College Basketball

How Duke, UNC and NC State danced back to NCAA Sweet 16

N.C. State forward Abdul-Malik Abu, shown dunking against Villanova on Saturday, is one of the Wolfpack big men who helped the team reach the Sweet 16. The N.C. State forwards have to keep it going against Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell.
N.C. State forward Abdul-Malik Abu, shown dunking against Villanova on Saturday, is one of the Wolfpack big men who helped the team reach the Sweet 16. The N.C. State forwards have to keep it going against Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell. ehyman@newsobserver.com

One year after no Triangle ACC teams reached the Sweet 16, all three are there, in separate regions no less, setting up the possibility that all three could advance to the Final Four.

Dare we dream?

Beat writers Andrew Carter, Joe Giglio and Laura Keeley explain how we got to this point:

1. Regarding the team you cover, what surprised you most about its run to the Sweet 16?

Carter: That North Carolina struggled as much as it did against Harvard. The Tar Heels seemed to turn a corner in the ACC tournament – for most of it, anyway – but they reverted to their old ways and let go of a commanding lead against Harvard. When Harvard took the lead late on a four-point play it looked like UNC might be done. But the Tar Heels came back.

That was almost as surprising as their inability to hold the lead. Things went according to plan against Arkansas. UNC was the better team and pulled away as it should have – but only after another memorable second-half performance from Marcus Paige.

Giglio: The way N.C. State’s forwards have played. The guards got N.C. State to the NCAA tournament, but thebig men got the Wolfpack to the Sweet 16.

N.C. State has four forwards who average more than 18 minutes per game. The highest scoring average of the group: 6.7 points by Kyle Washington.

So it was stunning Thursday against Louisiana State to see forward BeeJay Anya provide the final four points of the game, including the game-winner at the buzzer. (Anya, by the way, didn’t score against Villanova).

Washington, whose minutes have gone down since the first Louisville game Feb. 14, kick-started the comeback against LSU with his putback dunk and 3-pointer in the second half.

Then Saturday, freshman forward Abdul-Malik Abu just big-boy’d a veteran Villanova team with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Lennard Freeman was a force, too, with 11 points and 12 rebounds.

Keeley: Most surprising has been the fact that Duke’s walk-ons, Sean Kelly and Nick Pagliuca, appeared in both games. That’s not totally in jest, as the pair only appeared in seven of Duke’s 34 games leading into this weekend.

In all seriousness, the Blue Devils have proven over the past few months that they are among the best teams in the country. Nothing I saw this weekend brought that into question.

2. What has to go right this weekend to make it to the Final Four?

Carter: UNC is 2-5 in games with fewer than 65 possessions, and it now will play the slowest-paced team left in the field in Wisconsin, which doesn’t even average 60 possessions per game. So right off the bat, UNC has to find a way to be successful in its half-court offense (a challenge at times) and has to do what it can to force the tempo.

Overall, though, the Tar Heels have to avoid the kind of lapses they’re prone to make – especially when it comes to turnovers and foul trouble. UNC’s margin of error is a lot smaller than, say, Kentucky’s. UNC can beat Wisconsin, and it can beat Arizona if that’s the next opponent, but the Tar Heels have to be close to be perfect – like it played against Virginia in the ACC tournament – for it to happen.

Giglio: First, N.C. State has to avoid the slow start that nearly cost it the LSU game. The Wolfpack was in sleep mode until Washington’s dunk got it going with 6 minutes, 23 seconds left in the second half. Most of N.C. State’s losses this season can be traced to a poor start or a poor first half.

Second, the forwards have to keep it going, especially against Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell in the first game and with potentially Michigan State’s Branden Dawson on deck.

Third, senior guard Ralston Turner needs to find his shot. Turner has made six of his past 25 3-point attempts and is 2-of-14 in the NCAA tournament. The Wolfpack can win without its best shooter, but its odds are a whole lot better when he’s on.

Keeley: Justise Winslow must continue to stay aggressive. Jahlil Okafor will get his and command the attention of the defense. Winslow, though, presents a matchup nightmare for any team not named Kentucky. When he is engaged and playing close to his current ceiling, there isn’t a team on this side of the bracket that can hang with Duke.

3. The Triangle hasn’t had two teams in the Final Four since 1991, also in Indianapolis, when Duke won it and UNC lost to Kansas. Is there a chance history repeats this year?

Carter: Duke should get there and it’d be surprising – and disappointing for the Blue Devils – if they don’t. N.C. State appears to have as good of a chance as any team in the East, and the Wolfpack already took out the No. 1 seed there.

UNC clearly faces the most difficult road. A victory against Wisconsin – no easy feat – could set up an equally difficult game against Arizona. I’d say it’s pretty remote that all three local teams make it to Indianapolis. If UNC wins Thursday night, though, it increases the odds significantly.

Giglio: Seeing as how none of the three teams are with Kentucky, absolutely.

UNC has the most difficult path. Wisconsin’s a better version of Notre Dame, and Arizona is a tougher, more talented version of Virginia.

Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo, who have won a combined total of 96 NCAA tournament games, stand between the Wolfpack and the Final Four.

And Duke … I have nothing. If it hasn’t booked hotel rooms in Indianapolis yet, it’s just throwing money away.

Keeley: Of course there is a chance. Wisconsin is a pretty significant road block in UNC’s path, but N.C. State’s region has collapsed upon itself. There is no team remaining that the Wolfpack should look at and think, ‘uh oh.’ And as far as Duke goes, I have a hard time seeing any of the teams left in the South beating the Blue Devils as long as the Blue Devils don’t beat themselves.

4. This is more of an expected destination for Duke, but what one thing has turned it around for UNC and N.C. State?

Carter: The biggest thing is that Paige is healthy. It starts there. He’s simply a different player – a lot more like the player he was last season – than he was in January and most of February, when his plantar fasciitis most affected him. He’s able to penetrate now, and his jump shot is more effective and that makes all the difference.

Beyond that, Justin Jackson has become a reliable scorer to complement Paige and Brice Johnson, and the team has gotten some good production out of its reserves – Joel Berry and Isaiah Hicks in particular. It just seems like everything is coming together for UNC at the right time.

Giglio: Point guard Cat Barber, or the “Cat Daddy,” as coach Mark Gottfried likes to call him, has been on another level since Jan. 31. His quickness always has been difficult to contain but his decision-making and confidence have been on another level over the past two months.

Also, since Gottfried put Freeman back in the starting lineup on Feb. 14, the Wolfpack is 8-2.

Triangle takeover

This is the fourth time the Triangle has sent three teams to the Sweet 16. A look back at where they stumbled (or won it all):

Year

UNC

Duke

N.C. State

2005

Champion

Sweet 16

Sweet 16

1989

Sweet 16

Final Four

Sweet 16

1986

Sweet 16

Runner-up

Elite 8

Almost …

The Triangle’s three ACC teams have never met in the NCAA tournament. (This year, N.C. State and Duke could meet in the Final Four, with the possibility of facing UNC in the championship game.) There were close calls, however:

2012: UNC and N.C. State were in the Midwest Region, poised to meet in the Elite 8, but Kansas knocked off the Wolfpack in the Sweet 16 (then took care of the Tar Heels a round later).

2005: UNC and N.C. State were in the Syracuse Region and would have met in the Elite 8, but Wisconsin knocked off the Wolfpack in the Sweet 16.

1991: The Greatest Game We Never Saw. Duke and UNC made it to the Final Four in Indianapolis. Duke avenged its loss a year earlier to UNLV, but Kansas prevented the dream matchup, beating the Tar Heels in the other semifinal.

1989: Duke and N.C. State were headed toward an Elite 8 showdown in the East Region, but the Wolfpack lost to Georgetown in the Sweet 16.

1986: N.C. State and Duke were headed for a Final Four showdown in Dallas, but Kansas knocked off the Wolfpack in the Elite 8.

1983: Can you imagine N.C. State meeting defending champion UNC in the Final Four? It would have happened, except Georgia took out the Tar Heels in the Elite 8.

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