Can a trip to Duke derail North Carolina’s high ambitions for the season after a dismal start?

A crucial period in North Carolina’s eventual journey to the national championship game occurred over this very same weekend a year ago. The Tar Heels, who were already having a bad season, lost to Duke by 20 points at home, whittling away whatever chance they might have had to qualify for the NCAA tournament.

However, what transpired in the ensuing weeks was extraordinary. Everything changed as one victory turned into two and then three, culminating in a run that saw the Tar Heels defeat Duke in the final game of the regular season. READ-AUSTIN RIVERS AND MO BAMBA ARE AT THE CENTER OF A FIGHT BETWEEN THE MAGIC AND TIMBERWOLVES THAT LEADS TO FIVE EJECTIONS.

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In his first year as Roy Williams’ replacement, Hubert Davis sensed the discomfort of North Carolina’s fan base. Then, all of a sudden, he understood how to teach. The guards for the Tar Heels, who had shot inconclusively all season, began making every shot. Their 6-foot-11 center, Armando Bacot, was also overpowering everyone in the paint with his vigor and strength.

The Tar Heels then transformed into a fantastic basketball team for three weeks in March, lasting right up until the last seconds of a 72-69 loss to Kansas. But now, as a team that mostly made it back intact prepares for its first matchup with Duke this year, we are back here wondering if North Carolina’s three isolated weeks of greatness were all it had to offer. READWHEN KYRIE IRVING ASKED TO BE TRADED FROM THE BROOKLYN NETS, THERE WERE SIX POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS.

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The Tar Heels return to the Final Four after being ranked No. 1 in the preseason is once again in jeopardy of failing. The harsh reality is that North Carolina is a middle-of-the-pack team in a middle-of-the-pack conference and has lost to the majority of the top teams it has faced, while not being as improbable to miss the tournament as they were at this time last year.

What did the Tar Heels accomplish this year that was the best? It might be a 16-point victory over the 21-2 College of Charleston on November 11. Or maybe it was the two-point defeat to Alabama that required four extra periods to determine. But something is seriously wrong when a team this vaunted and seasoned has so little to show for it by the first week of February.

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Following another disappointing outcome Wednesday in a one-point loss at home to Pittsburgh, Davis said, “The No. 1 thing in regards to our team throughout the whole year is the discipline and the details and it’s tightening the screws on the little things that allow you to be successful on the floor, staying on script, doing the things we practiced and the things we drill.”

North Carolina is a prime example of why we enjoy the NCAA tournament so much and why it is a consistently poor indicator of success the following year, not that we should need the lesson by this point.

Should North Carolina have been ranked first to begin this season? The case for it was straightforward: The Tar Heels had more incumbency, elite experience, and roster continuity than any other team in the nation thanks to the return of four starters from a national runner-up team and the acquisition of highly regarded transfer Pete Nance from Northwestern.

There was reason to be skeptical, though, because North Carolina was a forgettable team for the majority of the season before becoming hot at the appropriate time in the tournament when they drew a No. 1 seeded Baylor team that was weakened by injury and then the spectacular St. Peter’s. It wasn’t impossible for those same players to revert to their previous selves.

And it appears that’s exactly what has occurred.

Guard Caleb Love is shooting 38.5% overall and 28.6% from three, which is more in line with his career averages. Love was a tremendously clutch shot-maker throughout the tournament run. Although he has been slightly more effective (43.6% overall, 36.1% from three), guard R.J. Davis can be fairly ineffective on many nights. Combining that with the fact that Bacot and starting wing Leaky Black aren’t at all perimeter threats results in a squad with a kind of gummed-up offense that relies on its guards to perform at their peak to compete at the highest level.

We are aware of Love and Davis’ ability to accomplish it briefly. We’ve seen it previously, so maybe we will this March as well. The Tar Heels’ current 15-7 record is simply a reflection of who they are and likely always have been outside of those three fantastical weeks, and it has proven to be incredibly unsustainable. READ‘IT’S SPECIAL,’ SAID PATRICK MAHOMES AND JALEN HURTS OF SUPER BOWL 57 FOR BLACK QUARTERBACKS.

Playing Duke might serve as the catalyst if North Carolina is ever to revert to that state, even for a brief period. Defeating Mike Krzyzewski in his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium and then in the final game of his career in the Final Four made North Carolina’s run legendary. North Carolina’s run would have been impressive on its own.

As opposed to the rest of America, it will be intriguing to watch if this Duke in Jon Scheyer’s first season inspires the same level of emotional passion in the Tar Heels.

Duke is doing well; they are 16-6, and their brilliant young players are beginning to understand some things. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them in Sweet 16 or Elite Eight when March rolls around. But is the rivalry still the same without Krzyzewski present on the sidelines? It was simple to feel strongly about Coach K for a variety of reasons, but primarily due to how frequently he triumphed and the occasionally patronizing manner in which he conducted himself.

The 35-year-old Scheyer doesn’t appear to have experience and doesn’t present that way. He’s still at the point where he wouldn’t be recognized very often, if at all if he entered a busy airport without his Duke gear. Duke is still there, but after a year, everything is radically different.

For better or worse, North Carolina is very similar. The Tar Heels had better get rolling soon if they want to live up to the huge expectations set for them last year.

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