This is the year. It has to be the year.
Four years of Triangle Final Four frustration is coming to an end. It has to come to an end.
While this is the longest ACC drought in five decades, it’s just as uncharacteristic for this little corner of the ACC as well. Going back to 1963, the Triangle had never gone more than two years without a team in the Final Four. The count is at four now. A miss this year would make it five.
The last time the Triangle went that long? 1957-63, which not at all coincidentally overlaps with the ACC’s drought.
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In the realm of power rankings and probabilities, it’s just about a 50-50 shot one of the three teams makes the Final Four, most likely Duke.
Statistically speaking, it’s a coin flip. Practically speaking, it’s going to happen. It has to happen.
It’s probably not going to be North Carolina. As well as the Tar Heels are playing, there are too many hurdles. From Wisconsin’s pace to the threat of Arizona lurking even if North Carolina can get past the Badgers, it’s a tough road. You’d feel better about this if North Carolina weren’t 4-7 against teams that made the Sweet 16 this season or had beaten Duke at least once.
It’s not impossible, though. Wisconsin is beatable. Duke showed that, in Madison no less. As tough a matchup as this is for the Tar Heels, they have a few players who can create some matchup issues themselves. They also have Marcus Paige, so if they can keep it close at halftime, perhaps “Second-Half Marcus,” as now enshrined in official NCAA transcripts, can work his magic.
In a vacuum, North Carolina may be a better team, but N.C. State has it easier, there’s no question about that. To start, there’s Louisville, without Chris Jones, a team the Wolfpack beat on the road this season. The Cardinals are a reasonably good matchup for N.C. State, their erratic offense not as much of a stressor on the Wolfpack’s defense, with four big men to run at Montrezl Harrell.
Rick Pitino is 11-1 in regional semifinals, and the only loss came last season. He will want to amend. And even if the Wolfpack gets past its ACC foe, underrated Oklahoma or Tom Izzo and Michigan State await. Still, it’s not Wisconsin and Arizona, and N.C. State has already beaten No. 1 seeds in the tournament (Villanova) and regular season (Duke). Anything’s possible.
Duke’s the plowhorse here, the Clydesdale dragging along the Triangle’s chances. What Duke did in Charlotte should have erased any lingering doubts among skeptics of this team’s bona fides, especially the way Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow seized the moment. Watching Okafor dribble out of a double team, then face the basket, then get to the rim and score – that’s what it’s going to take for someone to beat Kentucky.
First things first
Hold on. Kentucky? We’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Duke has to deal with Utah – the rare team that can throw multiple 7-footers at Okafor – and either Gonzaga or UCLA. But none of those teams have seen anything like the combo of Winslow slashing to the rim and pushing the pace and Okafor bullying his way around the post.
And we’ve gotten this far without mentioning Quinn Cook’s 3-point shooting or Tyus Jones’ flair for the dramatic. They haven’t really been called upon yet. But they will be.
Duke isn’t unbeatable. Another 3-for-17 game from 3-point range, like the one against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament, and the Blue Devils won’t make it to Indianapolis.
But it would be shocking, albeit not impossible, if Duke didn’t make it to the Final Four, having gotten this far. And if not Duke, one of the two other Triangle teams still has a shot to pick up the slack.
After four years of Final Four frustration, this is the year. It has to be.