I sometimes think I’m still covering the two blue teams around here. I watch them, I think about them, I care about them, I talk about them. I’ve been quite appalled by the NCAA for years, and have once or twice sworn off college sports. But when you do that, you abandon these young athletes who are out there on the courts and fields. They don’t care about the corruption around them; they’ve just come to play; and in their passion and pride they alone are responsible for lifting their sports out of the surrounding mire. What dignity and value big-time college sports have owes entirely to the people playing them, and we owe them gratitude and attention.
More locally, Duke and UNC are our greatest gift. To wake up in Durham or Chapel Hill every winter morning and know that we possess the most profound and potent energy source in college basketball is to feel unbelievably lucky. What we have here is something to celebrate, delight in, protect, and promote, as New Orleans does with its parades and Barcelona does with its Gaudí. So here’s some of that.
My priority is to point to successes, because failures are their own indictment, and they aren’t always failures. The other team is trying, too. Sometimes they just beat you. Injury is also a nearly unconquerable adversary; along with talent it makes two of the three unassailable sports absolutes. Last year’s Duke team, the preseason favorite to win the national championship, lost its hope to injuries long before the Blue Devils could establish their strength or identity. Their extraordinary run to the ACC Tournament championship was a capstone achievement for that team, in no way lessened by their bowing out of the NCAA Tournament without winning it. In the same way, Marcus Paige’s incredible three-pointer near the end of the 2016 title game against Villanova stands as one of the very greatest shots in championship game history, given the stakes, the degree of difficulty and improbability. Kris Jenkins’s shot to win the game is the one the world will remember, but Paige’s was in every way a greater shot. Winning, of course, is the third absolute, but Vince Lombardi was wrong: it’s not the only thing. Especially not at the amateur level.
Duke is easier than UNC to write about. They’re by far the most talented team in the country. Against Miami on Monday night, they fell behind by 13 points midway through the second half and looked dead in the water. It seems to me that the two hardest things for freshmen to master are 1) defense and 2) winning conference road games. This game was another one of those. It isn’t necessary to say much about Duke’s defense. It hasn’t been good, although it’s worth noting that over the last three or four games they’ve improved in the Ken Pomeroy ratings from the 104th-“best” defense in the country to the 72nd. They’re getting much better, much more quickly. If they can be merely adequate, they’ll be in the Final Four, and I still think they have the best title chances in the NCAA. Wisconsin in 2015 had the best offense in the country. statistically, but only the 35th-best defense, and there but for Grayson Allen would have won the national championship. Duke, which has the nation’s second-best offense at the moment, only needs to be somewhere among the top three dozen defenses in order to win.
They probably don’t need to be even that good, because speaking of there-but-for and Grayson Allen, on a night when neither Marvin Bagley III or Wendell Carter, Jr. scored 20 points, Allen himself scored only five (in 38 minutes on the court), and the entire bench scored three — and Duke as a team committed 19 turnovers — Gary Trent, Jr. scored 30 points on just 14 shots and rescued the Blue Devils as Allen rescued them in the national championship game in 2015. That is to say that Duke has so much talent that multiple players can fail in multiple ways (Trent’s defense, for example, is limp), spot good teams big leads, and still win. As soon as Trent cut Miami’s 13-point lead to single digits with a couple of three-pointers, the Hurricanes’ tension visibly took hold of them, and within five minutes they had all but conceded. In a game Duke trailed by 13 points with eight minutes to play, they spent the final minute or so merely salting it away — and they did that not only by going to the free throw line but by twice rebounding their own misses there. Miami couldn’t even clear their own boards by the end. Duke had taken them apart mentally.
And that, I think , is a key. Freshmen have to learn the mental part of the game (defense, road wins). That was what the 2015 championship team seemed to arrive on campus already equipped with: the toughness, attitude, maturity, call it what you like, that the great teams have. Duke’s rallies over Texas and Florida in the early season were the products of shifts in emotion and momentum and talent. It wouldn’t be right to say that they out-thought Miami, but they did beat them mentally as much as physically, Trent’s singular explosion notwithstanding.
I’m still trying to figure out how UNC won last year’s national championship, and one of the marvels of the sports is that I don’t think I ever will. The best explanation I could give, in the end, was that the Tar Heels just kept playing. They lost seven games, a few of them terribly, sometimes looked bloodless, did what they could to blow secure leads late in both the Elite Eight and the national semifinal games, and didn’t have anything like the country’s best talent. But they just kept on playing, even after they were knocked completely flat more than once; and even though this year’s roster and talent construction is quite different from last year’s, they seem to have inherited that almost robotic sedulousness from last year’s championship team. Last night, during UNC’s game versus Clemson, color commentator Dan Bonner said of Luke Maye, “He just keeps plugging away.” That’s Carolina. This team lost to Wofford, at home, surely one of the very worst losses in program history — it amazes me that this didn’t get more media attention than it did — and yet here they are a few weeks later, 15-4, 4-2 in the ACC, and their only conference losses were on the road against ranked teams (one of which, Virginia, might be the best team in the country). Had Joel Berry’s last-second floater against Florida State fallen, the picture would look rosier still. (But of course luck is just a coin flip. How did Notre Dame’s T.J. Gibbs’s potential game-winning putback of his own miss — after which neither Joel Berry nor Luke Maye boxed him out — not go in?)
Plugging away: Luke Maye got his nose bloodied by his own teammate’s inadvertent elbow and had to get stitches at halftime He came back out and made a pair of big shots to stanch the bleeding (ha ha) when Clemson rallied. And wow did they rally. Trailing by double digits at halftime and on the verge of getting blown out, the Tigers missed their first shot of the second half and then made their next 15 in a row. Carolina’s defense wasn’t especially good during that stretch, although they’re a much better defensive team than they get credit for (12th in the country per Pomeroy, even after Clemson’s mind-boggling, metrics-destroying streak last night dropped them a notch); but you don’t expect any team, ever, to make fifteen straight shots, even if you walk off the floor and let them shoot three-pointers unguarded. It’s unthinkable, and it would demoralize a lot of teams, the way Miami was demoralized by Gary Trent, Jr. on Monday night: the hardest thing about defense is that sometimes you defend well and the other team scores anyway; you just have to grit your teeth and bear down, as Lucy tells Charlie Brown (“All we have to do is win just one more game / And the championship is ours!”), and defend them some more. Young players don’t always respond to that challenge to their maturity. The Tar Heels’ lead dwindled perilously, especially in light of the Tar Heels’ outlandish 59-0 home winning streak against Clemson, which also doesn’t get as much media attention as you’d think it would. But UNC just kept playing. After Clemson’s initial flurry of punches cut deep into UNC’s lead, the Tar Heels recovered — at least on offense — and kept on scoring themselves. Clemson got to within two points multiple times, and each time UNC scored again: the Tigers never had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead. Amazingly, the half ended with Carolina outshooting Clemson, despite the Tigers’ 15 in a row. Statistics are weird. UNC, traditionally the paint-focused team, also made 15 of 31 three-pointers (they took only 20 two-pointers) and converted 20 of 24 free throws, including nine of their final 10.
What does all this mean, for both Duke and UNC? Nothing. The logic of the ACC will sort itself out more clearly over the next month, but you can’t trust anything anymore. The only thing to know for sure is that we’re in the best place in the world for basketball, and every day we don’t take that for granted compensates for everything that we do fail to appreciate around these imperiled parts. Downtown Durham is now three things: ugly, disruptive construction of buildings that will be inaccessible to all but a handful of people; more homeless people than ever; and overpriced restaurants. Needless to say, but let’s say it anyway, these things are not unrelated; and needless to say, the latter is making it easy for too many of us to ignore the former two. Durham was a neglected place for so long, and virtually before it had has had time to find itself, it’s suddenly on the verge of losing itself by indiscriminate overprivilege and benighted self-awareness. There’s not much we can do about it as long as our city council is content to sit on its hands when not signing off on developers’ bonanzas. What we can do is turn our attention where it belongs, love the best we have to offer, and refuse to be distracted or diverted.