Still, a weekly poll of coaches or media members isn’t going to affect the NCAA tournament selections. Rankings are usually safe to ignore in the present. Where they have value is to gauge how an in-the-moment snapshot of opinion matches up to the past.
Enter Duke and North Carolina, famously separated by 11 miles and owners of nine national titles between them in the past 30 years. And this week, for the first time since December 1982, neither the Blue Devils nor the Tar Heels cracked the Associated Press’ weekly rankings.
Neither did Kentucky, and the last time all three blue bloods were absent from the rankings at the same time was 1961. But the Wildcats are 4-9, have lost to Alabama, Auburn and now Georgia in the same season for the first time since 1989-90 and have generally ceased being all that interesting. At least for now.
The same is not true of the Tobacco Road titans, since there is some reason to think both could figure things out in the coming weeks. Truth is, North Carolina (9-5, 4-3 ACC) hasn’t played poorly. It hasn’t lost at home and hung in admirably with Florida State last weekend, cutting a 10-point deficit to one in the late stages before the Seminoles closed an 82-75 victory at the foul line.
It might not be an elite Tar Heel bunch, but it’s vastly better than its 14-19 predecessor. It’s built on capable post play, much like Roy Williams’s teams usually are. North Carolina usually has two or three bigs who can dominate a game, and Armando Bacot, Garrison Brooks and Day’Ron Sharpe have demonstrated that ability, just not a nightly basis.
The backcourt is freshman-laden, with RJ Davis, Caleb Love and Kerwin Walton logging significant minutes. All are capable. All are young. Mistakes come with the territory, and it means the Tar Heels were bound to be a bit up-and-down no matter what — even if do-everything 6-foot-8 junior Leaky Black has emerged as a steadier stat-stuffer than earlier in his career.
While the youthful Tar Heels are bound to be a bit erratic, that could eventually mean a surprise victory or two down the road. Given the state of Carolina’s postseason résumé entering Saturday’s visit from North Carolina State (its best victory is probably against Stanford), it has plenty to do with the ACC schedule approaching its midpoint.
But probably not as much as Duke (5-4, 3-2), which visits Louisville on Saturday in danger of dropping a third game in a row. The Blue Devils’ season, like so many others, is one of stops and starts. It lost at home to Michigan State and Illinois last month, canceled a few nonconference games in the hopes of getting a break for its players and then had two ACC games postponed because of virus protocols.
By the time Jan. 6 rolled around, it had played once in four weeks, and its best freshman (forward Jalen Johnson) went more than a month between games because of a foot injury. Little wonder the Blue Devils look like they have little continuity, especially on the defensive end. They don’t.
Johnson had an absurd outing Tuesday at Pittsburgh, amassing 24 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists and four blocks, and he could have a similar impact the rest of the season. He’ll certainly help solidify the frontcourt with sophomore Matthew Hurt. Like North Carolina, a young backcourt (freshmen Jeremy Roach and DJ Steward and sophomore Wendell Moore Jr. are leaned on heavily) has its good days and its shaky ones.
But if the Tar Heels’ postseason résumé is flimsy, Duke’s is tissue thin. The three ACC teams the Blue Devils have defeated are a combined 2-17 in league play. In an already abbreviated year, it needs to get to work yesterday.
And if neither does? There could be plenty of dust blown off history books come March. Duke has played in every NCAA tournament since 1996. The last time Duke and North Carolina both missed the tournament was 1974, when only eventual national champ N.C. State made it from the ACC.
Toss in N.C. State (6-4, 2-3) seemingly headed for its typically anxious Selection Sunday and Wake Forest (3-6, 0-6) in the midst of a rebuild, it could be the first time since 1973 and only the fourth time in ACC history that none of the league’s North Carolina schools advance to the NCAA tournament. You don’t need a poll to know that would rank among the most memorable developments of this unusual season.
Flipping formats (a little)
The latest logistical development for this year’s NCAA tournament trickled out this week. The First Four, usually played on Tuesday and Wednesday after Selection Sunday, is pushed back to Thursday (March 18). The first and second rounds will be played a day later than usual, followed by a four-day gap. The regional semifinals start on a Saturday (March 27), two days later than usual.
The Final Four and title game remain in the traditional Saturday/Monday slot in early April.
All of this is a case of making lemonade out of lemons, so the one-year tweaks in and of themselves are probably about as good as the NCAA can hope to do. But as CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander pointed out, there is a case to be made against having conference tournaments in the hopes of doing everything possible to prevent a high-end team from dealing with a virus pause at the worst possible time.
Here’s an alternate idea: Push the tournament’s start back another week, then play it out either with the spacing of games laid out above or a condensed version that almost certainly would not play well with the NCAA’s television partners.
That probably won’t happen, because doing everything possible to collect broadcast rights money is an understandable emphasis after last year’s tournament was canceled. But crowning a legitimate champion and doing everything possible to ensure a single-elimination tournament refers to one loss rather than one positive test should be a priority, too.
Six to watch this weekend
No. 23 Connecticut at No. 11 Creighton (Saturday, noon, Fox): Is anyone in the Big East going to make a run at Villanova for the regular season title? A week ago, these two were the best candidates. Connecticut (7-2, 4-2) is fresh off a loss to St. John’s, while the Bluejays (10-4, 6-3) have dropped back-to-back games to Butler and Providence. With Huskies star James Bouknight (elbow) out indefinitely, this is a bounce-back opportunity for Creighton.
No. 2 Baylor at Oklahoma State (Saturday, 2 p.m., CBS): Baylor took down Texas Tech and Kansas in a three-day span — and both by eight-point margins — to remain undefeated. The Bears (13-0, 6-0 Big 12) don’t need any help, but Oklahoma State (9-3, 3-3) will play for the first time in 11 days after a covid pause.
Army at Navy (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network): It’s the first of four meetings this season between the service academy rivals, who played nonconference schedules while the rest of the Patriot League did not. It’s probably helped both; the visiting Black Knights (8-3) have won four of five, and senior guard Cam Davis and Navy (9-1) have rattled off eight wins in a row, the program’s longest streak since 1999-2000.
No. 15 Ohio State at No. 10 Wisconsin (Saturday, 4 p.m., CBS): It feels like there’s a losing streak lurking around every corner for much of the Big Ten. Wisconsin (12-3, 6-2) has avoided them so far, but Ohio State (11-4, 5-4) is coming off a two-point loss at home and has games against Michigan State and Iowa looming after this trip to Madison.
No. 19 Missouri at No. 6 Tennessee (Saturday, 8:30 p.m., SEC Network): Missouri’s first game against Tennessee didn’t go so well — a 20-point loss at home. The Tigers (9-2, 3-2 SEC) are catching the Volunteers (10-2, 4-2) at an even worse time now. Tennessee is fresh off a 75-49 loss to shorthanded Florida and could be primed for a bounce-back effort.
Oregon State at No. 21 Oregon (Saturday, 10:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network): It’s the first game in two weeks for the host Ducks (9-2, 4-1), the Pac-12 favorites who have dealt with covid issues this month. Oregon State (7-5, 3-3), which upset Southern California on Tuesday, will play only its second road game of the season.
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