Luke DeCock

Journey to Sweet 16 tested UNC, State and Duke

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North Carolina’s Marcus Paige (5) drives to the basket against Arkansas’ Anton Beard (31) during the first half in the third round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, March 21, 2015 at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla. Paige led North Carolina with 22 points in their 87-78 victory.
North Carolina’s Marcus Paige (5) drives to the basket against Arkansas’ Anton Beard (31) during the first half in the third round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, March 21, 2015 at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla. Paige led North Carolina with 22 points in their 87-78 victory. rwillett@newsobserver.com

After squandering a late 10-point lead at Notre Dame, Duke's third loss in six games, it was fair to wonder whether Duke was really as good as the Blue Devils had looked to begin the season.

After winning just two of seven games to open February – including the first home loss to N.C. State in more than a decade – North Carolina didn't look like a top-25 team, let alone a Sweet 16 team.

After starting the season 6-0, N.C. State went 8-11 in the next 19. The Wolfpack made the NCAA tournament in its first three seasons under Mark Gottfried, but a fourth looked unlikely indeed at that point.

And yet here they all are.

Duke is headed to the South Region in Houston. North Carolina to the West Region in Los Angeles. N.C. State to the East Region in Syracuse, N.Y. None of the three made it this far last season. All of them made it this season.

It's a remarkable moment for the Triangle, the first time all three have made it this far since 2005, but perhaps more remarkable is how close each team was to falling apart. All three faced significant mid-season hurdles, some that appeared nearly insurmountable.

Each team figured it out, some sooner than others, but all before it was too late.

JANUARY

When 2015 began, Duke was 12-0. The Blue Devils had beaten Michigan State and won at Wisconsin. They were clearly No. 2 in the country behind Kentucky. The Blue Devils had all the answers.

Two weeks later, Duke was questioning everything about itself.

The Blue Devils allowed a total of 177 points in consecutive losses at N.C. State and at home to Miami, defensive implosions that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski insisted were driven by offensive struggles but were uncharacteristic nonetheless. And when the Blue Devils ended the brief skid, at Louisville, they did it by playing zone defense extensively, a very un-Duke-like strategy.

“I thought for about two weeks, we could not put the ball in the basket,” Krzyzewski said. “We weren't that defined yet defensively to react to something else. We didn't have another strength yet. We just weren't playing well, for a couple weeks, even though we won a couple ACC games.”

There was so much going on at the time. There was the unavoidable distraction created by the pursuit of Krzyzewski's 1,000th win, finally achieved at St. John's on Jan. 25. There was Rasheed Sulaimon's sudden and surprising dismissal on Jan. 29, leaving Duke with only eight scholarship players. There was Justise Winslow, Duke's most dangerous wild card, struggling through painful rib injuries. And there were two other freshmen dragging through the dog days of the season.

All of that added to an existential crisis: Was this freshman-laden Duke team headed down the same road as Austin Rivers in 2012 and Jabari Parker in 2014?

The answer would come against the team that by that point had supplanted Duke atop the ACC, last year's regular-season and tournament champions, undefeated Virginia. GameDay was in Charlottesville to greet the Devils, newly sans Sulaimon, 3-3 over their previous six games after a tough loss at Notre Dame.

Down by 11 in the second half, the Blue Devils came storming back. As against St. John's, they were never fazed by the deficit. They made stops at one end and shots at the other. In a finish that foreshadowed Virginia's eventual elimination, the Cavaliers had no one who could make the big bucket when needed.

The Blue Devils have lost only one game since that Jan. 31 victory, although for Krzyzewski, the turnaround started earlier, before the loss at Notre Dame.

“I thought the Louisville game was huge for us,” Krzyzewski said. “After Louisville, we started playing well.”

Now only Utah and Gonzaga or UCLA stand between Duke and the Blue Devils' first Final Four since 2010.

FEBRUARY

On Valentine's Day, N.C. State woke up in Louisville, its season in tatters. The Wolfpack had lost six of its past eight, which combined with earlier losses to Wofford, West Virginia, Cincinnati and Virginia put its record at 14-11 and its NCAA hopes very much in doubt.

Some of the losses had been close (a two-point home loss to North Carolina, a four-point home loss to Virginia), others baffling (at home against Clemson, at Wake Forest), one particularly devastating (the overtime loss to Notre Dame, a game N.C. State had no excuse for losing).

Gottfried, looking for a spark, re-inserted Lennard Freeman into the starting lineup. Earlier in the season, the Wolfpack went 8-2 with Freeman starting, but went with Kyle Washington in search of more offensive punch. Now, Gottfried went back to Freeman, who excels at the dirty work of screening and rebounding. The results were spectacular, starting with a 74-65 win over the Cardinals.

“We just became more efficient with him in there,” Gottfried said. “Even though he's not a great individual offensive player, he helped our team become a better offensive team.”

The wins at Lousiville and North Carolina, combined with the Wolfpack's typically difficult and precisely curated nonconference schedule and the earlier home win over Duke, helped secure an NCAA bid despite the baffling no-show loss at Boston College.

As has been the case in three out of Gottfried's four seasons at N.C. State, the Wolfpack showed substantial improvement over the course of the season, Cat Barber and Abdul-Malik Abu in particular. With them coming along, N.C. State found its formula: Barber's speed and aggression, Trevor Lacey's isolation excellence, Ralston Turner's long-range shooting, Freeman's hustle and Abu's two-way play, with Washington and BeeJay Anya providing a spark off the bench.

“We've gotten more out of everybody,” Lacey said. “It was more of a collective effort. I can't really put my finger on one particular thing that made it happen.”

But it's easy to put a finger on when it happened: Louisville. Between the lineup changes and Barber's new confidence and aggression, the Wolfpack took a giant leap forward.

A year after a devastating tournament collapse against St. Louis, N.C. State was on the other side against Louisiana State, coming back from a 16-point halftime deficit to beat the Tigers in the opening round, then holding off No. 1 seed Villanova to advance to Syracuse – where N.C. State will face Louisville once again.

MARCH

North Carolina's win over Georgia Tech, a March 3 win otherwise lost in memory leading into the second Duke game, was notable for one particular reason. At one point during the game, Marcus Paige made a cut on the left foot that had bothered him so much all season.

“Halfway through the game, I was like, 'Dang, I actually feel pretty good. This is good,'” Paige said. “Moving on to the Duke game, I didn't have any pain. Ever since I've been able to play without even thinking about my foot at all. That was a big turning point for me, personally.”

The ACC's preseason player of the year, Paige's season had been disappointing, mainly because of the plantar fasciitis in his left foot that hampered his mobility and explosiveness. Paige was still a good player, but he wasn't quite what had been expected after a terrific sophomore season.

The same could be said of North Carolina. The freshmen came along slowly. Paige was hurt. Big men Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks remained inconsistent. Even though seven of North Carolina's eight losses going into that Georgia Tech game were to teams that not only made the NCAA tournament, but won a game in the tournament, the Tar Heels still weren't playing up to their usual standards. After failing to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament two years in a row, a third felt not far away.

But as Paige started coming around, the Tar Heels weren't far behind. With freshman Justin Jackson developing the confidence to exploit his considerable gifts and inside-outside game, and Joel Berry returning to health to give the Tar Heels' a much-needed outside shooting threat, the pieces started to click for the Tar Heels.

Not against Duke – the Blue Devils swept the season series – but in Greensboro for the ACC tournament, where the Tar Heels beat Boston College and Louisville before falling victim to Notre Dame's second-half barrage in the title game. The momentum gathered there carried the Tar Heels through wins over Harvard and Arkansas to move on to the Sweet 16 for the first time in three years.

“I think we really started to realize if we commit to playing our A game and being solid on both ends of the court, then we'll be one of the better teams in the country,” Paige said. “We showed that throughout almost the entire ACC tournament and we've been playing so well here.”

The Tar Heels will get a chance to prove that Thursday when they face what is undoubtedly one of the better teams in the country, top-seeded Wisconsin.

APRIL?

It's about a 50-50 shot whether one of the three teams can make it to the Final Four, ending a Triangle and ACC drought dating to 2010. Duke has the best chance, N.C. State perhaps the easiest road, North Carolina the most difficult.

It was the Blue Devils' intention all along to compete for a national title. That hasn't changed. For North Carolina and N.C. State, there's new belief, new hope.

For all of them, there's still a chance.

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

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