RALEIGH — If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?

It’s a question to which we may never truly know the answer.

We might soon, however, come to a tangible conclusion to the basketball version of that eternal mystery.

If the Sweet 16 is held without any teams the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle participating, will it still be Sweet?

The answer is both yes and no.

It will certainly be sweet to fans of schools from conferences other than the ACC around the country sick of seeing Duke and North Carolina get most of the attention. 

And at least in their opinion, all of the calls.

The mood inside the Triangle figures to be much more salty. That is, assuming the folks there even notice that the tournament is still going on without them.

Fans of the Tar Heels, Blue Devils and NC State’s Wolfpack have long considered their home region to be the center of the college basketball universe.

And for the longest time it has been.

The 3 schools have combined to win 13 national championships, made 41 Final Four appearances and played in the title game 25 times in the NCAA Tournament era that began in 1939.

Last April, UNC and Duke made it all the way to the sport’s signature event — the Final Four — facing off against each other in the Tournament for the first time in an epic national semifinal showdown.

It was an event viewed by some as the seventh sign of the basketball apocalypse because of the seismic proportions of the matchup, the overblown hype surrounding it and the added drama of Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski’s impending retirement.

The world as we know it didn’t come to an end on that night in New Orleans. But apparently there was penance to be paid for the post-Mardi Gras spectacle.

And the bill has come due quickly.

UNC was the first casualty.

Failing to recapture the magic of the previous spring, despite the return of 4 starters from its national runner-up squad, Hubert Davis’ Tar Heels became the first preseason No. 1 to miss out on the NCAA Tournament.

NC State went down next, falling in the opening round to Creighton despite the best efforts of star guard Terquavion Smith, who scored 32 points in the loss.

That left only Duke.

The ACC champion Blue Devils seemed a sure thing to keep the Triangle represented into the 2nd week and beyond after an opening-round rout of Oral Roberts that extended their winning streak to 10 games. 

Jon Scheyer’s team was playing so well and its bracket had opened up so wide with top-seeded Purdue having already been upset by lowly Fairleigh Dickinson, another Final Four run seemed almost like a foregone conclusion.

Until it ran into Tennessee. And then there were none.

It’s not the 1st time that the Triangle has been shut out of the Sweet 16.

It happened as recently as 2 years ago, when neither the Blue Devils nor Wolfpack made the field of 68 and the Tar Heels were beaten in the 1st round by Wisconsin in what turned out to be coach Roy Williams’ final game.

But that was the season COVID affected everything and the NCAA Tournament was played in a bubble, without fans or the usual fanfare.

It last happened under normal circumstances in 2014 when Duke was upset by Mercer and NC State, which had already won a First Four game, lost in overtime to St. Louis in the opening round before UNC fell to Iowa State in the 2nd round on a controversial game-ending clock decision.

Adding to the indignity of this latest flameout is the fact that the women’s teams from each of the Triangle schools were also eliminated early. This marks the 1st time since 1996 that all 3 Triangle schools failed to make it past the 1st week of both Tournaments.

It’s as unconscionable a scenario as putting, gasp, mustard-based sauce on barbeque or being forced to drink unsweet tea.

So now what?

There’s always spring football to get excited about, even though it’s been more than 4 decades since UNC, State or Duke has won an ACC championship. Let alone sniff a national title.

Fans of the Tar Heels, Wolfpack and Blue Devils can also put aside their differences and disappointment, and come together in support of their local hockey team, the Stanley Cup contending Carolina Hurricanes.

Or they can simply enjoy the spring-like weather forecast for this weekend by doing something outdoors.

If all else fails, there are 8 meaningful college basketball games still being played over the next 2 days involving 16 talented teams filled with compelling personalities and stories.

They should be a lot of fun to watch. Even if doing so won’t be as sweet for the folks in the Triangle as they’ve come to expect.