A funny thing happened on the way to the NIT.
When Duke and North Carolina played their rivalry game at the start of the month, for the first time in more than a half-century, both teams were afterthoughts. Neither was ranked. Both were coming off of losses, and it appeared that both of them would miss the NCAA Tournament.
Just when the rest of the ACC thought it was safe to come out, the blue bloods are back, with a bullet.
It turns out Duke and Carolina’s tanking and rebuild took all of three and a half months.
After enduring its second three-game losing streak of the season, which included that first Carolina game, Duke found itself below .500 for the first time since 1999 at 7-8 and 5-6 in the ACC, seemingly on its way to the worst Blue Devil season since 1983.
Duke was also about to lose its best freshman player. Jalen Johnson, the highest-rated of this year’s six-man recruiting class and the top-scoring freshman on the roster, would play one more game before opting out amidst a cloud of speculation and rumor.
It was the biggest Duke defection since Rasheed Sulaimon was dismissed from the team in January 2015. Back then, Duke went on to win 12 straight without Sulaimon and 18 of 19 to win the national championship.
Addition by subtraction seems to be working again. Duke has won four straight, blowing out NC State, Wake Forest and Syracuse, and winning a dogfight against ACC leader Virginia.
It’s clear the Blue Devils are playing their best basketball of the season. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim pointed to the roster change as the reason.
“That guy was hurting them, so they actually are much better now without him,” he said on his radio show. “He was just doing some things and keeping other people from playing that are good.”
While it’s debatable whether Johnson was hurting Duke, the people who have replaced him are seeing things click on the court.
Freshman center Mark Williams had 41 points on the season prior to the latest winning streak. He’s scored 40 in the last four games. He’s also pulled down 21 rebounds and blocked nine shots over that span. More importantly, he’s given Duke an inside presence it lacked, opening up room for the Blue Devil shooters. Duke has hit 42 of 95 3-pointers over the last four games for a .442 percentage.
“We’re just tired of losing,” said freshman guard Jeremy Roach, who has hit six of his last 10 3-point attempts. “It’s real simple — just getting tired of losing. And digging down on defense, that’s really been the key for us. These last four games, we’ve just been dialed in on defense, locked in on the scouting report and our matchups and our personnel. That’s been the biggest thing throughout this run.”
Up the road, the freshmen are starting to get it at UNC, as well. The Tar Heels lost their first two ACC games and were 3-3 six games into the conference season, 8-5 overall. Their most recent win was a remarkable 45-point blowout of Louisville.
Carolina has now won three of four, six of eight and nine of 12 to move to 14-7 on the year and 8-5 in ACC games. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils are tied for fourth place, meaning that they’re battling for one of the double-byes in the ACC Tournament.
Improved play from the freshmen has been a key to the turnaround.
“I have been getting really comfortable,” Kerwin Walton said. “Very, very comfortable.”
Walton was already on pace to be the best freshman shooter in UNC history, but he’s found another gear of late. Over the last five games, he’s hit 17 of 30 from three, including 5 of 7 against Louisville. He’s also increasingly been putting the ball on the floor and dribbling past defenders who try to close out on him behind the 3-point line.
Day’Ron Sharpe has stepped up inside. Averaging 9.3 points and 7.7 rebounds through 16 games, he’s upped his production to 13.8 points and 8.6 rebounds in the last five, becoming the most reliable big man option on a team loaded with them.
“I’ve said all along, I think our freshmen are going to be good players,” coach Roy Williams said. “My request is they do it during my lifetime and (against Louisville) it was in the first half. Hope I get to see more than that before I kick out.”
His Hall of Fame rival in Durham hopes for the same from his freshmen.
“They are young but you get old through experience,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “Sometimes you get older by losing.”