This exact weekend a year ago was a pivotal moment in North Carolina’s eventual run to the national championship game. Already in the midst of a disappointing season, the Tar Heels lost at home to Duke by 20 points, taking whatever margin for error they had to make the NCAA tournament and cutting it down to the bone.
What happened in the weeks that followed, however, was magical. As one win became a couple, building to a streak that saw the Tar Heels turn the tables on Duke in the final game of the regular season, everything changed.
Hubert Davis, who had felt the unease of North Carolina’s fan base in his first year replacing Roy Williams, suddenly figured out how to coach. The Tar Heels guards, who had shot inconsistently all year, started making everything. And Armando Bacot, their 6-foot-11 center, was dominating everyone in the paint with his energy and physicality.
Then for three weeks in March — all the way until the final moments of a 72-69 loss to Kansas — the Tar Heels became a great basketball team. But now, as a group that largely returned in tact prepares for its first meeting this season with Duke, we are right back here wondering if three random weeks of greatness is all North Carolina had in it.
Ranked No. 1 in the preseason, the Tar Heels’ Final Four encore is once again in danger of being a flop. Though nowhere near as unlikely to miss the tournament as they were this time last year, the brutal truth is that North Carolina is a middle-of-the-pack team in a middle-of-the-pack conference and has lost to most of the good teams it has played.
The best thing that Tar Heels have done this year? It might be a 16-point win over 21-2 College of Charleston way back on Nov. 11. Or perhaps it was two-point loss to Alabama that took four overtimes to decide. But when a team this experienced and this hyped has so little on its résumé the first week of February, something has gone horribly wrong.
“The No. 1 thing in regards to our team the whole year is the discipline and the details and its tightening the screws on the little things that allow you to be successful on the floor, staying on script, doing the things we practiced and the things we drill,” Davis said after another disappointing result Wednesday in a one-point loss at home to Pittsburgh.
Not that we should need the lesson by now, but North Carolina is a classic representation of why we love the NCAA tournament so much — and why it is a consistently terrible predictor of success the following year.
Should voters have put North Carolina at No. 1 to start this season? The argument for it was simple: With four starters coming back from a national runner-up team plus the addition of a highly-regarded transfer in Northwestern’s Pete Nance, the Tar Heels had more incumbency, high-level experience and roster continuity than any team in the country.
But there was also a valid case for skepticism: Except for the tournament, where they had the great fortune to draw a No. 1 seeded Baylor team diminished by injuries and then the remarkable St. Peter’s in the Elite Eight, North Carolina was an unremarkable team for most of the season and got hot at the right time. It wasn’t inconceivable that those same players would revert back to what they had been.
And that seems to be exactly what’s happened.
Guard Caleb Love, who was an incredibly clutch shot-maker throughout the tournament run, is shooting 38.5% overall and 28.6% from three, which is more in line with what he’s been his entire career. Guard R.J. Davis has been a little better (43.6% overall, 36.1% from three), but can be very inefficient on a lot of nights. When you combine that with Bacot and starting wing Leaky Black not being threats from the perimeter at all, you get a team with kind of a gummed-up offense that needs its guards to go supernova to win at the highest level.
We know that Love and Davis can do that in spurts. We’ve seen it before, and perhaps this March we will see it again. But it has proven to be highly unsustainable, and the Tar Heels’ 15-7 record now is simply a reflection of who they are and probably who they always were outside of those three fairytale weeks.
If we are ever going to see that version of North Carolina again, even for a little while, perhaps playing Duke will be the spark. North Carolina’s run would have been great on its own, but beating Mike Krzyzewski in his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium and then in the last game of his career in the Final Four made it legendary.
It will be interesting to see if this iteration of Duke in Jon Scheyer’s first season conjures the same type of emotional fervor in the Tar Heels, because it certainly has not for the rest of America.
Duke is doing fine: They’re 16-6, their talented young players are starting to figure some things out, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if we look up in March and they’re in a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. But without Krzyzewski there on the sideline, is it really the same rivalry? For a lot of reasons, but mostly how much he won and the sometimes condescending way he presented himself, it was easy to have strong feelings about Coach K.
Scheyer, 35, doesn’t have a track record and does not present himself as if he does. He’s still at the stage of this where, if he walked through a major airport without his Duke gear on, he wouldn’t get recognized often or perhaps at all. It’s still Duke, but 12 months later, it’s all very different.
North Carolina, for better or worse, is much the same. And just like last year, if they’re going to fulfill high expectations, the Tar Heels better start soon.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: North Carolina faces Duke hoping history can turn season around