By: JD Smith
Welcome Triangle Sports fans! It’s that time of year again, snow is falling across the state, the Christmas spirit has gone away, and our professional sports teams are leaving us disappointed like they love to do. Of course the Panthers would lose on a sack in the playoffs, and obviously the Hornets would stink and be ready to trade away their best player, and we won’t even mention the Hurricanes. So if you’re a North Carolina sports fan, may be wondering what you can tune into as we slog through the dreary winter months.
Have no fear, the Triangle schools have been providing plenty to be excited about as we move into the meat of college basketball. And if you are a casual fan this primer is here to get you all caught up on what you missed as we move forward because we have it all this year on Tobacco Road!
Let’s start with the Dark Side, the Evil Empire, The Duke Blue Devils. Coach K’s boys are at it again, and if you are one who loves to cheer for the dynasty everyone else loves to hate, there is plenty of room right up here with me (I’m a HUUUUGGGEEE Duke fan) on the Blue Devil Bandwagon! Duke lost 4 of their starters off last year’s ACC tourney winning squad but they have not missed a beat. Marvin Bagley may be the greatest player in the history of basketball, and I’m only being slightly dramatic when I say that. The man, and he is the MAN, is averaging a double-double on the season and has scored 20 or more points 10 times, while posting 30 in half of those. So yeah, he’s pretty good.
Bagley is not the only star on this Duke monolith, because while dealing with Bagley is hard enough, team’s also have to account for the man everyone in college basketball loves to hate: Grayson Allen. Allen’s production has dipped some as of late, but this is still a dude who scored 37 against Michigan State and is the only senior on a team with only three upperclassmen. Allen’s diminished numbers could be attributed to the fact that the four other starters on this team are all five stars who will most likely all go in the first round of the NBA Draft. Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval, and Gary Trent have all had their moments to shine this year, the most recent being Trent’s 30 point performance in a come from behind road win over #25 Miami.
That’s the other thing; this Duke team has had a flare for the dramatic all season, with comeback victories against Texas, Florida, Florida State, and the Hurricanes, all potential tournament teams. Those comebacks were in large part because of the Blue Devils’ inability to play good, or even just modest, defense, but when a team can score in the waves that Duke does, all the team needs is a few stops and the opponents lead has evaporated. Will this lack of defense come back to harm Duke come tournament time? Perhaps, but with the offensive production this team gets and the fact that they do score inside the arc, rather than relying on the three-ball as much leads me to believe this is Coach K’s best team since 2015 and we all know how that ended.
Now that the Triangle’s best and most hated team has been introduced, we can move to the team that most across the state call their own, the defending National Champion North Carolina Tarheels. As I stated before, I’m a Duke diehard, so it pains me to write about the team up the road in sky blue, but I have plenty of friends who are Tarheel supporters and I can sort of understand why. If Duke is to college basketball what the Cowboys or Patriots are to the NFL, then Carolina is the Green Bay Packers. They are the team with tradition and pageantry, with the legends of Michael Jordan and Dean Smith watching over them like Brett Favre and Vince Lombardi hover over Green Bay. So I get it, but it still pains me to write about them. All that being said, ol’ Roy still has a pretty good team in Chapel Hill, and while they are not as good as his last two National Title game squads, this team still has some grit to them, to steal a line from the guys on the podcast.
The team is led by senior guard Joel Berry, who is averaging 17 points a game in his senior season and has busted out 20+ point performances on the road against Stanford, Tennessee and Florida State. Carolina also has the hero of last year’s NCAA Tournament Regional Final win over Kentucky playing like a straight stud. Luke Maye is also averaging a double-double in his junior year, and the pride of Huntersville, NC has dropped 28, 27, and 32 in wins over Arkansas, Michigan, and Boston College. Theo Pinson and Kenny Williams have also provided sparks for the Heels, along with transfer Cam Johnson who scored 21 in a big win over Clemson on Tuesday to lead Carolina to their 59th straight home win over the Tigers.
Losses to Michigan State, UVA and on the road at Florida State have all been disappointing to Tarheel fans, but perhaps no bigger loss brought on frustration to the Carolina faithful and glee to the Carolina haters than the home loss to Wofford. However, UNC still has quality wins over Arkansas, Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio State, and Clemson. Those wins and the fact that they have an experienced group of starters, along with a Hall of Fame coach show that while it may be a “down year” by recent standards, the Heels will still very much be in play in the ACC and a tough out come March.
Last, but certainly far from least, we have the upstart darling, but sometimes redheaded (pun kind of intended) step child of the Tobacco Road powers, the NC State Wolfpack. Pack pride should be loud and proud at the start of 2018, as new coach Kevin Keatts has so far exceeded expectations in his first season at the helm. State has beaten the two most talented teams in the nation in Arizona and Duke, and has currently won 3 of their last 5 games to sit at 3-4 in the ACC. Coming into the year, little was expected at the start of the Keatts era, with the loss of star Dennis Smith Jr. and the disaster of last year’s miserable 15-17 campaign still lingering. Keatts has shown though why he is quickly becoming one of the best young coaches in the game. The man who took UNC-Wilmington from the bottom of the CAA to back-to- back Conference Titles and NCAA appearances overnight, has taken a roster of guys that are not necessarily built for his pressing style of play and don’t have a ton of talent and led them to big victories.
Omer Yurtseven, the former 5 star recruit from Turkey, has been a beast for the Pack this year, leading the team in either scoring or rebounding in seven games. Guard Markell Johnson missed seven games in December and January, a stretch that included 3 losses, and his absence was felt. Johnson can score, but his passing is where he makes the biggest impact, leading the team with 6.3 assists per game. Contributions from transfers Braxton Beverley (Ohio State) and Allerik Freeman (Baylor), as well as returners Lennard Freeman, Torin Durn, and Abdul-Malik Abu have all been felt this season. Al Freeman is the team’s leading scorer and Beverly scored 20 in the upset of Arizona.
All of this should have the Wolfpack faithful excited now, as this team looks like it will be competitive throughout the remainder of this season and in the future. I firmly believe that Keatts is going to do big things at State, especially with the defensive principles he brought with him from UNCW and Louisville. His attacking defense will lead to turnovers and create point scoring opportunities for the Pack that were not here under previous regimes. Once he gets more of his guys in as well, the system will only get better and big things should be on the horizon. So there you have it, everything you need to know about the Triangle powers as we head down the stretch of the college basketball season. Now just sit back, relax, and watch what should be a very entertaining two months of hoops on Tobacco Road.
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