This is going to be strange this weekend when college basketball goes on without us, a rare occurrence for Tobacco Road and hopefully not a harbinger.
Duke and Carolina were bounced from the NCAA Tournament last weekend, the Heels getting whipped by a football school, Auburn, and Duke falling to its long-time patsy Michigan State.
The results were shocking to almost everyone in the country, but here at home the two losses were particularly jarring. We’re getting ready to watch a Final Four without the two neighbors for the sixth time in nine seasons. To put that into perspective, either Duke or Carolina had been in the Final Four in all but six tournaments since the field was expanded to 64 teams for the 1985 season, 19 times over a 26-year period ending in 2010.
Since then, the schools have each won a national title yet neither has achieved the kind of postseason success to which they’d become accustomed. The question facing both Duke and Carolina now is a scary proposition. Is it over? Is the dominance of two school 8 miles apart, the most remarkable rivalry in all of college sports, coming to an end?
The signs are foreboding, but it’s not clear where the programs will be a year from now.
Duke is in the dying days of a dynasty of sorts, not the kind we once saw under Mike Krzyzewski but an odd dynasty of recruits. The one-and-done era for the Blue Devils might’ve reached its zenith this season, both in results and expectations.
The great recruiting haul of Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Tre Jones and Cam Reddish turned out to be nothing more than a recruiting haul, celebrated beyond reality and ending with a thud.
Carolina has had its own dynasty of late, one not of its own choosing but resulting from an ugly academic scandal that kept the recruits away and forced Roy Williams to build teams around upperclassmen.
Neither is a model that can be sustained over long periods, and we’re about to see just that. Duke will not bring in the nation’s top recruiting class next season. Carolina will return three seniors, only one of which, Seventh Woods, has ever started a game – and just one game.
So for the first time in a very long time, we’re looking out at an unknown future for both Duke and Carolina. With what each has coming back, you could make the argument that the most important returnees are the coaches themselves.
Krzyzewski and Williams are two of the best coaches in college basketball history. But they’re both facing a rebuild that will test their abilities and patience.
Duke will bring in a couple of nice recruits and build around Jack White, Javin DeLaurier, Marques Bolden and Alex O’Connell, all of whom are being recruited over even as we speak.
Carolina will build around Woods, Brandon Robinson, Garrison Brooks and Leaky Black, bringing in some much-needed size and, it hopes, combo guard Cole Anthony.
So while the names don’t jump off the page, it’s not as if the two programs are going to disappear. It’s just that we’re not looking at next season as a logical progression from this season for the first time in a long, long time.
There’s hope among the Duke hopeful that Jones will return, but no one really believes he will. There’s hope among the UNC hopeful that incoming center Armando Bacot will be the player the Heels needed this season, a back-to-the-basket big man who can force Williams to slow his offense and give it some half-court presence. But no one really believes Williams will slow his offense for anyone.
So here’s the great irony as we all watch the Final Four this week and wonder about next year:
If Anthony indeed goes to Carolina, will it be the beginning of a recruiting swing that will allow Williams to dive into the one-and-done era as it comes to an end? He likely has one more year to do it before the NBA goes back to high school.
And if the recruits coming to Duke this year aren’t one-and-done players, does this mean Krzyzewski will finally come to his senses and build his final teams around experience and intelligence, the way he used to recruit?
These are the end of days for both of the programs as we’ve come to know them, if for no other reason than the relative age of the coaches. Krzyzewski will turn 73 next year; Williams will be 69 when the 2019-20 season begins.
How the two will point their programs for the final years will likely be determined next season.
A year from now we might be looking at yet another Final Four without the two Tobacco Road powers. And that could begin to erode the brand in the eyes of recruits who haven’t grown up watching Duke and Carolina in the Final Four every single year, the way it once seemed.
An unexpected bell tolled this year, and its sound hangs in the air as we watch college basketball move on without us.
Is this indeed the beginning of the end?
Or will this be the beginning of the end game for Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams?