College Sports

Barry Jacobs: UNC poised to follow Duke as national basketball champs

UNC's Brice Johnson is surrounded by reporters as he does interviews during the University of North Carolina's basketball media day at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill on Monday..
UNC's Brice Johnson is surrounded by reporters as he does interviews during the University of North Carolina's basketball media day at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill on Monday.. ssharpe@newsobserver.com

Talent and tradition tell the tale. Year after year, decade after decade, far more often than not, it’s Duke or North Carolina.

Prior to each season since 1970, members of the region’s media have been polled, quite unscientifically, on a projected order of finish in ACC men’s basketball. For all the boasting about the conference’s competitive balance, for all the periodic excitement about rising new powers, more than three-quarters of the time the choice to finish atop the ACC has been either Carolina or Duke.

This thinking is habitual, and eminently reasonable, given that one of the pair has won 61 percent of the ACC tournaments over those 46 years and been to all but six finals.

The national media expects similar hegemony. The last time neither of the blue twins made the Associated Press preseason top 10 was 1996. Only one ACC team started a season ranked ahead of both over the past two decades – N.C. State in 2013.

The region’s media vote formally next week, but it’s already clear this year’s choice to top the ACC, and the nation, is Roy Williams’ Tar Heels, who return four starters from a squad that finished with 26 wins and reached the Sweet 16 in 2015.

UNC’s supremacy isn’t solely the considered opinion of media members, either. Asked his take on the upcoming ACC race, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried began by saying: “I look over there at North Carolina, and I see a national championship talent-level team. Period. There’s not anybody in America more talented and deeper than North Carolina.”

How much those attributes will translate into victories is less obvious, judging by recent history in both Chapel Hill and the ACC, where the tide quietly has moved in unaccustomed directions.

ACC team to beat

The ACC tournament – which offers the most level playing field available now that the round-robin is gone – has been won the last four seasons by Florida State, Miami, Virginia and, last year, Notre Dame. All but UVa were first-time champions. Only the Hurricanes in 2013 were predicted to top the conference.

The current run of official champs from outside North Carolina is the longest in league history. Only once previously did non-North Carolina teams – Maryland and Georgia Tech – win consecutive titles, and that was 30 years ago.

Early evaluations certainly proved inaccurate the past two seasons, when Duke was projected as the league’s best team but neither finished first nor won the ACC tournament. Oh, sure, the ’15 Devils won the NCAA championship. Maybe that’s all that matters. Duke’s triumph quietly redeemed the regional media’s judgment – a middling 7 of the last 12 national champs from the ACC were picked to top the conference in preseason voting.

Virginia, the first-place squad in each of the past two ACC seasons, was picked to finish fourth both times. Instead the Cavaliers compiled consecutive 16-2 league records; only 10 teams in league history lost fewer games over a two-year span. You can argue a favorably unbalanced schedule eased the Cavs’ path, but you can’t dismiss a 32-4 mark in intense ACC competition across two seasons.

Eight of UVa’s top 10 scorers, five of them upperclassmen, are back, led by steady senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, the only returning member of the All-ACC first team. Yet Virginia, best in Division I scoring defense in each of the past two years, remains unlikely to get the popular nod as the conference’s team to beat. No early poll projects the Cavaliers ahead of North Carolina.

Two Roys

Meanwhile Carolina’s strengths may be less than meet the eye. Williams has finished a dozen seasons as UNC’s coach, and his tenure can be neatly divided into two segments. The most recent half, dogged by off-court problems, has consistently fallen short of expectations.

The Tar Heels averaged a 29-6 record from 2004 through 2009. They finished in first place four times, won a pair of NCAA championships (2005, 2009), reached a third Final Four (2008), and won the 2007 and 2008 ACC tournaments. Brimming with talent, they earned 8 spots in 6 seasons on the All-ACC first team.

Since 2010 the Heels’ average annual record is 26-11. They hit double-digits in defeats in all but 2011 and 2012, years in which they finished first during the regular season. UNC reached 4 of the last 6 ACC tournament finals, including last year, but didn’t close the deal. Just 4 Heels made first team All-ACC during the most recent 6-year span, a stretch devoid of a Final Four advance.

This season’s deep, upperclass-dominated squad may be ready to handle a No. 1 ranking. Guard Marcus Paige, a great clutch player (just ask Gottfried) and the school’s career leader in free throw accuracy (.865), is healthy again. The only major personnel loss is erratic J.P. Tokoto, last year’s No.2 assist man and a sporadically fierce defender.

The ’15 team improved dramatically in two chronically troublesome areas – foul shooting and 3-point accuracy. The Heels were formidable on the boards and in sharing assists (17.4 per game, second in the nation). Admonitory signs posted in private team quarters at the Smith Center remind players of perhaps their greatest failing last season: lack of concentration and what Williams calls “attention to detail” cost UNC eight potential victories after holding significant second-half leads.

Williams, recovering from summer surgeries to repair both knees, is not ready to leap to conclusions about newfound prowess, however.

“In ’05 I thought we were, if not the best, one of the two best teams in the country,” he said last week. “In ’09 I thought we were the best. I think this year we’re one of the best. If we play well down the stretch, then we could be the best. But there’s a big difference there.”

The new Duke

The league member that played well down the stretch last year was Duke.

Following painful flameouts in 2 of their 3 previous NCAA appearances, the Devils finished with 18 wins in their last 19 games and secured the program’s fifth NCAA title under Mike Krzyzewski.

Now the roster has self-purged, cementing Duke and Kentucky as the most prominent way stations for freshmen en route to NBA careers. Among the holdovers, only senior Amile Jefferson and junior Matt Jones played as much as 21 minutes per game in 2015. The most celebrated returnee, sophomore Grayson Allen, didn’t start a game and has never spent time as a focal point for opposing defenses, pressure than can prove burdensome.

Krzyzewski prospered last year with three freshmen starters. Forced to embrace youth again, the most likely star among 8 newcomers is 6-9 wing Brandon Ingram. This time, though, the Blue Devils must succeed without an experienced playmaker, a crucial handicap. A season after they were anchored in the post by Jahlil Okafor, the ACC player of the year, they also revert to a perimeter orientation.

Overhaul notwithstanding, last week coaches nationwide chose the Blue Devils ahead of Virginia and behind UNC in USA Today’s 2016 preseason top 10.

Duke’s prospects look bright in large part because Krzyzewski’s conjuring skills command universal respect. In most cases, anyway. The same media cohort that makes the preseason ACC picks failed to vote Krzyzewski the league’s best coach even once while he won 3 national and 9 conference championships over 15 seasons since 2001.

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