In the space of a week, this went from one of the most successful basketball seasons in the history of the Triangle – all four Division I teams made the NCAA tournament! – to one of the worst. For the first time since 1979, North Carolina’s Big Four failed to send at least one representative to the tournament’s second weekend.
Not since Black Sunday, when Duke and North Carolina both lost at Reynolds Coliseum, have the state’s traditional powers been shut out.
Duke crashed out in its first NCAA game for the second time in three years, continuing to give new meaning to the phrase “one and done” with a loss to Mercer. N.C. State at least won a game, in the First Four, before a heartbreaking collapse against Saint Louis. In its first-ever tournament appearance, N.C. Central might have had a shot against a different (or indifferent) No. 3 seed, but not Iowa State, which took care of not only the Eagles but North Carolina as well.
So basketball season came to an abrupt end in North Carolina, with more than enough of a sour taste to go around for everyone, despite varying degrees of relative success.
That is particularly odd given that this season was full of thrilling, if not always satisfying, conclusions – more memorable, even, than the remarkable individual performances of players like T.J. Warren, Jabari Parker, Marcus Paige and Jeremy Ingram.
A three-game stretch in one week of February offered some of the best basketball on display in some time: North Carolina’s comeback win over Duke in a frenzied Smith Center; Duke’s home win in its rematch with Syracuse, punctuated by Jim Boeheim’s tantrum; and the electric scoring duel between Paige and Warren in the Tar Heels’ overtime win at N.C. State.
Each game lived up to considerable hype. Each was better than the next.
There was no more hyped game than Duke’s first visit to Syracuse on Feb. 1, but it certainly delivered the drama and a controversial no-call on the game’s final play. N.C. State’s visit to Syracuse, less anticipated, had a similar finish replete with controversy.
N.C. Central got into the action as well, upsetting the Wolfpack on its own court in November for that program’s first-ever win over a BCS conference opponent.
The NCAA tournament games at least met the standard set earlier. The Wolfpack’s late fade against Saint Louis – up eight with less than three minutes to play, the Wolfpack faltered at the free-throw line and lost in overtime – may have been painful to watch, but no one could take their eyes away, either.
The Tar Heels upped the ante, taking both of their tournament games down to the final possession. James Michael McAdoo’s free throws sealed a win over Providence on a night when it looked like Friars star Bryce Cotton might single-handedly will his team to a win. Two nights later, North Carolina led Iowa State by eight with a little more than four minutes to go, only to give up the game-winning layup with 1.6 seconds left.
The burden of history now falls on Virginia, the only ACC team to advance to the regional semifinals. No ACC team other than Duke or North Carolina has made a Final Four since Georgia Tech in 2004, and the conference’s current drought – since Duke won the national title in 2010 – is already the longest since 1958-61.
The Triangle’s teams have traditionally carried that burden. They weren’t up to the challenge this time. When we look back at this season, it isn’t the great teams we’ll remember. It’s the great games: so many good ones in a basketball season that ended too soon.