Contrary to what the Tobacco Road folks would have us believe, not every good team in the land plays in the ACC. In the weeks ahead, those based elsewhere would love nothing more than to fell a representative from the league where, at least in this sport, It Just Means More. And no, the NCAA tournament isn’t the ACC’s personal playground. Last year’s Final Four included teams from the Bigs East, Ten and 12, plus the Fighting Sister Jeans. That said …
No other conference could stage the semifinals the ACC trotted out Friday night. Three of the nation’s top five teams were involved. (Even in the ACC’s exalted history, that was a first.) Two of them lost. There’s a chance all three will be handed No. 1 seeds on Selection Sunday. And if you’re asking which teams I’m most apt to pick to reach the Final Four in the 32nd edition of Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco, I’d say the two that just wrote yet another impassioned chapter in their never-ending saga.
I’d pick Duke. And I’d pick North Carolina.
(I would not, however, pick Virginia.)
Kentucky and Tennessee could make it to Minneapolis. Michigan and Michigan State could, too. Gonzaga could get there. With Kansas less than its usual self, the Big 12 mightn’t have a viable candidate. Villanova would need a kind draw. The wretched Pac-12 should feel thankful to get two teams in the field of 68. And it’s entirely possible the old enemies whose campuses sit eight miles apart will see each other again come April. (That would also be a first.)
As usual, Duke has the nation’s best collection of talent. Carolina, which hasn’t produced many one-and-dones – the legendary Tony Bradley, who left in 2017, was its first since 2009 – could have two this time. Coby White and Nassir Little haven’t gotten the 24/7/365 ESPN treatment that Duke’s freshmen have, but they’re big-time. And let me say something nice about Roy Williams: This might be his best coaching job since Kansas 1991. (Reverting to form, I’ll say something else: The Tar Heels didn’t get a decent shot at the end against Duke on Friday, possibly because Ol’ Roy, as is his wont, left two timeouts unused.)
Try as ESPN might – and it tries mightily – a Duke-Carolina game cannot be overblown. No matter the setting, these teams have at one another as if the national championship were on the line, speaking of which: Williams and Mike Krzyzewski have eight titles between them. Among active collegiate coaches, the most any other pairing could muster is three. You don’t get a game this rarefied in any other league tournament. In the ACC, we remind you, Duke-Carolina was only a semifinal.
The 251st collision of the blue-wearing bluebloods had the added cachet of being the first Duke-Carolina game – though maybe not the last – to feature Zion Williamson doing more that destroying his shoe. He famously ripped through his Nike and hurt his knee after 36 seconds at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 20. Fifteen days later, he sat out the return match at Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels won both, though bragging rights were constrained by the reality of the Blue Devils being Zion-less. They had him Friday. He scored 31 points, including the decisive putback with 31 seconds left.
Said Williams of Williamson: “I think I saw him play more than anybody else in the country the last two and a half years (in the effort to lure the player from Spartanburg, S.C., to Chapel Hill). I was glad to see that he wasn't playing those two other times. I had seen him play enough. I knew what he was.”
The belief here is that these are the nation’s two best teams. In the game Zion played, Duke won by a point. If they see one another in the Final Four, this loss might serve Carolina well. Can you imagine trying to trump Krzyzewski four times in seven weeks? And the Heels did lead by 13 early, whereupon the master deployed sophomore sub Jordan Goldwire of Norcross High, and Goldwire’s defensive pressure helped calm Carolina’s raging fast break.
Said Krzyzewski: “They get down (the court) so fast; I thought a big key in defending them once (Goldwire, known as J-Gold) got in was how fast he got down the court. He took that away. He fanned out, and they weren't able to pass ahead. They had to run more halfcourt offense. The turning point of the game was really his defense.”
The game’s second-biggest basket belonged to Goldwire, though not by design. With Duke down by a point inside the final two minutes, RJ Barrett ducked down the lane. His pass was deflected by Carolina’s Luke Maye into the hands of a grateful Goldwire. Said Williams: “Who was it that picked the ball up off the floor and laid it up? Goldwire? That’s a pretty big play right there.”
Friday’s first semi saw Florida State, which opened conference play 1-4, beat Virginia, which previously had lost only to Duke and was positioned to land the NCAA’s No. 1 overall seed a second year running. Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles don’t have stars – only two players average double-figure scoring; their leading scorer, Mfiondu Kabengele, doesn’t start – but they go 10 deep and substitute in waves. The stars of Thursday’s breathless overtime defeat of Virginia Tech were Terance Mann and Devin Vassell. Those two combined for two points against the Cavaliers, those coming on Mann’s celebratory dunk at 0:06.
Duke with Zion is the nation’s best team, which isn’t to say it’s invincible. For the Devils’ four freshmen starters, March Madness is a voyage into the unknown. The cruel beauty of the NCAA tournament is that the best team doesn’t always, or even usually, win. But when you sit down to do your bracket, bear this in mind: The best coach ever has at his disposal the best collegian of this century. That would seem a place to begin.