Friedlander: Midseason polls usually don't matter. But without UNC and Duke, this one does
Midseason college basketball polls are fun to discuss and argue about. But as any coach worth his Nike swoosh will tell you, they’re as meaningless as a 3-pointer at the buzzer in the 20-point blowout.
In most cases, it’s doubtful anyone will remember who was ranked and who wasn’t 41 weeks from now, let alone in 41 years.
But the poll that came out on Monday might be the exception.
With Duke having been dropped after Saturday’s loss at Clemson and preseason No. 1 North Carolina falling out over a month ago, this marks the 1st time in a non-COVID season that the Blue Devils and Tar Heels have been unranked in the same poll since Dec. 20, 1982. It’s also the first time since Dec. 28, 1970 that UNC, Duke, NC State and Wake Forest missed the same poll.
To put the state’s Big 4’s historic note into perspective, current Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis was just 12 years the last time his alma mater and its neighboring rival were both unranked at the same time. Blue Devils coach Jon Scheyer wouldn’t be born for another 5 years.
The price of gas was just over a dollar per gallon. ET was still trying to find his way home, Michael Jackson was a Thriller and a jump man named Jordan was still an actual player, not a logo.
It should be noted that the Big 4 was also socially distanced from the final poll of the pandemic-affected 2020-21 season. That, however, doesn’t lessen the magnitude or the shock value of their current omission.
Especially since both UNC and Duke were in the Final 4 last season.
Even more surprising is the fact that neither the Blue Devils nor Tar Heels garnered as many votes in this week’s poll as did their more unheralded Triangle rival NC State. The Wolfpack was the 1st team out of the rankings with 111 points while Duke was 33rd with 44. UNC, meanwhile, managed only a single vote and was the last team listed.
Maybe it’s just karma making up for the fact that the football teams from the 4 North Carolina schools all played in bowl games in the same year for the 1st time ever in 2022.
In retrospect, at least part of the current equation isn’t a total shocker.
Even though Duke started the season ranked No. 7, there was plenty of reason to believe it might encounter some early growing pains. It features a lineup dominated by freshmen, 2 of which missed much of the preseason because of injuries. Duke also returned only 1 veteran regular and has a rookie coach experiencing on-the-job training.
That’s turned out to be the case.
While the Blue Devils have played well at home with the Cameron Crazies providing energy, they’ve struggled on the road. Particularly on offense. Three of their 5 losses have come since the start of conference play, all of them coming away from home.
UNC’s fall has been much more of an enigma.
The Tar Heels returned 4 starters from a team that led Kansas by 15 points for the national championship in April and replaced the 1 missing piece with the top available player in the transfer portal.
While injuries to preseason ACC Player of the Year Armando Bacot and talented transfer Pete Nance have certainly affected the team’s performance, there have also been times in which it has appeared disinterested and unmotivated.
It’s almost as if UNC is waiting for the postseason to flip the switch and get serious.
Whether it’s able to pull that off or not, history suggests that the absence of the Tar Heels and Blue Devils from the polls won’t be a long one.
At least for 1 of the teams.
In 1982-83, Duke stumbled out of the gate and never recovered on the way to an 11-17 record (3-11 ACC) in its 3rd season with under still-unproven coach Mike Krzyzewski. It would take another season for a freshman class of Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and David Henderson to mature and begin the Blue Devils’ rise to national prominence.
UNC was much quicker to bounce back from its poll absence. Two weeks after a loss to Tulsa that dropped them to 3-3, coach Dean Smith’s defending national champions used an upset of 12th-ranked Missouri to get back into the poll on Jan. 3, 1983. It was part of an 18-game winning streak that catapulted the Tar Heels all the way up to No. 1.
With Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and Brad Daugherty leading the way, they went on to win the ACC’s regular season title with a 12-2 league record (28-8 overall) before advancing to the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament while NC State and Jim Valvano stunned the world by winning the national title.
Considering the talent and experience of this year’s Tar Heels and the high ceiling of Duke’s young roster and coach, it’s not unreasonable to think that history can repeat itself and this momentary crack in the college basketball universe will soon be repaired.
Or, like most weekly midseason polls, forgotten.
At least until someone looks it up as the answer to a trivia question 41 years from now.