.
That’s what made this weekend so damaging. Neither team may have a better shot at a Final Four, let alone a title, for a while. Virginia is poised to dominate the league. Now was the time.