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Thoughts On Duke And NC State After The Blue Devils Exit The 2024 NCAA Tournament

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament South Regional-Duke vs NC State
Mar 31, 2024; Dallas, TX, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack forward Ben Middlebrooks (34) celebrates with the trophy after defeating the Duke Blue Devils in the finals of the South Regional of the 2024 NCAA Tournament at American Airline Center. | Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

What a long, strange trip it’s been

It’s always jarring when the season ends because, unless you’re having a great year like Duke has had five times in the past, other teams are going to still be playing. The rest of it becomes immediately and naturally less interesting because your team is out.

We would have loved for Duke to have beaten NC State and moved on, but if it wasn’t clear before it is now: State is having a special season and God bless them and especially their long-suffering fans. We’ll be pulling for them the rest of the way and we hope that you will too.

As for Duke, while losing is no fun, let’s keep some perspective.

There was a graphic on Twitter that showed the Elite Eight and the starting lineups and how many came from other schools as transfers.

Only Duke started five players who weren’t transfers. And when they flashed a graphic tonight, while we didn’t write it down, State started four seniors - we think - and a junior (all transfers).

Duke by contrast had one grad student (Ryan Young), one senior (Jeremy Roach) and one junior (Jaylen Blakes).

Everyone else is either a sophomore or a freshman.

One of Jon Scheyer’s early statements about how he’d like to change things was to note that he’d like to have an older team.

It was smart in general, but especially now. UNC started Ryan Cormac, who is 25 and Armando Bacot, who is 24.

Last year Scheyer was essentially starting over with just Roach and Blakes back from Mike Krzyzewski’s final team. He brought in Young, Jacob Grandison from Illinois, Kale Catchings from Harvard and Max Johns from Princeton.

Only Young and Grandson really played and all four were graduate students.

Why bring in players who didn’t play?

Because they were mature. They could help in practice, help guys learn not just drills but habits and expectations. It was a smart thing to do.

The team is young and so is the coach. We’ve said for a while now that the transition from Coach K to Coach Scheyer wasn't something that happened when Scheyer got the office keys. It was going to take a while. Then said the other day that it was now over. This is Jon Scheyer’s team and program. He has brought a jolt of energy to his post and a lot of new ideas. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect from a new, young coach (we’re seeing a slightly older version of this at Louisville now as Pat Kercey has quickly lit a fire under that program).

The one thing he can’t change quickly though is the one thing that he also can’t change about his team: he’s quite young.

Energy and fresh ideas are key, but as Duke learned from and with a young Coach K back in the early ‘80s, you have to learn some lessons. They might even be painful lessons and the only way to learn them is by failure. That was always one of the most striking things about Krzyzewski was that, if he didn’t exactly welcome failure, he acknowledged it, learned from it, applied the lessons and moved on.

Scheyer is clearly a promising young coach. We’d go so far as to describe him as brilliant. We detailed his accomplishments the other day so no need to go through them all again. But just a couple of highlights: his ACC record is now 29-11 (.725). His overall career record is 54-18 (.750). He won the ACC Tournament in his first season and got Duke to the Elite Eight in his second. He’s done this while nearly completely overhauling the roster and in the face of significant injuries and, as noted above, almost entirely with freshmen and sophomores.

There are going to be idiots on social media who mock him and Duke. Yes, they’re idiots. This program is doing very well and next season, when he welcomes in his third straight superb recruiting class, they’ll be in position to do even more.

Don’t take that to mean that Duke has any kind of a guarantee to the Final Four. There are too many variables to guarantee that. But it does mean that the team will probably be more talented and that it has the potential to be vastly better defensively with Cooper Flagg, Khaman Malauch and Sean Stewart patrolling around the basket.

And while it’s very difficult to know who will be back, given the transfer portal and everything else, it’ll also likely be older.

And so will its coach.

Scheyer is still just 36. He will learn from his experiences, because he’s not arrogant and certainly not stupid. He’ll continue to grow, and so will his program.

*****

State is on quite a ride and that team is playing lights out. They’ve become a magnificent squad.

The next question, obviously, is can they beat Purdue?

Well, it won’t be easy but yes, we think they can.

During the Purdue-Tennessee game, we were watching Zach Edey closely. He had a tremendous game, finishing with 40 points and 16 rebounds and at one point 14 straight points. Dan Dakich called it the most dominant performance he had ever seen by a big man. He played so we defer to him to an extent, but we saw Shaquille O’Neal shut down the Tucson Skyline - Brian Williams and two other 6-10 players - by himself. We also saw Patrick Ewing destroy Oregon State in the first five minutes of an NCAA game so thoroughly that - sadly - they gave up. That game was over in five minutes: the rest was a formality.

But we take his point. Edey was tremendous, not least of all because he played all but 33 seconds against Illinois. The guy has put himself into tremendous shape and rebounding alone should give him a future in the game.

But we saw other things too.

Unlike UConn’s Donovan Clingan, he didn’t really intimidate shooters. Clingan intimidated the hell out of Illinois. We heard somewhere that he went after 19 shots and the Illini missed all 19.

Even Zakai Zeigler, all 5-9 of him, wasn’t scared to go into the lane against Edey and for the most part, Edey didn’t really challenge that many shots.

He did have that one late block, which was critical, but that was it.

The matchup with DJ Burns is going to be fascinating. Edey will have a clear advantage because Burns is not going to play 39 minutes. Not against Purdue and not ever. He’s not capable of that.

What he is capable of though is spinning around Edey and getting space. And he’s shown that he knows what to do with space.

Did you see the movie Ant Man, or whatever it was called? That’s what Edey reminds us of to an extent.

He’s impossible to deal with from his strengths, but his reaction time is always just a little late, at least on defense. He’s maximized his skills, and he’s very powerful, but he’s never going to be quick, no matter how hard he works.

Remember when Duke played Johnny Dawkins’ UCF and no one was willing to go inside against 7-6 Tacko Fall? Not even Zion Williamson?

People are not scared of Edey in that manner because he can't react quickly enough to block those shots consistently.

Go back and watch last year’s stunning loss to Farleigh Dickinson, the smallest team in the tournament. Those little guys gave Edey fits. He simply can't react fast enough when he’s faced with quick hands.

State will need to stay out of foul trouble, especially the big guys, but so will Edey when Burns spins and twirls around him.

Purdue is going to be favored and that’s nothing new. State has only been favored once - over Oakland - since the first game of the ACC Tournament v Louisville.

But they’ve shown immense heart and courage and anyone who writes them off after what they’ve done so far is a fool.

*****

No matter what happens in that side of the bracket, UConn is on the other and that’s a very different problem. Last year, after Coach K retired, Kansas’s Bill Self was seen as the best coach in the country. Today it’d almost certainly have to be Hurley. How could it not be? He lost key pieces of last year’s championship team and this team is better. And it’s not like he’s stocked with 5-Star players at every position.

That said, the parallels to 1983 keep growing. State beat conference rival Virginia in the Elite Eight.

And in the finals, Houston was waiting with an unbelievable talent at center, a young Hakeem Olajuwon. That team absolutely devastated Louisville in the semis, putting on a dunking exhibition so shocking that the Louisville players were said to have looked at replays during the game.

So while a lot would have to go right, we think that State could do it. And if they somehow pull that off, it’ll take its place beside Jim Valvano’s 1983 miracle run as one of the greatest accomplishments in State’s basketball history.

Actually, it already is. Like most people in the Triangle, we know a lot of State fans and they’re all damn good people who have been frustrated for decades now. Duke and UNC have won national titles and get to the Final Four on the regular while State has struggled.

While we wish you had done this at someone else’s expense, we are really, sincerely happy for all of you guys. Enjoy every minute and we hope you pull this off.

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