Duke, UNC basketball navigate a new landscape, one year after epic Final Four meeting
Every epic game comes with a defining moment — if not more than one — and for the North Carolina-Duke NCAA Tournament national semifinal of a year ago, that moment remains clear enough. It will endure, even if almost nothing else about the photographs capturing it lasted all that much past the instant Caleb Love rose and released and made The Shot.
Look back at it now, a year later. There’s Love, hanging in midair, frozen in time, feet perfectly aligned, his right hand angling downward, the sign of a textbook follow-through, the ball in mid-flight, stopped so that its Wilson logo is clear. There’s 26 seconds remaining and the Tar Heels are leading by a precarious point, but soon enough it’ll be a four-point lead. And soon enough the UNC supporters in the New Orleans Superdome will unleash a delirious roar. And not long after that, Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching career will be over.
All of that, though, comes later, either in milliseconds or minutes. Now there’s the moment.
Love rising to take the shot. Duke’s Mark Williams rising in response to defend it, the tips of the fingers on his left hand inches beneath the ball. Duke’s Trevor Keels is there, to the right, in pursuit of Love. But it’s too late. Paolo Banchero, months away from becoming the No. 1 selection in the 2022 NBA Draft, is in the background, looking up, watching. There’s nothing he can do. Beyond him there’s Brady Manek, on a sensational March tear for the Tar Heels, cutting toward the basket, Duke’s Wendell Moore trying to slow him down. There’s anticipation, everywhere.
And, an instant later, a sense of finality. Love’s 3-pointer didn’t come at the very end of UNC’s Final Four victory against Duke a year ago and it didn’t even give the Tar Heels the lead, for they’d already had it. Still, it’s the moment everyone will remember. Now. Five years from now. Fifty years from now. It’s the signature play of the only Duke-UNC game ever in the NCAA Tournament and, a year later, it’s also a testament to the transience of modern-day college basketball.
The proof is in the photo.
A year later, nobody in it remains a part of either team. Banchero, Keels, Moore and Williams all left school early, announcing their decisions not long after that game. Manek’s eligibility expired. Love became the only one to return for another season with his team but now he, too, is leaving, and is one of six UNC players who’ve entered the transfer portal.
A year ago, North Carolina and Duke shared the grandest and brightest stage in The Biggest Game Ever in The Greatest Rivalry in College Basketball (if not American sports at large). Their Final Four meeting represented the climax of a decades-long epic saga, each chapter leading to New Orleans in 2022.
A year later, almost nothing is as it was. After becoming the first team in more than 40 years to begin a season ranked No. 1 only to end it by missing the NCAA Tournament, North Carolina has learned that it’s not impervious to the larger trends affecting the sport; that despite its history and tradition it, too, is not immune to becoming a revolving door of transfers. And Duke — long the program everyone loved to hate; a program defined and shaped by one man, for decades — is forming a new identity under Jon Scheyer.
UNC, from precipice to precarious
A year ago, UNC played its way to the precipice. It vanquished Krzyzewski not once but twice — first in his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium and then in the Final Four, where UNC’s 81-77 victory provided Coach K with an ignominious finish to a brilliant career. Then the Tar Heels led Kansas by 15 at halftime of the national championship game, before the Jayhawks rallied.
No matter. UNC’s unlikely run through March of 2022 atoned for months of inconsistency; most important, it reinforced the school’s decision to hire Hubert Davis as Roy Williams’ successor. In the immediate aftermath of Davis’ first season, the future seemed bright. Or so was the thought. A year later, the Tar Heels are awash in turmoil. Their supporters, spoiled by generations of success, are awash in angst.
The six outgoing transfers, whose announcements to leave came in quick succession, gave the impression of passengers jumping overboard from a ship in distress. Love, by far, is the most significant departure; the other five who are leaving — Puff Johnson, Justin McCoy, Tyler Nickel, Dontrez Styles and Will Shaver — mostly played spot minutes (with the exception of Johnson) or no minutes at all.
Transfers have become ubiquitous, and throughout college basketball. Name, image and likeness rules — or, lack thereof, concerning NIL deals — and the NCAA’s decision years ago to do away with the requirement that athletes sit out a year after transferring has essentially combined to create unregulated free agency. For so long, though, UNC operated in a higher plane; it simply wasn’t often affected by the fickle whims that often dictate success or failure in college sports.
Those days are gone, though, and unlikely to return. During a recent interview with the school’s official athletics website, goheels.com, Davis attempted to soothe the anxiety and dread that has become contagious among a vocal segment of UNC supporters. He acknowledged that things are different now, that “you basically have to recruit your own team at the end of the season.”
Yet he offered reassurance: “At the end of the day, Carolina will look like Carolina.”
It’s fair to wonder what that means, though, in a time in which the Carolina of old, of three- and four-year players growing together as a team, committed as one to an ideal of a program, has never seemed more outdated and anachronistic. There was a time when Michael Jordan, who has a strong argument for being the greatest player to ever walk the Earth, stayed in school for three years. Plenty of other All-Americans stayed for three or four, too.
Even UNC’s two most recent national championship teams, in 2009 and 2017, were full of upperclassmen. It’s a model that has all but gone extinct. The Tar Heels are proof, too, that there’s no guarantees even when a successful team returns mostly intact. Among its regular contributors, UNC only lost Manek from the 2022 Final Four team. Yet, this past season, the four returning starters didn’t mesh. Cohesion was a problem from the beginning.
The highest of highs for this group, it turned out, was that night in New Orleans when Love curled around a screen near the top of the key and jumped, and released a shot just over the reach of Mark Williams. There was a raucous celebration, a victory that came with the ultimate bragging rights and there were great hopes, too, about what the future portended. And now, a year later, where the Tar Heels go from here is anyone’s guess.
Is Duke’s Evil Empire identity changing?
A year ago, one of the greatest coaches, and characters, in college basketball history reached the end. To a legion of Duke fans, Krzyzewski became a hero, the embodiment of a leader. To an even greater number of Duke haters, Krzyzewski became the paragon of a bad guy.
His record, at least, is indisputable, even if the perceptions surrounding him aren’t. Krzyzewski during his 42 seasons at Duke built one of the most distinguished college basketball programs in history, if not the most enduringly excellent. He won five national championships. Reached 13 Final Fours. He won the ACC tournament 15 times, and finished with more victories, 1,202, than any coach in the history of his sport.
As much as Krzyzewski and Duke represented sustained greatness, though, the man and the program he built came to represent something else, at least to those who grew to love watching Duke lose. To them, Krzyzewski became the archetype of a villain, a foul-mouthed, Vader-like enemy who might as well have entered arenas to the sound of The Imperial March. Duke basketball, meanwhile, became like the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys — a team with nationwide support, but also one a far larger number of people reveled in rooting against.
A year later, what is Duke’s identity, in a post-K world?
“It’s actually interesting,” Chris Carrawell, the former Duke player and current assistant coach, said recently, while noting that Duke’s road game receptions this season, the first without Krzyewski in 43 years, have been “not quite as hostile.”
Carrawell over the past 30 years or so has lived on all sides of the Duke-hating spectrum. Growing up in St. Louis, he said, “I hated Duke. Because of (Christian) Laettner and (Bobby) Hurley. I’ve been telling it for years — I was not a big Duke fan. And you grow up where I grew up, in inner-city St. Louis, you’re loving the Fab Five.
“I was a big UNLV guy, Syracuse.”
When Krzyzewski began recruiting him in the mid-1990s, Carrawell put aside his childhood allegiances. He can remember thinking to himself: “Don’t be stupid now” and pass up a chance to play for Krzyzewski just because he, like a lot of people, grew to disdain the Duke of the early ‘90s.
In time, Carrawell came to receive Duke-related animosity as a player there. And then, when he returned as an assistant coach in 2018, he had a front row seat for the icy receptions Krzyewski regularly received on the road.
The day before Duke’s game against Tennessee in Orlando in the second round of the NCAA Tournament — a game that turned out to be the Blue Devils’ last of the season, after an 65-52 defeat — Carrawell played the role of an expert, of a scholar in Duke Hate, and pondered the thought: Is it more difficult to dislike Duke now that Krzyzewski has retired? And in a post-K world — though, certainly, he’s still around — what has become of Duke’s Evil Empire identity?
“You’ve got the legendary coach,” in Krzyzewski, Carrawell said, “who’s been around, who’s won so much, and now you bring in Scheyer. And he’s kind of ... likable, right? Kind of laid-back.
“Still has the passion, but gives it to you in a different way. So it’s like, ehhh,” and Carrawell drew out the expression there, “he was probably hated more as a player.
“He got it a lot as a player. As a coach it’s like, eh, maybe he’s not so bad.”
Scheyer, more so than Davis at UNC, has expressed a willingness, if not an explicit need, to deviate from the past and tradition. For one, Scheyer hired a general manager, Rachel Baker, who joined the Blue Devils after spending parts of eight years working at Nike and, before that, with the NBA. Scheyer also went outside Krzyzewski’s coaching tree and hired Jai Lucas as an assistant.
Those are two of the most obvious changes. Another, as Carrawell alluded to, is that in some circles the Duke disdain has dimmed. The emperor of the so-called evil empire is no more; the Duke hatred is “still there,” Carrawell said, “but not to the level” as it might’ve been a year ago.
The Rivalry remains
Well, perhaps everywhere except for Chapel Hill, at least. Less than a year after the Duke-UNC rivalry reached its peak, the two games this past season offered proof that the rivalry, in fact, is not over, despite those delirious in-the-moment proclamations UNC fans might’ve made early last April. The two games this year came with the usual intensity and drama.
And noise, too.
Duke won both, the latest evidence of the ebb-and-flow nature of the series, and the game in Durham, in February, sounded louder than any at Cameron Indoor Stadium in a long time. It was almost as if Duke’s supporters desperately wanted a victory against Carolina after what they’d experienced twice in the span of six weeks the previous March and April.
And what of UNC supporters? Had the rivalry changed, since sending Coach K on his way?
Not so much, said Andy Bagwell, the co-author of two books, “Duke Sucks” and “Duke Still Sucks,” that both go great lengths to detail all the reasons why any UNC fan (or any non-Duke fan) should dislike the Blue Devils.
“Duke has been Duke since the 1930s,” Bagwell, a 1992 UNC graduate, said during a recent interview, noting that “Coach K retired, but Duke didn’t retire being a very expensive private school that likens itself to an Ivy League school.”
Even so, Bagwell offered a confession that an element of the rivalry had changed.
“It pains me to say this,” he said, “but it seems like Scheyer is a likable guy.”
“Don’t misconstrue me,” Bagwell said with a laugh a moment later, reiterating how, in his words, it seems like Scheyer is likable. The first of Bagwell’s books, written along with Reed Tucker, was published in 2012. They decided to write a sequel, released earlier this year, after following Krzyzewski’s final season, which his detractors often described as a farewell tour.
“The genuflecting that went on in every game was as sickening as every Carolina fan thought it would be,” Bagwell said. “I felt like it was the Gods telling us we should write this book.”
The next battle
In a real way, though, Krzyzewski’s plan appears to have worked. Farewell tour or not, his final season allowed Scheyer on-the-job training, and with the decision made and publicly known that Scheyer was to take over whenever Krzyzewski’s final season ended. Scheyer spent that season studying Krzyzewski, as he had throughout his tenure as an assistant, but also evaluating the changes he needed and wanted to make.
By the end of his first season as head coach, he had Duke playing as well as just about any team in the country. The Blue Devils won the ACC tournament, dominated Oral Roberts in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and had Bagwell — along with a great many other UNC fans, undoubtedly — “scared to death about what is going to happen.” Then, just like that, Duke ran into a far more experienced and physical Tennessee team, and the Blue Devils’ season was over.
A year later, Duke and UNC will spend late March and early April at home. The Final Four, in Houston, goes on without them, and with an uncharacteristic trio of newcomers to the stage in Florida Atlantic, Miami and San Diego State. Connecticut, meanwhile, is seeking its fifth national championship in the past 25 years.
Back in North Carolina, meanwhile, both Duke and UNC are still charting their courses after what they shared a year ago this weekend. It was a game and a moment that, somehow, met the hype. The rivalry is still as intense as ever. The passion remains the same, if the characters are different.
Yet a new reality has emerged, too, that suggests UNC and Duke’s most important battles are no longer necessarily against each other, but against the forces changing college basketball. In the long run, it’s a competition to become the program that most effectively adapts and reinvents itself.