His timing was more circumstantial than comical. In March 2005, Lou Barlow—something of an indie rock father figure, having co-founded three of its most important bands—played Local 506, just two days after the UNC Tar Heels eked out a last-minute, two-point win over the Duke Blue Devils in Chapel Hill. You know, that Holy Grail of victories, as Triangle basketball goes.
A few weeks later, UNC would claim its first NCAA title since 1993 and its first of two in this decade. The audience was as ripe for a good hoops joke as it might have been since the early '90s, when UNC and Duke won three national titles in as many years. "This is the only place where indie rockers care about sports, about basketball," Barlow noted from the stage, laughing.
It's true: In the Triangle, no matter your profession, age or social status, at various times during these last three decades, you've probably had an opinion about last night's foul call or this week's Tobacco Road matchup. The mania sweeps over those new to the area and stays with those who leave. And for good reason, too—since 1982, Duke, UNC and N.C. State have won eight NCAA titles. No other area comes close.
But this year, barring a stellar end-of-regular-season run or a miraculous sprint through the ACC tournament, only one of those teams, Duke, is likely to partake of March Madness. UNC is poised to have its worst season since Matt Doherty's last year as head coach (19-16, with a trip to the NIT), despite turning last year's NCAA Tournament into a combination cakewalk and bloodbath. N.C. State has shown flashes of power, including their 14-point rout of Duke in Raleigh, but they've mostly found new ways of losing—gargantuan scoreless stretches, botched free throws, last-second answered prayers. Duke looks as if it will have another season of 25-plus wins, but Mike Krzyzewski's crew this year is streaky, and the Devils have been here before. They went 18-1 last year before dropping four of their next six contests, so they understand it's a little too early to deride Carolina's ungraceful fall just yet.
With those underwhelming performances, the area's basketball buzz has been quiet. N.C. State fans got rowdy with that win against Duke and for a strong 25 minutes of play versus the Tar Heels, but that's about it. And last Thursday, with UNC down by just 4 at Virginia Tech, I was one of only three people watching the final seconds in a crowded music club. Last year, the bands might have actually been watching, too.
There's a lot on which such acute apathy can be blamed—a failing economy, endless wars, an NFL season with really good story lines. But the apathy stems, in part, from the area's momentary lack of a true star. After the exit of last year's potent, flashy squad, UNC doesn't have a single player in the ACC's top 10 scoring board and only two—Deon Thompson, at 11, and Ed Davis, at 14—in the top 20. Otherwise, the most fascinating thing about UNC's roster might be learning to tell bench-riding freshmen Travis and David Wear apart or debating how Larry Drew came about the "II" after his name.
N.C. State's Tracy Smith is averaging nearly 18 points per game, and his signature move of gathering the ball in his hands and slowly backing down and swiveling around the defender has put him at the top of the league's field goal percentage tally. But it seems doubtful that anyone's ever mistaken Smith for a true ACC star since, otherwise, his game is mediocre at best. Farnold Degand has personality and spark, but he's been inconsistent and, from the free-throw line, sort of a debacle. Freshmen Josh Davis and Richard Howell appear to be built like stars, but they've yet to be more than athletes.
Sure, Duke's Schmingler—the backcourt trio of Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith—is the highest-scoring, most explosive triumvirate in the country, with Scheyer's high assist-to-turnover ratio, Singler's end-to-end relentlessness, Smith's aggression in the lane and his pull-up jump shot. But none of those skinny kids has emerged as someone bound to become a household name that sticks for a decade-plus—a Hurley, a Hill or even a Redick. And splitting minutes between a rotation of five big men allows Krzyzewski to keep fresh legs and fouls on the floor, but it's not given his team an identifiable post presence.
But this isn't a death knell, not at all. UNC has a strong three-man recruiting class, led by the Skype-friendly Iowan Harrison Barnes, while Duke has two strong guard prospects and a towering power forward named Josh Hairston on tap. Looking down their bench this year doesn't seem so bad, either. Freshman Mason Plumlee has shown sparks of brilliance as a tall-and-wide inside presence who can pass and shoot the three. What's more, Seth Curry—the younger brother of former Davidson dynamo Stephen Curry, himself having a remarkable rookie year as a Golden State Warrior—has been practicing with the Devils all season and watching each game from the bench in street clothes.
And N.C. State freshman Scott Wood might make a name for himself. In spite of a long, cold spell just before winter break, the tall, polite Indiana kid has hit 47 shots beyond the arc, including seven against Florida State in one of the season's most dominating performances. If he continues to gain confidence, and if N.C. State can continue to spread the floor for him, the next several years could be a whole lot of fun.
So, once again, it appears to be what we've always known it as—booms and busts where some teams have more of one than the other. For me, that's reason to keep watching.
Tonight, Wednesday, Feb. 10, at 9 p.m., Duke visits UNC. On Saturday, N.C. State travels to Chapel Hill for a game at 4 p.m. Both games will be broadcast on ESPN.