Every year, the sports staff of North State Journal (sports editor Cory Lavalette and reporters Brett Friedlander and Shawn Krest) look into our crystal balls and try and predict what some of the bigger news stories of the coming 12 months will be. Sometimes we get it right — like the Hurricanes winning the NHL’s Central Division in 2021 — and other times we’re flat wrong — uh, pretty much all our other predictions. But where’s the fun without the risk? Here’s what the stars are telling us for 2022.
Deacons go dancing
ACC basketball is suffering through its second straight down season, with some pundits suggesting that the conference could potentially be a one-bid league. While it’s true that there’s a major drop-off after Duke, the only ACC team currently in the national rankings, the cream will eventually rise to the top and at least four teams will be selected to play in the NCAA Tournament. One of those teams will be Wake Forest. Yes, the Deacons, who have bolstered their roster with four talented transfers, led by All-ACC candidate Alondes Williams and sharpshooting stretch four Jake LaRavia. Coach Steve Forbes’ team finished the nonconference schedule with a 10-1 record and it’s no fluke. Given the struggles of its league rivals, Wake is headed for a top-four conference finish and a celebration on Selection Sunday.
Ickey pick for Panthers
The Carolina Panthers are in desperate need of a franchise quarterback, but with Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett already gone by the time they go on the clock and few other attractive options, the team will once again look elsewhere in the first round of the 2022 draft. It’s a pick that will ultimately be helpful to whoever ends up under center — massive NC State All‑American left tackle Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound Charlotte native has recorded 67 pancake blocks for the Wolfpack this season while allowing only two sacks in 829 snaps. He is big, athletic, smart and durable, and his presence on the line would make an immediate impact on the Panthers’ offensive fortunes.
The NC State baseball team was one win away from playing for a national championship last June until a COVID-19 outbreak led to the Wolfpack’s sudden and controversial ouster from the College World Series. Coach Elliott Avent’s team has lost several key members, including star outfielder Tyler McDonough and shortstop Jose Torres, but returns enough talent to make another serious run at the title. Full of motivation and loaded with live arms, including last year’s postseason star Sam Highfill, State will once again win its regional and super regional to earn a return trip to Omaha.
Taking one last Cut
Former Duke football coach David Cutcliffe will turn down similar offers from Clemson, Texas and Notre Dame to take on a special assistant/quarterback consultant role in his home state, with Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. The announcement will be followed a few weeks later by top 2023 quarterback prospect Arch Manning committing to Bama to be mentored by the same man that worked with his uncles Peyton and Eli. Meanwhile, fellow veteran Triangle coach Mack Brown will head back into retirement following the 2022 season.
I guess you’d spell that Kzar?
After finishing his final season with Duke, coach Mike Krzyzewski will take a newly created position with USA Basketball to serve as the sport’s czar. Coach K will attempt to bring together decision-makers from the pro, college and high school/AAU levels to create a plan and direction for a sport that often seems to have none. Meanwhile, after one year of retirement, Coach K’s longtime rival, Roy Williams, will decide to wade into the world of TV, doing a weekly appearance on ESPN’s talk programs to discuss golf. He’ll gradually be drawn into talking basketball as well, inadvertently putting long-distance pressure on UNC coach Hubert Davis, who struggles to get the Tar Heels back to the top of the polls.
Take me out to any ballgame
With MLB mired in a labor war that will delay spring training and the start of the season, look for the minor leagues, including the Durham Bulls, to take advantage of being the only pro baseball show in town. Still struggling to pay bills following the COVID cancellation of the 2020 minor league season and tough times as things slowly went back toward normal in 2021, teams will take advantage of the sudden spike in interest, and we’ll likely see a spike in price inflation at the ballparks around the state, as well.
Hurricanes claim the Cup
Sixteen years after he captained the Hurricanes to the top of the NHL as a player, coach Rod Brind’Amour will again lift the Stanley Cup when Carolina beats Colorado in six games to earn its second championship. The Hurricanes blow through the first two rounds, dispatching both opponents in a total of nine games, but Carolina needs seven games to knock off two-time defending champion Tampa Bay to set its date with the Avalanche. The vote for the Conn Smythe Trophy is tight, but Sebastian Aho edges Frederik Andersen to win playoff MVP.
Another Gibbs in Victory Lane
After winning four of the 18 Xfinity Series races he entered in 2021, teenager Ty Gibbs gets his first Cup Series win when grandfather Joe Gibbs needs to replace an injured driver for the May 15 race at Kansas. Gibbs returns to the Xfinity Series for the rest of the year, winning a title just a month after he turns 20. With the drivers of all four of his Joe Gibbs Racing cars under contract in 2023, the elder Gibbs talks to one of them, Denny Hamlin, about getting a seat for his grandson for the following year. After some maneuvering, the 20-year-old Gibbs is hired to drive for Hamlin and Michael Jordan’s 23XI Racing in 2023 — with the contingency that once a spot opens at JGR he will be reunited with his grandfather.
Davidson stars as Cinderella
Anyone paying attention in December saw what Davidson was capable of when it beat No. 10 Alabama. But the Wildcats, as are most mid-majors, are underestimated heading into the NCAA Tournament. Led by 71-year‑old coach Bob McKillop, Davidson wins 24 regular season games and the Atlantic-10 Tournament to earn a No. 12 seed in the Big Dance. The Wildcats beat fifth-seeded Ohio State in the first round and then another potential Cinderella, 13th-seeded Colorado State, to advance to the Sweet 16. The slipper falls off when former Davidson guard Kellan Grady, who left one Wildcats team to join another at Kentucky as a graduate senior, scores 19 points to lead top-seeded UK to an overtime win over his former team. McKillop says he’ll be back for a 34th season in 2022-23, the final year of his contract.