Tobacco Road feeling college basketball changes
Posted January 16
Updated January 17
What might have been...
The college basketball landscape has changed greatly since this area first gained its nickname "Tobacco Road." And we're feeling the effects of that change in a most acute way this season.
Never was that more evident than on Saturday - the day when, as far as we can tell, all four "Big Four" schools - State, Carolina, Duke and Wake - all lost on the same date for the first time. I checked back to World War II, then ran out of schedules with dates on them, so it's possible this phenomenon happened in the early 1900s. Regardless, it's not exactly a common occurrence. Halley's Comet comes around more often.
Transported back to another time, these teams would have stacked rosters. But this is not another time, this is the here-and-now. And here-and-now, great college basketball players don't hang around very long.
I have no intention to cry foul over the one-and-done players – I'm actually a believer that if a team is willing to draft (and pay) someone, then that player should be allowed to ply his trade whenever he wants. But I will point out the painfully obvious here: Early NBA exits have everything to do with the recent struggles of the area's college basketball teams.
I don't expect anyone to trip over themselves running to spread this news, but still, this season may be the most crystalline example of how much the college basketball world has changed, and how far-flung the implications have been, because Duke, Carolina and State are all feeling the effects.
In another era, all three teams would likely boast senior superstars backed by strong supporting casts and deep benches.
The what-if game is always entertaining, so let's take a look at what each team's starting five would look like had each team's key players played through their senior seasons the way David Thompson, Phil Ford and Christian Laettner did in a different era of college basketball.
I'll assume transfers and suspensions would happen anyway, so take Rodney Purvis, PJ Hairston, Michael Gbinije and company out of the mix.
NC State would likely start Lo Brown, Cat Barber, TJ Warren, CJ Leslie and rotate Freeman, Vandenberg, Washington and Anya at the other post position. Dez Lee, Tyler Lewis and Ralston Turner would provide backcourt depth. That's a team that might capitalize on last season's expectations. Instead, State is young at practically every position this season, and very much a work in progress.
Duke would have the same issues with its lack of post depth, but a backcourt of Kyrie Irving and Austin Rivers would ease a lot of that pain. A lineup of Irving, Rivers, Rasheed Sulaimon, Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson would light up the scoreboard, and guys like Quinn Cook, Matt Jones, Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton would keep the pressure on when the starters need a break. That would be a fun team to watch, regardless of its lack of a true center. They might not even need one...
Carolina's shooting woes would be gone, considering their lineup would include Kendall Marshall, Reggie Bullock and Harrison Barnes to go along with James Michael McAdoo and a center de jour from the Meeks/Johnson/James group. That would leave Marcus Paige, JP Tokoto and Leslie McDonald coming off the bench.
In that world, we'd have four Final Four contenders – and some all-out wars when those teams met, not to mention a crazy ACC Tournament. Instead, we have two bubble teams and another whose stock has started dropping.
Of course, every other NCAA elite would have a more experienced roster as well - but regardless, the Triangle is getting a cold dose of reality this winter as all three schools give young players on-the-job training. Welcome to the new age of college basketball.