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Luke DeCock

Luke DeCock: Duke ascendant, UNC pulls the plug as the mighty pendulum of rivalry swings the other way

The temptation to compare Hubert Davis and Jon Scheyer is strong, and for good reason. Coaches at Duke and North Carolina are always linked, through history and circumstance, but these two especially. Both were stars at their alma maters, where they took over for legendary, Hall of Fame coaches who became synonymous with their programs and were in a position to influence the selection of their successor, one right after the other.

That impulse is natural, but misguided.

From a distance they may blur together, but up close their situations are very different, and it has nothing to do with the coach or the school, and everything to do with the players.

Davis inherited essentially the same roster that Roy Williams decided he could no longer reach, the one that lost the first first-round NCAA Tournament game in Williams’ entire career. He tweaked the style and added transfers — Brady Manek, Pete Nance — but the core remained the same, and history will show, as flawed as it was talented.

That group conjured up seven incredible weeks of high-level basketball last March and April, came within a shot of a national title and was never able to capture that lightning in a bottle again. There were never any questions about North Carolina’s ability, but Armando Bacot, R.J. Davis and Caleb Love never seemed to mesh over the course of three seasons, with one obvious, magical and increasingly outlying exception.

Davis talked about the “noise” around that team, the parents and trainers and advisers, but whatever went wrong at North Carolina, it was bad enough to drive Williams into retirement and Davis to turn down “live action” and walk away from the NIT in search of a fresh start. Correlation is not causation: A mid-February loss to Pittsburgh does not guarantee a trip to the Final Four. They’ll always have New Orleans.

This Duke team has followed a similar path on the court — gaining traction in February and finding its footing in March — but in a completely different set of circumstances. Other than Jeremy Roach, this is essentially Scheyer’s team, not Mike Krzyzewski’s. He didn’t inherit anything, for better or worse. He built this himself, over the course of his year-long head-coaching internship. The two losses against the Tar Heels last spring may never leave Duke fans’ minds, but for these players it was just something they saw on TV, with as much impact on their lives as “Game of Thrones” or “Better Call Saul.”

If Duke is able to replicate what North Carolina did last year, it’ll be because of the growth of the freshmen, Kyle Filipowski and Mark Mitchell at the start, Tyrese Proctor in the middle of it, Dereck Lively and Dariq Whitehead at the finish. Whatever chemistry problems might have existed seemed to evaporate in the wake of a players-only meeting after the loss at Miami. Duke’s only loss since is the mess at Virginia, a game they probably would have won if the end had been officiated correctly.

But all of this is yet another lesson that momentum in this rivalry can be short-lived, and swing back and forth with devastating force and the regularity of a Robertson Scholars bus. Last April, North Carolina was ascendant, having ruined Krzyzewski’s home finale and sending him into retirement, returning all but Manek from a team that nearly won a title, the consensus No. 1 team in the country heading into this season. As Duke entered a transition of its own, it was fair to wonder whether the Blue Devils could keep up.

And here Duke is, a dangerous No. 5 seed paired with a No. 4 seed that lost its point guard, if it can get past Max Abmas and Oral Roberts. As the Blue Devils continue to improve, they have a path to the Sweet 16 and perhaps beyond, not a team that anyone wants to face after watching Duke avenge the Miami and Virginia losses in Greensboro.

North Carolina, meanwhile, chose to pull the plug on its season rather than chase a consolation title with this group, or even make a clean break and play in the NIT with the bench players Davis chose not to play most of the season. Davis’ best recruits are still a year away, and next year looks like a challenge whether Bacot and Davis and Love come back or not.

It recalls 2009 and 2010, when North Carolina won a national title, won the battle for Harrison Barnes and watched Duke get smoked by Villanova in the Sweet 16. There were whispers that Krzyzewski’s time with USA Basketball had dulled his edge at Duke, and the Blue Devils were having difficulty recruiting elite players.

By that spring, Duke had won a title of its own with a veteran, battle-tested team, secured the services of elite recruit Kyrie Irving, and while North Carolina was in the NIT after the stars of the 2009 team departed. North Carolina had a shot in 2012; Duke won a title in 2015; North Carolina came close in 2016 and did the deed in 2017; and both teams were No. 1 seeds in 2019 but couldn’t get it done.

Throw in a pandemic and the end of two coaching dynasties, and here we are again.

Duke may not be able to match what North Carolina did last spring. But the Blue Devils certainly have a chance, and either way, the mighty pendulum of the rivalry feels like it’s swinging back the other way, although it never seems to stay in one place for long.

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