Expectations for this basketball season were never higher than the second week of April.
That was the week before Trevor Lacey left N.C. State to turn pro, when Duke was closing in on Derryck Thornton, when North Carolina had its entire team coming back, when Brandon Ingram was getting ready to choose among the three.
The Triangle was in position to have three of the top four or five teams in the ACC and three potential Final Four contenders of various pedigree but unquestioned ability.
North Carolina’s defense looms as a potential Achilles’ heel despite Marcus Paige’s return to the lineup, Duke had depth and inexperience issues to surmount even before Amile Jefferson was injured and N.C. State needed buzzer-beating heroics from Cat Barber to beat High Point.
A little over a month into the season, the struggle is real. All three teams face challenges both expected and unexpected that raise serious questions about their long-term potential. Saturday, all three teams play nonconference games that loom as major hurdles and measuring sticks: Duke against Utah and North Carolina against UCLA in various New York boroughs, N.C. State at Missouri.
Of the three, the Wolfpack unquestionably has the longest way to go to get ready for ACC play. Terry Henderson, at least, figures to return at some point, and Barber has delivered as the dynamic offensive force he was expected to be. Still, the Wolfpack faces a long ACC season if it can’t develop some consistency on defense and doesn’t get more of an offensive push inside from Abdul-Malik Abu.
N.C. State has been living in a post-Lacey world for months, but this seems as good a time as any to throw this out there: Based on statistical analyst Dan Hanner’s preseason projections, the Wolfpack would have been a top-20 team with Lacey. Without him, the Wolfpack is projected to be a top-40 team at best – from securely in the NCAA tournament to squarely on the bubble – and that was before Henderson injured his ankle in the opener.
Duke was rolling along despite the loss to Kentucky, with star freshman Ingram growing quickly into the college game, when offensive-rebounding machine Jefferson was lost indefinitely with a foot injury. That is putting undue strain on raw freshman forward Chase Jeter to develop quickly and Ingram to guard bigger players.
Mike Krzyzewski acknowledged it’s going to be an adventure to stay afloat until Jefferson is back. The Blue Devils have the raw talent to outscore most of their opponents, but they may struggle against bigger, stronger teams – and Utah is that to be sure.
As for the Tar Heels, they have the depth to weather Kennedy Meeks’ absence with a bone bruise in his knee without too much trouble – it’s a chance for Isaiah Hicks to show he can dominate more often than mere flashes – but their defense in losses to Northern Iowa (without Paige) and Texas (with him) raise concerns that defensive collapses remain a potentially fatal flaw, something that’s been true for this particular group of North Carolina players for a while.
If North Carolina is serious about winning a national championship – and the Tar Heels should be, with their assembled talent and experience – the lessons learned in those two losses must be applied going forward, starting against UCLA, which will be the second-best offensive team North Carolina has faced so far (behind Maryland).
With ACC play just around the corner, there’s still more than enough reason for optimism. North Carolina retains the potential to be the best team in the country. Duke, even without Jefferson, is powerful offensively. N.C. State is going to struggle at times, unavoidably and understandably, but the Wolfpack also has the capability to surprise on any given night.
There may never be as many good feelings as there were in April, but there’s also still plenty of time left before March.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock