The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday October 28th

Inexperienced one-and-done squads weighing down UNC, Duke basketball amid unstable year

<p>First-year guard Cole Anthony (2) dribbles during the first-round of the ACC tournament against Virginia Tech in the Greensboro Coliseum Complex on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. UNC beat Virginia Tech 78-56.</p>
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First-year guard Cole Anthony (2) dribbles during the first-round of the ACC tournament against Virginia Tech in the Greensboro Coliseum Complex on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. UNC beat Virginia Tech 78-56.

In what may just be the most volatile men's college basketball season in living memory, one clear trend has emerged: if you want to be good, you need a team of veterans. Take a look at the teams ranked in the AP Top 25 poll — few teams have true first-year players in their rotation, fewer still with a first-year who starts. Gonzaga (with the exception of future top-three pick Jalen Suggs), Baylor, Villanova — the top three teams in the country — are all composed of experienced, veteran players. 

Of teams ranked in the top 10, only Texas Tech currently has more than one first-year player averaging more than 10 minutes a game. Enter North Carolina and Duke this season, both of which have four such players — Caleb Love, RJ Davis, Kerwin Walton and Day'Ron Sharpe for the Tar Heels; DJ Steward, Jeremy Roach, Jalen Johnson and Jaemyn Brakefield for the Blue Devils. 

The results through the short season speak for themselves. Both UNC and Duke sit unranked in the standings, the first time that's happened since 1982, in what was just Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski's third season. Neither team has anything resembling a signature win, and with UNC's much tougher backend of the schedule looming, it's looking like there's a legitimate possibility that the two youthful teams could both miss the tournament for the first time since 1973. 

So far, it's hard not to call North Carolina's head-first dive into the one-and-done era a disappointment. Although UNC sits at five games over .500, it has yet to claim anything more than a moral victory over an unranked opponent, and the play on the court has ranged from barely watchable to inconsistently promising. Without experienced playmakers, the Tar Heels are in danger to finish with more turnovers than assists for the first time in Roy Williams' tenure. 

This is the nature of the talent drain that comes with modern college basketball — 20 years ago, Cole Anthony, Coby White and Nassir Little would all likely still be suiting up for the Tar Heels instead of the Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls and Portland Trailblazers, respectively. Those three alone would provide more than enough talent to at least keep the Tar Heels ranked throughout the season. 

North Carolina has always played its best basketball with a group of veterans who have plenty of experience with each other — the 2017 national title team was composed of mostly upperclassmen, led by Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, with Tony Bradley being the only first-year to average more than 10 minutes a game. 

Duke has had significantly more success recruiting talented one-and-done players — the 2015 national championship team was one of the few this century to be powered by first-year superstars like Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones — and the Blue Devils have made the tournament every year since then with short-tenured players like Jayson Tatum, Marvin Bagley and Zion Williamson. But this year's struggles illustrate one of the dangers in that recruiting strategy — you have to hit on nearly every recruit. 

Johnson has looked like Duke's best player in his recent outings against Pitt and Georgia Tech, but he has missed a good part of the season with a foot injury and been inconsistent in his earlier playing time. Steward has played the role of an effective scorer for parts of the season. But it's not clear if either of them can give Matthew Hurt enough help for Duke to be a dangerous team, let alone a decent one. 

It's possible Saturday's matchup between these two rivals could be the least talent-filled game in a generation. If that's the case, it's because the Tobacco Road blue bloods got stung by the one-and-done system they tried to master.


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