The meanders of nonconference play and exam breaks are a distant memory. At times the ACC voyage proceeds smoothly, but more often the games come fast, the ride bracing amid rapids, tradition-rich shoals and hidden, bottom-busting boulders.
League games can shake or make a team’s confidence, reshape the course of its season. Last week Duke lost its bearings, its aspirations temporarily upended like a capsized boat. For N.C. State, there was affirmation tinged with disappointment, for North Carolina the exhilaration of a difficult passage deftly navigated.
Then, in the blink of an eye, it was on to new challenges.
Saturday Jan. 10: Smith Center, 2 p.m., sunny, 34 degrees: No. 5 Louisville (14-1, 2-0 ACC) at No. 18 North Carolina (11-4, 1-1)
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Participants in a pregame discussion on WCHL, the local radio station, pronounce the Tar Heels the ACC’s most disappointing club. UNC’s early-season struggles have produced widespread unease among the faithful, who envisioned a Final Four berth at the end of the basketball rainbow.
Louisville, a perennial national power making its only Triangle visit in 2015, is the bettors’ favorite at the Smith Center. The Heels’ most recent outing, at home against Notre Dame, resulted in a one-point loss. Wobbly late-game execution did in UNC. Marcus Paige had several shots during the final seconds, but each went awry as the junior guard continued to search for his shooting touch.
Despite all of that, for the first time all season the Smith Center is full, the crowd uncommonly engaged. The score is tied at halftime. In the second half, the Heels quickly fall behind even as coach Roy Williams futilely waves his team forward, urging a faster pace.
With 8 minutes, 43 seconds left, the Cards lead by 13. Then an invisible switch trips. Black-suited Rick Pitino briefly rests senior point guard Chris Jones (19 points, five assists). Louisville’s offense sputters. UNC freshman Joel Berry II hits a key 3-pointer. Carolina keeps coming. Paige scores inside with 8.5 seconds left, and UNC survives two late shots to win 72-71. The crowd roars happily.
Pitino, at Louisville since the 2002 season, calls the result “about as bad a loss as I’ve had in my tenure.” Welcome to the ACC.
Sunday, Jan. 11: PNC Arena, 1:30 p.m., sunny, 43 degrees: No. 2 Duke (14-0, 2-0 ACC) at N.C. State (11-5, 2-1)
After Duke dispatched Wisconsin in early December, observers identified a visit to Louisville as the first chance for Mike Krzyzewski to earn his 1,000th victory. The target date assumes the second-ranked Blue Devils remain undefeated, reasonable considering Duke and star center Jahlil Okafor overpower most opponents, winning their first 13 games by at least 10 points.
But the Wolfpack, intent on NCAA tournament inclusion, deviates from the script. Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner, their big, sharp-shooting guards, cause the Blue Devils to alter their starting lineup for the first time all season in order to match up defensively. Doesn’t work. The upperclassmen hit nine of 14 3-point attempts, the Pack 55 percent of its shots overall against a suddenly soft Duke defense.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried has preached the importance of substantial contributions from his young interior players – mostly Kyle Washington, BeeJay Anya, and starter Abdul-Malik Abu. On the season they’re responsible for 22 percent of State’s points. Today it’s 36 percent. N.C. State also blocks 10 shots, most against the Blue Devils since 2010.
Duke, once the most cohesive of squads, frays around the edges, taken aback by the intensity of ACC action, according to Krzyzewski. There’s widespread, uncharacteristic griping to officials. The Blue Devils miss open shots and hit a season-low 36.9 percent. N.C. State wins comfortably 87-75.
The SEC fines schools for dangerously allowing students to rush the court after big victories. The ACC and N.C. State tolerate the inevitable celebratory stampede with a tacit wink and nod.
Tuesday, Jan. 13: Cameron Indoor Stadium, 9 p.m., overcast, 34 degrees: Miami (11-4, 1-1 ACC) at No. 4 Duke (14-1, 2-1)
There’s a winter weather advisory. Given the conditions, tents are zipped tight in the mud of Krzyzewskiville as nearby car windshields coat with ice.
Duke’s second-half unraveling at Cameron Indoor Stadium is far less predictable. The Blue Devils rarely miss a beat at home, entering the contest with Miami on a 41-game home winning streak – longer than most of its current players’ careers.
Fans more or less fill the 9,314 seats despite the weather, expecting Duke to resolve its Raleigh-raised frustrations by punishing the Hurricanes. Precedent is on their side: the Blue Devils haven’t lost consecutive games during the regular season for six years. The last time the Dukies followed a road defeat with a home loss was 2007.
N.C. State discomfited Duke with big guards. Jim Larranaga’s squad does it with quick, aggressive little ones, namely Manu Lecomte and heavenly talent Angel Rodriguez. They score from long range (for the second game in a row Duke’s opponent converts 10 3-pointers) or drive inside with seeming ease. Each outscores any Blue Devil as Miami builds a late 20-point lead and cruises to a 90-74 win.
It’s easy to ascribe Duke’s struggles to youth, with three freshmen starters. But that’s a partial explanation. Frequently the Devils have two or three upperclassmen on the floor; several are likewise discombobulated. Still, no reason to panic – Krzyzewski will find the right buttons to push, and adjust.
He’ll certainly address a striking lack of toughness. Early on, in a half-court situation Miami guard Ja’Quan Newton drives untouched from the top of the key for a dunk. Previous Blue Devil squads would have been knocked Newton on his rear rather than allow such an insult, especially on their court.
Wednesday, Jan. 14: PNC Arena, 7 p.m., overcast, intermittent drizzle, 32 degrees: No. 15 North Carolina (12-4, 2-1) at N.C. State (12-5, 3-1)
Tar Heels coach Williams doesn’t like N.C. State. His players know it. The genesis of the coach’s antipathy is a game more than 40 years ago, when Williams was a North Carolina student and accompanied the team to Raleigh. Back then Charles Scott played for the Tar Heels, and was subject to a barrage of racial invective and spittle at Reynolds Coliseum.
Those days are thankfully long past, but Williams’ grudge lives on. He comes to PNC Arena with a 23-2 record over his previous 11 seasons at Chapel Hill, 28-2 as a head coach.
Fans slowly fill the building, likely delayed by traffic on adjacent Interstate 40. N.C. State is late-arriving, too, thanks to tight defense by long-limbed, athletic UNC wings Jean-Pierre (J.P.) Tokoto and Justin Jackson. Top State scorer Lacy is 1-for-7 in the first half. Turner sits 10 minutes with foul trouble.
The Heels build a double-digit lead in the second half, propelled offensively by Paige (23 points, 5-5 on threes, nine assists, 0 turnovers), Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. Like Louisville in Chapel Hill, UNC watches its large advantage nearly vanish as Lacy and Turner lead a spirited rally. But Carolina escapes with an 81-79 victory as unsung guard Nate Britt makes key free throws and the Pack misses a tap at the buzzer.
Four games, three upsets, two cliffhangers, one dark horse emerging in the race for the ACC’s top spots. Just another week of basketball in the Triangle.