Tobacco Road’s wild week alters expectations

Pivotal week shuffles fortunes of Triangle ACC teams

Brandon Robinson and the Tar Heels stepped over both NC State and Duke in the Tobacco Road pecking order after beating both in a span of less than 48 hours. (Rob Kinnan / USA TODAY Sports)

So, what have we learned?

Last week was a pivotal week for the three Triangle teams. North Carolina was reeling, barely clinging to a spot in the Top 25 and facing a brutal portion of the schedule. Duke was the undisputed best of the three teams, and NC State had played itself onto the NCAA bubble.

Five games over six days changed all of that.

Or did it?

The UNC-Duke game is a sweeps month event, with two of the top programs in basketball history clashing in the best rivalry in sports. What it isn’t, however, is a season-defining game. Over the last seven years, the winner of the first Duke-Carolina game has gone 29-7 afterward, leading up to the season-ending rematch between the two teams. That’s an .805 winning percentage.

The loser of that game has gone 30-4, .882. Only once in that seven-year span has the winner had a better post-game record than the loser over the next month.

So, there’s still plenty of season left for all three area teams. Still, all three teams exit last week’s gauntlet with very different trajectories than they entered.

North Carolina

The Tar Heels entered the week in the worst spot and had the toughest task. So, of course, they came out looking the best. Carolina knocked off Duke in another classic game, upsetting the Blue Devils at the Smith Center. The Heels then went to PNC Arena and won the rematch with NC State in another wild, back-and-forth game. Two days later, Carolina finished off the run by grinding out a win over Notre Dame.

The Heels have played themselves into a top-four spot in the ACC, which would give them one of the double-byes into the quarterfinals of the tournament in Brooklyn. More importantly, they seem to have tightened up their perimeter defense, at least a little bit, and discovered some reliable scorers outside of Luke Maye and Joel Berry II.

NC State

The Wolfpack were riding a three-game winning streak and had a legitimate argument that their resume was worthy of an NCAA bid, with wins over Arizona, Duke and the Tar Heels. They had a chance to wrap up the “state title” in the rematch with the Heels.

Instead, the Pack lost at Virginia Tech on Wednesday, allowing the Hokies to shoot .635 from the floor. Then State allowed the hated Heels to shoot .781 in the second half and suffered a second straight defeat. Afterward, coach Kevin Keatts didn’t quite deliver an NCAA concession speech, but he did speak about the team needing to “change expectations.”


The Blue Devils entered the week with a top-10 ranking and hoping to use a shocking loss to St. John’s as a wake-up call. Instead, Duke exits the week with far more questions than answers. The loss to the Heels would have been a tough blow, but the way the Blue Devils lost was particularly troubling. As usual, the rivalry game came down to which team wanted it more, and, for the first time in recent memory, that team wasn’t Duke. The Devils were outhustled and out-toughed by the Heels and appeared to be lacking leadership on the court.

That was enough for coach Mike Krzyzewski to begin making adjustments. After using the same starting lineup for the first 24 games of the season — the longest Duke has gone with one lineup since Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, Daniel Meagher and Tommy Amaker started the first 29 games of 1983-84 — the Blue Devils had two new starters for Sunday’s game at Georgia Tech.

Marvin Bagley III sat out with a sore knee. In his place was Marques Bolden, who is working his way back from his own knee injury. Assuming Bagley’s night off was, as reported, just a precaution, the far more significant change was freshman point guard Trevon Duval sitting out, replaced by Alex O’Connell. Duval earned criticism after the UNC loss for tweeting out video of his own highlights. As the point guard, Duval was also largely responsible for Coach K’s criticism that Duke, wasn’t “running what we wrote up during the time outs.”

Duke will need a reliable point guard in order to make a deep tournament run and, at the moment, there doesn’t appear to be one on the roster. With a month to go in the regular season, the Blue Devils are still attempting to build depth and find a lineup that works.

The good news is that there’s still a month to go and, as last week demonstrated, a lot can change in a very short time.