“Fandom is a great beacon of our cultural idiocy,” a pro ballplayer once told me. “Wanting your team to win and not understanding why they can’t is so dumb.” This has always stuck with me, not because I quite agree with it — why would there be sports at all if no one rooted for anyone? — but because the way I feel after my team loses is generally not so much disappointed or upset as something close to dumb, and dumb in a particular way; that is, for having any kind of emotional reaction to athletes winning or losing games.
The psychology of this reaction is complex and has surely inspired many studies, journal articles, cultural studies, and so on. I don’t feel the need to analyze it much more than we already do. And I need to qualify this by saying that I covered both Duke and UNC basketball as a journalist, which means that I have: A) a certain amount of objectivity (although you would be amazed by how many sports journalists are actually just diehard fans of some team or other); B) an unusual diffusion of what rooting interests I do possess. Not many people can get behind both of these rival programs.
For a longish time, I adopted the ballplayer’s no-rooting, fandom-is-idiocy ideology, because I have Buddhist tendencies and will look for ways to practice them. But over time, I’ve come to appreciate that fandom, expressed in certain ways, bespeaks a certain kind of generosity and ardor that I don’t really want to relinquish, and probably can’t even if I were to try. I grew up around here. I remember Rich Yonakor and Gene Banks and Ranzino Smith and Alaa Abdelnaby and where I was when [insert any number of great Duke and/or UNC moments here]. Our fandom dwells in our childhoods. To abandon it is to be less than our full selves.
And so I’ve come to a kind of fandom that attempts to use the ballplayer’s disdain as praxis: When my team(s) lose(s), I try to understand why. And I also try to remind myself of something else the ballplayer said: “The other team is trying, too.” If I had grown up in Miami or Blacksburg, I would be happy and feel smart for liking the Hurricanes or the Gobblers. (Does anyone still call them that, as they were commonly known in my youth? And do they still sing the amazing fight song I just found? Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hy. / Techs, Techs, V.P.I. / Sola-Rex, Sola-Rah. / Polytechs – Vir-gin-ia. /Rae, Ri, V.P.I.)
In Duke’s loss at Virginia Tech on Monday and in UNC’s home loss to Miami last night, the team that tried harder and played better won the game. That’s the main reason both Tobacco Road teams didn’t win. Of course, teams sometimes win without playing harder than the other team, because they have more talent — as Duke does against almost anyone they play, and as Carolina probably does compared to Miami. So we can look a little deeper, maybe. We can say that free throw shooting cost both teams. Trevon Duval missed the front end of a one-and-one with Duke leading by a point and twenty-five seconds remaining, setting up Virginia Tech’s winning basket. Carolina shot just 13-20 from the free throw line, including a confounding five misses in twelve tries by a pair of ninety-percent free throw shooters, Joel Berry II and Cameron Johnson. But free throws weren’t the only, or even the main, reason why Duke and UNC lost. By doing more substantial things poorly, both teams put themselves in the position of having to make them in order to have a chance to win.
To start with Duke, it’s hard to understand why Grayson Allen took a third of the Blue Devils’ shots on Monday night. Granted that Virginia Tech was trying to take the interior game away; granted that Allen has been shooting the ball well and scoring a lot lately. But when he takes more shots in a game than Wendell Carter, Jr. and Marvin Bagley III combined, something isn’t right. It’s tempting to say that Duke has always been and probably always will be a perimeter-heavy team under Mike Krzyzewski. Prioritizing three-pointers and guards driving to the basket is what the Blue Devils have always done well, and even this year it has often worked. But the downside of having a score-first player like Allen at the point — the stratagem to which Krzyzewski has resorted because of Duval’s inconsistencies — is that the offense can become one-dimensional and ultimately knotted up, with players not knowing how to react to his free-form improvisations.
Another issue: no matter what means an opponent is using to deny Bagley and Carter the ball, Duke has to find ways to get it to them anyway. It can be hard: the plays have to be drawn up; the two freshman have to fight for position; the guards have to make good entry passes. The only textbook entry pass and easy layup I recall seeing Monday night was from Allen to Marques Bolden midway through the second half. Why, I thought, can’t they do with this with their two big stars? I’m not sure that Carter himself isn’t the best passer on the team. He made a superb high-low post feed to Bagley for a dunk late in the first half. Maybe more high-low game is the answer.
After the game, none of that was on Krzyzewski’s mind. His team is tired, he said. It was Duke’s fourth game in ten days. They played two of them without Bagley. On Monday, they spent long stretches of the game looking listless and disengaged, surely a substantial part of the reason why they weren’t getting the ball to Bagley and Carter; it’s just harder to do. They built a healthy first-half lead and lost almost all of it. They rebuilt it in the second half and lost almost all of it again, but Virginia Tech didn’t actually go ahead until there were four seconds left to play; at the end, they wanted it a little more — and of course they needed it, a win over a top-five team probably guaranteeing them a spot in the NCAA Tournament. There was some bad officiating, but officiating isn’t why Duke lost. (Even Krzyzewski, famed for the way he badgers and disputes with referees, acknowledged that his fatigued players were just “irritable” and complaining about not getting calls.) The nation’s second-best offense didn’t score a basket over the game’s final seven minutes. They committed three turnovers in a crucial one-minute stretch in crunch time.
I’ve seen Krzyzewski really morose about losses and even about wins. Monday night was not one of those gloomy postgame interviews. His team needs rest, he said. That was his focus. He knows they’re good, and he knows why they’re good. The talent on the team is so great that they can score virtually by just showing up, and in the NCAA Tournament they will. But the reason they can win it is that Duke now has the fourteenth-best defense in the country, per Ken Pomeroy. That’s the highest point so far in a weeks-long improvement that began with the Blue Devils hovering around seventy-fifth. Their interior defense is particularly tough, and if you don’t love watching Wendell Carter down in the low block, there’s something wrong with you. I sometimes spend entire possessions just watching him and no one else. ESPN commentator Dan Dakich spent some time on Monday night deriding Bagley’s defense, but that seemed almost like his deliberate effort to find something to criticize about Bagley’s lottery-pick talent and otherwise prodigious amount of game. If Duke wins the championship, it will be with defense: not just by launching a 2-3 in a mostly man-to-man world, but also by manning it with big long athletic bodies, and lots of them: with Bolden and Javin DeLaurier in the mix, Duke can keep throwing fresh players into the system. At its best, it’s a hell of a stingy 2-3, and this team can be as fun to watch on defense lately as the 2010 national champions, which was often like watching five guys covered with stickum wrap themselves around opposing players.
Carolina, meanwhile, has become a pretty terrible defensive team. They’re bad on ball screens, they’re porous in the lane, they often don’t seem to know who’s supposed to be doing what or where. The zillion three-pointers they allow is the result, not the cause, of their defensive fecklessness. And I have to think that part of the reason the Tar Heels have a knack for getting burned from the perimeter by teams and players who otherwise aren’t consistent outside shooting threats is that Carolina’s reputation precedes them: teams know there’ll be open threes, and that loosens them up to take and make them. Ja’Quan Newton’s absurd game-winning heave last night was the kind of shot that goes in against you when your defense is regularly as bad as Carolina’s has been for most of the month. Lost in the general happiness of their season-saving six-game winning streak was that the Tar Heels were giving up more points than they should have been.
While the defense has slipped, the offense has improved tremendously — those trends are not mutually exclusive, of course. North Carolina now boasts the third-best offense in the country, right behind Duke’s, and for long stretches of games they can score baskets virtually at will, and quickly, especially since they now do it without throwing those meatloaf entry passes into the post that were once a staple of any Tar Heel team. The absence of the entry pass isn’t the same as Duke’s: North Carolina’s not ignoring big guys posting up; they just don’t really have any. Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley combined to play eleven minutes last night and score three points (although Brooks was uncommonly good on the glass, with six rebounds in seven minutes). The result is that UNC’s offense has become free-flowing and creative in ways that can be beautiful and fun to watch. But they’re quantitatively the team Duke was at the end of January: an elite offense with a lame defense: in short, the team Roy Williams has been known for, often unfairly, for most of his career.
A couple of weeks ago, The Ringer columnist Mark Titus wrote:
I love to make fun of talking heads for mentioning how important it is for teams to “make shots,” but I’ll be damned if that’s not the perfect description for this Carolina group. The Heels are one of the most “good when they make shots, bad when they don’t” college basketball teams in recent memory.
He’s right to point out that this team relies on sheer shooting, especially outside shooting, for its success. But even that’s no guarantee. Last night, UNC shot 54 percent from the field, including 13-27 from behind the three-point arc, and outrebounded Miami, and made more free throws — and still lost. That’s how bad the defense is. Oh, and there was missing those free throws…
Still, I’ll say about them something similar to what I said about the 2013 Durham Bulls, who hit well for most of the season and then dried up in August to the point that scoring more than two runs in a game seemed like a major effort for them. “Are the Bulls going to hit, even a little?” I wrote then. “If they do, they’ll probably win the championship.” They did hit a little, and won the championship. Of this UNC team, which was really pretty good defensively until February, it’s fitting to say: Are the Tar Heels going to defend, even a little? I would not then add that, if they do, they’ll win a second straight national championship. I suspect their lack of any real post players will undo them — it’s certainly a main reason why opposing offenses can just drive right into the lane against them without fear. But I will say this: if they can use the ACC Tournament as a sort of remedial defensive clinic (if they last long enough in the tournament to get enough reps in, that is), their offense is good enough to carry them back to the Final Four against the right draw in the NCAA Tournament.
If you’ll pardon me for looking ahead to the postseason, that’s for two reasons. One is that the Duke-UNC rematch this weekend is not all that crucial, especially not for Duke, which has a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament probably something like 75 percent secure — and which will almost certainly beat a Carolina team that doesn’t seem to be able to stop even the Miamis and Syracuses of the world from scoring. The Tar Heels could use the win, mainly in order to offset the home loss to the Hurricanes — on Senior Night, no less. (It certainly wasn’t Joel Berry’s fault: he scored 31 points on just 17 shots.) But having beaten Duke once this season, it’s not as if they haven’t shown how good they can be at their best. If they go into the NCAA Tournament with ten losses, which seems likely, they’ll be perhaps the most dangerous double digit-loss team in the field.
The other reason I’m looking ahead is that the Tobacconist will not be able to watch the game this Saturday night. I’m reading from my biography of Chrissie Hynde, accompanied by a live rock band who will play the Pretenders songs I’m reading about: a real School of Rock. If you’re reading this (I think there are about six of you — hi and thanks!), I have to think it’s because you’re not the type of person to miss the game. If come to think of it you are, please come on over to the Greensboro Project Space and check us out. We really deliver, both sense and sound, and we’re fun as hell. I promise not to notice if you’re furtively checking the score of the game on your phone. I know how Duke and UNC can, to borrow from one of Chrissie’s greatest songs, hijack your world at night.