College Basketball

This is Duke’s moment, but NC State, UNC wait in the wings

Duke center Jahlil Okafor  shoots over Utah forward Jakob Poeltl (42) in the second half. Duke defeated Utah 63-57 on Friday in the semifinal of the NCAA South Region at the NRG Stadium in Houston.
Duke center Jahlil Okafor shoots over Utah forward Jakob Poeltl (42) in the second half. Duke defeated Utah 63-57 on Friday in the semifinal of the NCAA South Region at the NRG Stadium in Houston. cliddy@newsobserver.com

This was always Duke’s season, a package deal of one-and-done freshmen, a one-time grab at the ring. The Blue Devils are on the verge of the Final Four, so close to achieving one of their prime goals. They’ll worry about next season later.

The University of North Carolina and N.C. State are worrying about next season now. Or, better put, they’re not worrying at all.

In the disappointment over the way the Tar Heels and Wolfpack exited the NCAA tournament, there is this: Both are in position to return almost their entire teams next season. With Duke facing a likely NBA exodus, and a retooling if not a rebuilding, the balance of power in the Triangle is going to shift – no matter what Kinston small forward Brandon Ingram, a top-20 recruit pursued by all three schools, decides next month.

For Duke, this is a moment in time that will not come again, the collision of a veteran core with uber-talented freshmen whose Duke tenures will be short and potentially sweet. That’s why Mike Krzyzewski has been so adamant about “the moment,” pushing aside Duke’s tournament history, the good and the bad alike.

Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow will be in the NBA next season, lottery picks and millionaires. Probably Tyus Jones as well, although a case can be made that another year at Duke wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for him. Quinn Cook departs. It’ll be a very different Duke next season. The incoming freshmen – forward Chase Jeter and shooter Luke Kennard – are top prospects, but they’re not Okafor and Winslow and Jones.

Barring a late recruit or transfer, that leaves a seven-man rotation of big men Amile Jefferson, Marshall Plumlee, Rice transfer Sean Obi and Jeter with Matt Jones, Grayson Allen and Kennard on the perimeter, a lineup that screams for a point guard.

One game away from the Final Four, now is the time, and Duke knows that.

For North Carolina and N.C. State, their time is still yet to come. Both schools made it to the second weekend for the first time since 2012, and while both exits were each disappointing in their own way, it’s not hard to see an even brighter future.

The Tar Heels lose only Desmond Hubert and Luke Davis, neither a key player. Barring any unlikely defections, North Carolina will bring back the entire team that showed so much late-season improvement. With a more experienced Justin Jackson and Joel Berry, with Marcus Paige healthy, the Tar Heels may be the preseason favorite, or at least part of the discussion. (Virginia will have something to say about that.)

But if the Tar Heels can pick up where they left off, it could be the best North Carolina team since 2012, when Kendall Marshall’s wrist injury submarined the Tar Heels’ chances in the regional final against Kansas.

N.C. State may look back and say the same thing about Cat Barber’s illness Friday; unlike North Carolina, which had Wisconsin and Arizona standing in the way of the Final Four, the Wolfpack’s task was eminently doable – no Kentucky, no Duke, only peers. The Wolfpack may not have gotten past Michigan State anyway, but the opening was there for any of the four teams in Syracuse. Louisville seized the moment. N.C. State did not.

Like North Carolina, the Wolfpack has the potential to return essentially the same team, without the early season growing pains that cast an NCAA tournament bid into brief doubt. Ralston Turner and Des Lee are gone, and will be missed, but West Virginia transfer Terry Henderson can step into Turner’s spot. The four young forwards will be a year older, the Martin twins remain a wild card, and Trevor Lacey will be as much a factor as Paige in the ACC player-of-the-year race.

It isn’t often teams return as intact as North Carolina and N.C. State have the potential to do next year, now with the benefit of useful NCAA tournament experience.

It’s Duke’s time now, but the Tar Heels and Wolfpack should not have long to wait.

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

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

  Comments