The first weekend of March Madness is over and it proved to be an exciting four days of basketball, maybe the best in recent memory. There are happy fans everywhere from Dayton to Palo Alto and most definitely in the offices of the Southeastern Conference.
Each regional site had great moments and upsets, including the Raleigh site. What you won’t find in the Raleigh area on Monday are happy fans. The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, also known as the Triangle, went into the 2014 NCAA Tournament opening weekend with four teams in the tournament. The Triangle came out of the opening weekend with no teams left in the tournament.
First, at the Raleigh site, 14th seeded Mercer upset the Duke Blue Devils 78-71. National Player-of-the-Year candidate, Jabari Parker, had an off shooting night and only managed to score 14 points in what could be his last game in a Duke uniform. The other key was Mercer’s senior-laden team slicing up Duke’s defense in the second half, shocking the crowd at PNC Arena. In what should have been a home court advantage, many who attended the game said it felt like the Mercer fans were louder than the Duke contingent on hand. And in the end it was the Mercer fans and players celebrating.
Next, in Orlando, the place where dreams come true, the North Carolina State Wolfpack looked as though they would add themselves to the growing list of victorious 12 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. The Wolfpack had played well enough in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament to sneak into the First Four and validated their selection with a win over Xavier in Dayton.
They continued that hot play against Atlantic-10 regular season champion, Saint Louis, for most of the game, leading by as much as 16 points with 8 minutes to go in the game. Then it all fell apart, with the Wolfpack missing 11 free throws in the last 3 minutes as Saint Louis pulled off the comeback. NC State’s dream of an upset didn’t come true.
Finally, in San Antonio, the North Carolina Tar Heels looked to redeem themselves from a subpar showing in the ACC Tournament. They managed to pull out the victory in their first game over Providence, 79-77. Unlike Duke and NC State, that gave them the chance to make the Sweet 16 if they were able to beat Iowa State on Sunday.
After trailing by as much as 9 points, the Tar Heels found themselves with an 8 point lead with just less than 4 minutes left in the game. Then it all fell apart as UNC made some mistakes and Iowa State got hot from the perimeter with Cyclone playmaker, DeAndre Kane, making the game-winning lay-up with less than 2 seconds to play to win 85-83. UNC’s roller coaster season ended in gut-wrenching fashion.
As a result of those losses, the Triangle won’t have a Sweet 16 representative. That’s the first time that’s happened in 18 years. In fact, it will be the first time since 1958-1962 that the Triangle has gone 4 years without a Final Four representative. Are these teams getting lost in the Bermuda Triangle that we call parity in college basketball? Or is there reason to believe this absence in the Sweet 16 will be an exception, not the rule?
Let’s take a look at what the Triangle teams can expect next season as some players will leave early for the NBA, some will stay in school, and high profile recruits arrive on campus at all 3 schools.
Starting with Duke, the #1 question, and the #2 question for that matter, is whether or not freshman star, Jabari Parker, returns or leaves early for the NBA. Parker is widely predicted to be selected in the Top 3 picks in the NBA Draft. So he most likely will enter the draft. Rodney Hood is rated borderline lottery pick and solidly in the Top 20. So he will have a big decision to make as well. Nothing is official until they announce their decisions, but signs would point to early exits.
Parker and Hood represent 46% of Duke’s scoring and 38% of their rebounds. The Blue Devils also lose their senior leaders, Tyler Thornton, Andre Dawkins, and Josh Hairston. Parker, Hood, Dawkins and Thornton accounted for 63% of Duke’s 3-pointers and all had games where the team depended on their big shots from the perimeter. Altogether, Duke is losing 60% of their scoring if all four of those guys are gone.
The cavalry is coming to Durham in the form of the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class. Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow are all in the ESPN Top 15. This type of recruiting haul will most likely put Duke in the preseason Top 5, but what we’ve learned by now is that putting the success of your team squarely on the shoulders of freshman does not always predict a successful outcome. Only time will tell.
What Coach Mike Krzyzewski will also need to make this roster work is huge improvement from Marshall Plumlee, more big time effort from Rasheed Sulaimon, and senior leadership and big shots from Quinn Cook. These 3 were not consistent night in and night out, and they can’t play that way next season. And somebody nobody is talking about now like a Matt Jones or Amile Jefferson needs to have a breakout year to give them that X-factor.
Coach K will have the pieces he needs to have a great season, but that’s what he had this year and it’s safe to say he did not get the most out of this year’s squad. That’s what makes this early departure from the NCAA Tournament so disappointing to Duke fans. They had the players to make a Final Four run and possibly more, but failed to get out of the starting blocks. Of course, that is also the reason Coach K will most likely come back in a big way and push his team back into the Sweet 16 and beyond next year.
NC State will be faced with a rebuilding situation, again. Entering this season Mark Gottfried dealt with the early departures of all five of his starters from last season. At times this year, NC State looked awful. But in the big games they played well and had several close losses to the top teams after blowing leads late in the game. The fact that they closed strong, played well enough in the ACC Tournament to make the Big Dance, and were 8 minutes from knocking off a 5 seed would leave some to believe Gottfried did a better job coaching with less this year than he did last year when they had better talent.
First and foremost, they will have to find a way to replace ACC Player-of-Year, T.J. Warren, assuming the rumors are true that he will indeed announce in the coming days that he is entering the NBA Draft. Warren was the Wolfpack’s leading scorer and rebounder. He accounted for 35% of their points, had more made field goals than the next 3 guys combined and had 3 times as many steals as anybody else on the team.
Another impressive stat was the fact he had more offensive rebounds than the next 4 guys combined. He alone won many of their games, and kept them in the game in those close losses. The team got used to relying on him to carry them or in some situations, save them. That mentality will have to change as next year’s roster will not have one guy that can carry the team by himself.
Alabama transfer, Trevor Lacy, will be eligible and will provide scoring, but not at Warren’s level. He will need to help from highly-touted freshman, Caleb Martin, a 6’7” forward who can shoot the rock. Point guards Tyler Lewis and Cat Barber have to be more consistent in running the offense due to the fact that Warren won’t be there to make up for their mistakes. Other guys like Lennard Freeman and Kyle Washington showed flashes of their potential in the postseason and will need to build on those performances. Gottfried will be working with a deeper roster which is key because it will take a total team effort to hold their own in the ACC and turn next year into more than just another rebuilding season.
The Tar Heels had what you could call a roller coaster of a season. Lots of high points and also some low points. There were the lows of losing to Belmont and the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the stress of the P.J. Hairston ordeal. Then there were the highs of beating Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky.
Then the lows returned in starting out the ACC season 1-4 in the conference. That dip was then followed by the high of winning 12 games in a row, including a win over Duke. That win made UNC the first team to ever beat the AP Preseason Top 4 teams in a season. Some current and former coaches said this might even be Roy Williams’ best coaching season yet at UNC, including ESPN Analyst, Seth Greenberg, who thought Williams was the ACC Coach-of-the-Year. Needless to say, it was an interesting season in Chapel Hill.
UNC finds itself in a different situation than Duke or NC State. The Tar Heels return the bulk of their line-up, with Leslie McDonald being the lone departure. Now that leading scorer, Marcus Paige, has confirmed he’s returning to Chapel Hill, and James Michael McAdoo leaning that way, Williams will have 4 of his top 5 scorers back and his top rebounders back as well. Aside from Paige and McAdoo, look for Brice Johnson to build off a solid year and have a breakout season next year.
It won’t hurt to have All-ACC Defensive player, J.P. Tokoto, playing with a year of starter experience under his belt and the continued improvement of Kennedy Meeks should be huge in establishing a strong front court with Johnson and McAdoo. The backcourt is getting big reinforcements with the arrivals of Joel Berry, Justin Jackson, and Theo Pinson, all in the ESPN Top 20. They represent the 3rd-ranked recruiting class in the nation and should help fill the holes that UNC had this season in scoring options and guard depth.
Roy Williams said last off-season and the beginning of this season was the hardest period he’s ever dealt with in coaching. And yet, at the end of it he said it might have been the most rewarding season he’s had and he couldn’t be prouder of a team. Heading into next year with no distractions and a loaded roster with solid experience and talent should put Williams’ Tar Heels back into the Final Four contender conversation.
So there you have it. The teams of the Triangle ended this season in disappointment and without a Sweet 16 appearance among them. Next season the ACC only gets tougher with the addition of Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals. Duke and UNC look like they’ll be ready to return to the Sweet 16 and make possible Final Four runs. Mark Gottfried should have a deeper roster to work with in the Wolfpack’s attempt to return to the NCAA Tournament and the Sweet 16. Of course, this is all on paper.
The hard work and improvement in the off-season will have to happen if any of these teams hope to reach their goals and get out of the Bermuda Triangle they found themselves in this past weekend.