Luke DeCock

Women’s basketball in the Triangle bottoms out

North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell talks to players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. on Jan. 10, 2016. Hatchell has been suspended for two games for making contact with an official during a recent loss to Duke and for an NCAA violation. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin, File)
North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell talks to players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. on Jan. 10, 2016. Hatchell has been suspended for two games for making contact with an official during a recent loss to Duke and for an NCAA violation. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin, File) AP

The news this week that Duke is conducting an internal evaluation of its women’s basketball program, with coach Joanne P. McCallie “aware of the evaluation and eager to assist,” a curious phrasing to say the least, feels like the moment when the Triangle bottomed out as a women’s basketball power.

From the trendsetting tenure of Kay Yow at N.C. State to North Carolina’s three Final Fours and national title under Sylvia Hatchell to Duke’s late-’90s ascendance under Gail Goestenkors, these three programs sat at or near the epicenter of the sport for a long, long time. Decades.

And now? Women’s basketball in the Triangle has reached maximum irrelevancy.

Entirely shut out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1988, it has been three years since one of the Triangle’s teams won the ACC tournament or the regular season. From 1994 to 2013, Duke and North Carolina combined for 16 ACC titles in 20 years. After combining for eight Final Four appearances in 14 years, none of the three schools has been there since 2007.

Once a leader in the sport under Yow, N.C. State has made the NCAA tournament once in the past six years and spent last season playing in a high-school gym, albeit while showing growth in its third season under Wes Moore and returning to a remodeled Reynolds Coliseum this fall.

A game away from getting back to the Final Four in 2014, North Carolina has seen an entire top-10 recruiting class transfer and was, perhaps more worrisome, as implicated as any program in Chapel Hill by the original Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, currently under revision. It’s not surprising the program has stagnated while that remains unresolved.

And then there’s Duke, at one point wedging its way into the Connecticut-Tennessee conversation (which is now no longer even a conversation) under Goestenkors – playing for the national title twice and going to four Final Fours in nine years – but in nine years under McCallie the Blue Devils have lost in the Elite 8 four times.

Missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994 might have been enough justification by Duke’s standards to go in a different direction – if McCallie weren’t under contract through 2019. The investigation into a program beset by an exodus of players and assistant coaches may provide a new path to that destination.

The arrival in the ACC of powerful programs like Notre Dame and Syracuse and Louisville hasn’t helped, but it’s not behind the Triangle’s decline, either.

The past 20 years have been tumultuous for women’s basketball, and the Triangle has not been immune. Original powers have been shunted aside (N.C. State, Louisiana Tech, Georgia), one-time powerhouses returned to the pack (Tennessee, North Carolina, LSU). Beyond Connecticut, the deck has been reshuffled over and over again, while UConn has become an all-conquering force that lays waste to everything in its path.

It’s impossible to tell how much of that program’s excellence is derived from the sheer force of Geno Auriemma’s personality, and therefore impossible to predict what will happen when he’s no longer stalking the sidelines. As things stand, he’s essentially done what Anson Dorrance once did in women’s soccer at North Carolina: made his program the default destination for every elite American player. That changed as women’s soccer grew and the pool of players became larger; most of that kind of growth in women’s basketball has already taken place.

All three programs retain the ingredients for success: Tradition, facilities, resources, commitment. There’s no reason they cannot rise again, if N.C. State can continue to rebuild; if North Carolina can get out from under the scandal; if Duke can get back on track.

The Triangle’s programs helped spur the sport’s growth, then profited handsomely from it. Sadly, they have been left behind, left hoping they can get back to where they once were.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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