Will Duke get there?
This is the question of the 2016-17 season, the one we’ve been asking all along. We asked it when October’s nigh-unanimous national title favorite was beset by injuries to star freshmen in November. We asked again when Grayson Allen‘s trip, and Mike Krzyzewski’s back, fomented tumult in December. We asked it when the Blue Devils were symbolically barred from their locker room, and their practice equipment. We asked it when Duke first met North Carolina in early February, when it won at Virginia six days later, when the answer, finally, tilted toward the affirmative.
All season, week in and week out, explicit or implied. When would it all come together? When would Duke — finally — turn the corner?
Now here we are, somehow, on the eve of the final regular-season weekend of the 2016-17 campaign. As is tradition, Duke and North Carolina will close each other’s regular season Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), and from there it will be off to the ACC tournament and the Big Dance. The time for prospective questions about what teams should be, or what they could be, is long since past. And yet here we are, asking again: Will Duke get there?
If the NCAA tournament was a thesis deadline, the two teams that will meet in (what is obviously) the weekend’s marquee game in Chapel Hill on Saturday, would be two obviously intelligent college students with vastly different approaches to organization and time management.
The Tar Heels have gone about their studies with admirable day-to-day rigor. From the start of the season, when it bum-rushed the Maui Invitational, through this weekend, when it is guaranteed at least a share of the regular-season conference title, North Carolina has been the best offensive rebounding team in the country, one that combines its wealth of bruising interior options (Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Tony Bradley) with quality point guard play (Joel Berry II), and brilliant, balanced scoring off the wing (Justin Jackson). The Tar Heels have had enough depth to get by, even when injuries could have set them back. (Sophomore guard Kenny Williams performed admirably in what would have likely been Theo Pinson‘s starting spot for much of the season; Pinson’s return came just in time for Williams to lose the rest of his season to an injury of his own.) UNC hasn’t lost a game in Chapel Hill. It hasn’t lost two games in any 10-day span.
North Carolina has shown up to class, taken detailed notes and never missed an assignment. At this point, the professor knows exactly what he or she’s going to get.
The Blue Devils, on the other hand, have been all over the place. That 3-4 start to the ACC season was the equivalent of a bunch of skipped classes, a late realization that an exam was coming up and a desperate online plea for a fellow students’ notes. An office-hours meeting later, the Blue Devils were back in the classroom, rattling off seven straight wins — including Feb. 9’s eight-point home win against North Carolina — and showing off all the potential the professor saw in the first place. Then, as the thesis deadline grew closer? Another injury for Allen, a couple of losses at Syracuse and Miami (the latter in which the Blue Devils scored 50 points in 62 possessions), followed by a home win against Florida State? Huh?
You get the idea. At this point, what the Blue Devils turn in this March might be brilliant. It might also be short, undercooked and forgettable.
Tortured metaphor aside, there are two reasons why the fundamental question about Duke is still worth asking, even at this late date.
The first is that just two short seasons ago, a talented Blue Devils team turned a previously leaky defense into a juggernaut just in time to win six straight games in the NCAA tournament.
The second, related reason, is that this Duke team’s lingering deficiencies aren’t necessarily carved in stone. As John Gasaway Truth’d this week, the main non-injury-related problems that separate 2016-17 Duke from looking like a reprise of the 2014-15 version are a) offensive rebounding and b) interior defense. In 2015 ACC play, Duke grabbed nearly 37 percent of available rebounds; this Duke team has averaged 31.9. In 2015, Duke’s apparently suspect defense nonetheless held opponents to 47.4 percent inside the arc; this Duke allows 50.7 percent. Luke Kennard has consistently scorched opposing defenses, Jayson Tatum has emerged as a key two-way wing threat and Allen has been good when not carrying an injury, but the Blue Devils’ inability to create second shots for themselves or defend inside the paint on the other end has capped their meteoric potential.
Yet, on Tuesday night, against a Florida State team that rivals Carolina for sheer size and inside-out versatility, Duke grabbed 40 percent of available offensive rebounds — and held the Seminoles to just 42.3 percent from 2-point range on defense.
Which, yes, is why we’re still here, still asking the same question, the one we’ve been asking about Duke on a near-weekly basis, the one a professor might ask about its particularly gifted but organizationally scattered young charge: Is this it? Have they finally figured it out? Will they turn the corner? Is it too late? Can they still blow us away?
Seriously: Will Duke get there?
Saturday may provide an answer. It may not. At worst, it will be another classic game in a rivalry almost eerily predisposed to providing them.
Whatever happens, Duke will wake up Sunday morning and look at its calendar and get that unmistakable panic in the pit of its stomach. The deadline is here.
Finished or not, perfect or not, at some point you have to turn something in.
Note to any tournament-focused college hoops latecomers: You should probably watch this game, and not just because the No. 1 team in the country is playing. Sure, get yourself a glimpse of Kansas, a team that has long since locked up its 13th-straight Big 12 title thanks in large part to a raft of close “clutch” wins that may or may not be transferable to how its desired Final Four push will play out.
No, you should also tune in for Oklahoma State. When the bracket comes, there’s a decent chance OSU will be a No. 7 (or even No. 8) seed, and when folks rush to research their picks, they might glance at the Cowboys’ record, see a midlevel Big 12 team and be unimpressed. That would be a mistake. After its 86-83 loss at Iowa State on Tuesday, OSU has fallen exactly twice since Jan. 19 (both by one bucket). This is a vastly different team than the one that racked up six losses in its first six league games. In the process, Jawun Evans & Co. have morphed into an offense capable of challenging UCLA — yes, UCLA! — for the title of the nation’s most efficient, scoring 1.22 points per trip against Big 12 defenses in that span.
Meanwhile, they’ve allowed 1.08 points per possession — no one’s idea of stingy defense, but when you’re outscoring good teams by .14 points per trip, making a gob of 3s and generating second chances and free throws at this high a rate, “shaky” defense is a relative term. Oklahoma State is scary. See for yourself.
No. 19 Notre Dame at No. 8 Louisville, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, CBS
True story: If North Carolina loses Saturday, and Notre Dame wins at the Yum! Center, the Irish will claim a share of the ACC regular-season conference title. The odds of both Louisville and UNC losing on their home floors are … low. Still, the mere existence of the opportunity before the final weekend of the season is a remarkable accomplishment where coach Mike Brey’s team is concerned. For two straight seasons, Notre Dame has lost key pieces from Elite Eight teams.
Two springs ago, Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton waved farewell after nearly knocking off then-unbeaten Kentucky. Last year, Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste departed after succumbing to North Carolina. Yet Notre Dame — once again unranked in the preseason — reformed anew once more, this time around transformed small-ball center Bonzie Colson, veteran wings Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem and relative newcomers Matt Farrell and Rex Pflueger. The result, as always, is another efficient, turnover-averse, beautifully spaced Brey offense, with a defense that does more than enough to get by.
ACC play hasn’t always been kind. But here Notre Dame is, with an outside shot at tying North Carolina atop the final standings. Whatever happens Saturday, that’s worth celebrating in and of itself.