For a few years I worked for a redoubtable and stereotypical prima donna chef who was known to 86 menu items in order to force customers to order other ones; refuse to cook certain cuts of meat past a certain temperature regardless of whether it was ordered that way; deny his stock of nicer wine glasses to guests who didn’t spend an arbitrary minimum amount on their bottle; and so on. He drove his cooks like oxen and could be mercilessly hard on his floor staff as well, and harder still in affect because he didn’t throw Ramsay-ish tantrums. Instead he gave cold, calm, premeditated, dead-eyed, withering disapproval. It hurt up under the sternum to receive this treatment, but there was treatment of his that hurt even worse: being ignored. Once that happened to them a few times, waiters knew their time at the restaurant was short. They’d never be fired, of course: that could result in filing for unemployment, which the chef would never risk paying. He’d simply make them feel so exiled — abetted, somewhat unintentionally, even apologetically, by the rest of the front-of-house staff, who were too terrified to risk affiliation with a pariah — that they’d quit sooner or later, often as a means of putting and end to an unhappy spell working the restaurant’s Siberia section, which of course included Table 13.
After UNC beat Duke in Chapel Hill last Thursday night, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked about shooting guard Grayson Allen’s low scoring output. Krzyzewski began his answer like so: “Trevon…” Then he tailed off and rephrased his response: “Grayson had to handle the ball a lot.” He didn’t mention Trevon Duval again.
The ostensible surprise thus really wasn’t one when Duval was not in Duke’s starting lineup against Georgia Tech two days later. Freshman sylph Alex O’Connell got the call instead. He performed well, energized by playing just up the road from his Georgia hometown; so did Duval off the bench, and Duke as a whole shook off the surprisingly hard emotional punch of their loss to their light-blue arch rival by beating Georgia Tech without as much trouble as the 80-69 score might have suggested. The Blue Devils scored the game’s first nine points, built a 20-point lead in the first half, extended it to 25 early in the second, and didn’t have to sweat much over the Yellow Jackets’ late series of stings. They did all that without Marvin Bagley III, who sat out with what was described as a mild knee sprain. Marques Bolden, who’s going to be a very good post player for Duke, filled in admirably. All in all, it was a strong if unbeautiful bounceback by a team that had suffered a pair of tough losses in a row: the shocker against St. John’s in New York a week ago Saturday and the narrow loss to Carolina five days later, in which the home-and-healthy Tar Heels simply wanted it a little more in the second half.
Want, or the show of it, as much as actual play, seemed to be the issue with Duval on Thursday night. He failed to adopt an appropriately grim-soldier demeanor on the bench after he fouled out (having played just 20 minutes), visibly joshing with teammates instead. In the postgame locker room, some of his teammates were reportedly near tears while Duval was tweeting video of his highlight-reel first-half dunk. My editor points out that this sort of behavior could very well be negative-eyewash: not actually blasé insouciance but rather a strained attempt to cover for genuine remorse over a poor performance with misplaced lightheartedness and braggadocio. A very good point; but throughout his nearly 40-year tenure at Duke, Krzyzewski has prioritized team unity above virtually everything else. The circle is tight and its perimeter is drawn in boldface; anyone not all-in can quickly find himself left out. And it’s worth considering that Krzyzewski avoided talking about Duval not as a means of excluding him but in order to pull his straying charge back into the circle where none of us is privy to the conversation. In other words, Krzyzewski could simply have been protecting him.
On Wednesday, Duke hosts Virginia Tech. The Hokies are a very good team, fresh off a blowout-avenging upset of nonetheless-No.-1-for-the-first-time-since-Ralph-Sampson Virginia, and in Charlottesville no less. Attention will perhaps be stronger on the announcement of Duke’s starting lineup than on perhaps any single play during the game itself (unless it comes down to the last shot). Bagley’s injury was treated as no big deal, his benching mostly precautionary. It was a reminder that Krzyzewski knows he’s handling cut-crystal talent, and if he breaks any of his future lottery picks his reputation could take a hit. If Bagley sits out again, worry will spread. But perhaps greater concern will arise if O’Connell replaces Duval again in the starting lineup. That would be a signal that Krzyzewski wasn’t merely sending his lottery-pick point guard a single-serve message but rather significantly changing the guard (ha ha). Associate Head Coach Jeff Capel was somewhat equivocal; Duval’s thoughts on the matter weren’t quite convincing (“As long as I finish the game […] that’s all that matters.” But how will he feel if he doesn’t?) And that is a reminder that, lottery pick or no, highlight-reel dunkability aside, and the recent rise of the Duke one-and-done phenomenon notwithstanding, the only true elite force at Duke is and always will be its head coach. All-for-one, not one-for-Duval.
A repeat start for O’Connell is probably an unwise bet, though. Back in 2012, Krzyzewski gave the same treatment to Austin Rivers, his talented but petulant blue-chip guard, who was beside himself with angst over losing his starting role. (“It was very emotional for me,” he told reporters, in a group therapy session in which he was the client and they were the group.) After the game, when Krzyzewski was asked about benching Rivers, he sternly cut off the question and pointed out that Rivers played more minutes than anyone else on the team that night and scored 20 points. He did not need to add that Rivers played his usual game in every way except for being on the court at opening tip. Next time out, Rivers, chastened, was back in the starting lineup. Krzyzewski knew full well that he needed Rivers on the court as much as possible in order to win with that roster.
This year’s Duke roster can win without Duval. That’s less to criticize Duval, who at his best is a marvelous player — that highlight-reel dunk is worth checking out — than it is to reiterate that this team is so laden with talent that it can withstand the loss of nearly any player: indeed of two players, or one-and-a-half, at least, as they demonstrated with their fairly easy Bagley-less and half-Duval win over Georgia Tech; and as they did in 2015 after Krzyzewski kicked Rasheed Sulaimon off the prodigiously talented roster entirely. Teams full of freshmen tax even the greatest coach’s abilities, but they also give him more luxuries than we can perceive at once. It’s not only that Krzyzewski has the most talent. It’s that he has more than he needs.
More and need: Carolina needed Thursday’s game against Duke more than Duke needed it. That isn’t the same as saying that the Tar Heels would necessarily play that way. Everyone who follows UNC knows, and has known for years, that a consistent and fierce display of what Roy Williams calls “want-to” has never been his program’s trademark, despite his repeated claims of its importance to him. There is a particular shade of indifference that is Carolina blue: not so much passive as presuming, pale — sky blue in the sense that it is at once all-covering and also the color of least resistance. It tends to intensify against Duke, of course, but the Devils can blanch it back again in their most dominant years. (Speaking of Austin Rivers, his legendary buzzer-beater over Tyler Zeller in 2012 was entirely enabled by Carolina’s lack of assassin’s mercilessness in that game’s final minutes.) When Duke took a double-digit lead two-thirds of the way into a first half that was as smooth and fast as an inkjet, it looked like they might print a win early and perhaps erase the Tar Heels’ national ranking as well.
Instead, UNC rallied to close most of the gap by the end of the half, and in the second half gave a vintage Carolina showing to win the game. They moved the ball well, attacked the rim, grabbed rebounds on both sides of the court, wound up taking 15 more shots than Duke to negate their poor shooting, and somehow tied a team record by committing only two turnovers – and one of those was a charge by Theo Pinson (who also committed the other turnover). When the buzzer sounded, point guard Joel Berry flung the ball up into the rafters, as great a show of gladness as if UNC had just won the ACC tournament or even an Elite Eight game. This was one that slumping Carolina had to have in order to prove their self-worth again. It could also be a signal that beating Duke is as important this year as getting to a third straight national championship game. The Tar Heels still aren’t that top-level team. That’s not to say they couldn’t get there by the end of March, but they’ll have to get more minutes from their freshmen bigs, and right now it doesn’t look like they’ll establish themselves in time. Garrison Brooks not only doesn’t start anymore; he’s losing more and more minutes to Sterling Manley; and third-stringer Brandon Huffman scored almost as many points in one minute of garbage time against Notre Dame (three) than Brooks and Manley combined for (four) in 14.
That game, which UNC won, was the Tar Heels’ third game — and third straight win — in five days, thanks yet again to the ACC’s whimsical scheduling this season. The second was a frenzied shootout over N.C. State, in which Carolina could not stop the Wolfpack from scoring but in the end didn’t need to: they shot an absolutely galactic 78 percent in the second half, led by Luke Maye, who entered hyperspace with a 27-point final 20 minutes and was so deeply in the zone that he perhaps wasn’t joking after the game when he said that his only disappointment in scoring a career-high 33 points overall on 12 of 14 shooting was that he missed two shots. (“I can still be better with that.”) The Tar Heels won 96-89, giving the two teams more combined points in their two head-to-head matchups this season than Virginia has allowed since Tony Bennett became the Cavaliers’ head coach.
That’s not quite true, but Carolina’s 61-point second half (!) against N.C. State was a substantially higher output than Virginia allows, on average, in a full game this year. It helped conceal the embarrassment of the Wolfpack’s 19-0 run (!!) in the first, which turned a double-digit Tar Heel lead into a nearly double-digit deficit in less than seven minutes. Roy Williams, after his very old fashion, refused to call a timeout during that stretch. Instead, he waited until a media timeout to lay into his team: they made this mess, and they were going to have to clean it up. To their credit, they scored seven straight points to end the half down just two. Does Roy’s method actually work? Or is it simply that after a certain point, the other team just can’t keep it up like that? His inscrutable, marsupial genius is that you can’t ever tell.
These bizarre runs Carolina allows other teams are becoming an unnerving pattern. There was Clemson making 15 straight shots in Chapel Hill a few weeks ago; Allerik Freeman making all seven of his three-pointers in Raleigh not long after; and in between there Georgia Tech getting unseasonably hot in the second half in the Dean Dome. On Monday night, Notre Dame’s dangerous duo of Matt Farrell and T.J. Gibbs shot miserably and combined for only 19 points, but John Mooney and Martinas Geben made up for it by going 14-17, and Mooney made all six of his three-pointers — yet another role player having the shooting game of his life against UNC (see Dulkys, Davidias; Brower, Geoff; Hanson, Clayton; et al) — to keep the Bonzie Colson-less Fighting Irish in the game. (An aside here: perhaps no team in the NCAA deserves more sympathy this season than Notre Dame, which would have been a top-15, upper-division ACC team before losing not only Colson but, for several games, Farrell as well. Mike Brey might deserve the Coach of the Year award, although Tony Bennett will almost surely win it.)
The Tar Heels’s offense, which has climbed into Ken Pomeroy’s top ten in national efficiency after three strong scoring games, kept extending the lead to six or seven points; but Mooney and Geben kept nailing shots to close the gap. Just as against Clemson in Chapel Hill, Carolina never quite allowed Notre Dame to take the lead — Farrell had a chance with UNC leading 58-57, but his contested layup didn’t fall — and all through the game, the sense was almost palpable that the Tar Heels needed just a single scoring spurt to make the outcome academic. But the longer they went without getting it — a sabotaging turnover here, another momentum-freezing Mooney three-pointer there — the more probable it seemed that the fatigue of playing three games in five days might finally catch up with Carolina, whose defensive-efficiency ratings have been in total sag the whole time. They’ve gone from one of the best dozen or so defenses in the country to the 34th in just a few weeks, per Pomeroy; their three-point shooting percentage defense is among the worst in the NCAA; and their ball screen defense against Notre Dame last night was particularly poor.
If you need a textbook example of ball-don’t-lie, however, and some comfort that nobody so nobody shoots so well for so long, ever, look no further than the pivotal moment of the game. Carolina and Notre Dame had been playing back-and-forth for a while and UNC was leading 63-59 when Kenny Williams clacked Mooney’s elbow on the latter’s seventh three-point attempt of the game — his first and only “miss,” although of course it doesn’t show up that way in the box score, because Williams was correctly whistled for a foul. Mooney went to the line and missed all three free throws, his coach Mike Brey trying to suppress a grimace on the sideline. (Brey noted in his entertaining and forthcoming postgame comments that this was a deflating moment for his team, and that Money, surprisingly, doesn’t shoot free throws well.) Instead of a one-point game, on UNC’s next possession, Theo Pinson (who had a terrific overall game) scored to restore a six-point lead. It wasn’t quite immediate, but that little ripple in the game’s fabric seemed to change its entire warp and texture. After the teams traded baskets, UNC finally found that scoring run: 13 straight points over a sub-four-minute stretch to put the game away, finally. When Carolina’s starters went to the bench with about a minute remaining, the exhaustion they’d been fighting off overtook them all at once. Kenny Williams whooshed out a huge, heavy exhalation, and Luke Maye’s mouth guard drooped from his jaw like a dog’s tongue, his eyes bleary and dazed. (Roy Williams said after the game that Maye needs rest perhaps more than anyone else on the team.)
It’s still not clear where the Tar Heels are going this season. These three straight wins in five days could very well have been its high point. But if it they end up going far, this difficult and edifying mini-streak will have been the heavy traffic they had to fight through in order to get there.
The Tar Heels get a week of rest — oh, and to go to classes and try to be full-time college students; sure, if you say so. They’ll need it, because a one-two punch of old Big East hardball is next: consecutive road games at Syracuse and Louisville. Duke, meanwhile, may have its hands full Wednesday with suddenly-scary Virginia Tech, whose strong offense could challenge Duke’s wobbly defense. We’ve reached the point of the season where teams are officially jockeying for NCAA Tournament seeds — which is to say: whatever you think of the Duke and Carolina you’ve been served so far, it’s too late to send them back to the kitchen.