October 29, 2012

In the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, near the center of North Carolina, sits a 150-square-mile area of industrialized farmland, fount of technological advancements, scientific research and, as it were, basketball. Anchored by three universities -- NC State, Duke and UNC -- the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region, known as the Research Triangle, is one of the most fertile breeding grounds for basketball.

Since 1946, it's produced 169 NBA players -- David Thompson, Michael Jordan and Grant Hill, to name but three -- and 12 consensus National Players of the Year. It's long been the hub of ACC basketball, winning 78 percent of ACC tournament championships and earning at least a share of the regular season title 85 percent of the time.

But over the last 20 years, Duke and North Carolina have really turned the hub into an axis: Tobacco Road. The two programs account for all but two ACC tournament championships since 1996, but perhaps even more amazingly, the neighboring schools, just 11 miles apart, have won four of the last 12 national championships and seven of the last 22. Their rivalry is well-known, their meetings often epic (recall Austin Rivers's buzzer-beating three to win on the road last year), but this year, with both the Tar Heels and Blue Devils facing some unknowns on their rosters, there might be room for another.

Yes, in the land where basketball allegiances tend to range from powder to Prussian blue, it's the redheaded stepchild of Triangle hoops that's shifting the balance of powers in the ACC. Returning four double-digit scorers from last season's Sweet 16 squad, NC State is forcing the spotlight off of Tobacco Road and onto a team that just two years ago failed to make the NCAA tournament for the fifth straight season.

"It's new territory for our team," said coach Mark Gottfried, who came to Raleigh in April 2011 after the Wolfpack went 15-16 (5-11 in the ACC). "This is uncharted waters. And we have to learn how to accept that responsibility."

Gottfried and his staff have been credited for the Pack's rapid climb and for getting the most out of players like junior forward C.J. Leslie, the preseason pick for ACC Player of the Year. After a dismal and trying first year at NC State, one that often saw him vilified for his lackadaisical attitude and immaturity both on and off the court, Leslie thought about taking his chances in the NBA. But instead, he returned and flourished under Gottfried and led the Wolfpack on a surprise postseason run.

Joining Leslie and returning starters Lorenzo Brown, Scott Wood and Richard Howell, who each averaged more than 10 points per game last season, are a trio of talented freshmen expected to contribute right away: Rodney Purvis, Tyler Lewis and T.J. Warren. All three were McDonald's All-Americans; all from North Carolina (Purvis, the N.C. Prep Player of the Year, hails from Raleigh, and Warren, from Durham, naturally).

Meanwhile, 20 miles west on I-40, in Chapel Hill and Durham, the Tar Heels and Blue Devils are expected to be solid, top 20 teams, but North Carolina lost four starters and Duke its leading scorer, to the NBA. Question marks loom for both teams. The guard-heavy Tar Heels return just one of their top five scorers in Reggie Bullock, a lights-out shooter, especially from long range. Along with guards Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald, both coming off of ACL injuries, the junior shooting guard will lead an offense that will rely heavily on perimeter action. Inside, the Tar Heels have a budding star in forward James Michael McAdoo, whose spectacular postseason last spring (10.6 ppg in his last seven games) raised expectations for his sophomore season in Chapel Hill.

"James Michael and Reggie are two examples of players who did some nice things for us [last season], but everybody was trying to stop Tyler Zeller or Kendall [Marshall] or Harrison [Barnes] or John [Henson]," North Carolina head coach Roy Williams says. "So they were sort of overlooked. Well, now they're not going to be overlooked because the other team's defense is going to be aimed at them. So how can they handle that?"

Beyond McAdoo, the Tar Heels have limited options inside, but North Carolina is hopeful that 6-foot-10 freshman Joel James can develop quickly to add more balance on the court. The forward out of West Palm Beach, Fla., is one of four freshmen expected to contribute right away. Chief among them is freshman point guard Marcus Paige, a highly touted recruit who is expected to start right away.

"We have to get as close to our potential as we possibly can for us to be successful," Williams says. "We can't accept anything less."

While Duke's roster didn't undergo as drastic a change as their neighbor's, the Blue Devils are coming off a disappointing season that ended in a first-round NCAA tournament loss to No. 15 seed Lehigh. While coach Mike Krzyzewski insists that defense wasn't to blame for that particular loss, it did plague the Blue Devils all year.

"A lot of [our defensive shortcomings] may have been guys just looking at individual matchups. To be a good defensive team, everybody has to be on the same page," senior forward Mason Plumlee says. "A lot of being a good defensive team is [that] when one guy gets beat, the others help him out. So, I think that aspect of it wasn't as good last year as it has been in years past where everybody is working together."

Teamwork starts at the point, where sophomore Quinn Cook and junior Tyler Thornton will share time. While Thornton brings a dogged defensive mindset -- "Tyler, he'll pick you up 94 feet from the basket," Plumlee says -- Cook will be the key to the Blue Devils' success. With rather pedestrian numbers off the bench last season (4.4 ppg, 1.9 apg), the playmaking point guard will have to improve markedly for Duke to make the most of a fairly balanced lineup.

Ultimately, though, all the questions will be answered once the teams take the court. But if NC State's run last season showed potential for what's to come this year, the Pack might be running away with the ACC.

Still, not everyone is convinced.

"They talk [NC State] up every single year, and we beat them every single year," Tar Heels guard Dexter Strickland told reporters a couple weeks ago at ACC Media Day. "They are the least of our worries. Beat us one year, and then they can talk smack. Until then, you can't put them in the mix."

Those words have already injected some venom into what will certainly be a juicy rivalry this season. In the once-binary world of North Carolina hoops, it may be time to make room for another. The rise of NC State should prove that in the Triangle, three's company.

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