If you’re a fan of ACC basketball and football, you’ve got every right to feel good about the local state of things heading into next week, when the league’s men’s basketball teams square off against the Big Ten and the league’s football victors battle for the ACC Championship in Tampa Bay: UNC’s bowl-bound football team beat Duke in Durham, but it was actually a decent game, at last more than a pairing of the mediocre versus the vanquished. After crushing a ranked Notre Dame in Hawaii, UNC’s Tar Heel men look, as billed, fairly unstoppable. (About this whole Wolfpack basketball thing, though, well, we’ll have to see.) And both N.C. State’s football team and Duke’s men’s basketball team began to answer questions that have, respectively, spoiled or threatened to spoil their seasons. That is, N.C. State has a freshman quarterback in Russell Wilson who might fulfill Tom O’Brien’s “best program” promises. And Duke basketball might—possibly, maybe, perhaps—have some big man action this year on the court.
Let’s start with N.C. State’s victory Saturday against Miami, since it meant the most for a team that’s had more than its share of athletic woes recently. The victory at home pushes the team to 6-6 for the season, sealing its bowl eligibility and ending the regular season on a fourth consecutive win after State dropped four in row following a promising win at home against East Carolina back in September. After defeating the Pirates, though, freshman quarterback Wilson missed the following game versus South Florida. That rainy 41-10 rout at home—where everyone who wasn’t a USF Bull looked pretty bad—sent the Wolfpack into a four-loss spiral that had folks questioning Tom O’Brien’s competence and future. Wilson was the starter for those losses, but he often seemed like Herbert Hoover circa ’29 at the helm, a promising enough sort who’d been handed a deflated sack of worries that weren’t his own.
But now that Wilson and his Wolfpack have won, they look like a well-built machine, powered by one of the strongest new engines we’ve seen in a while. Against Carolina, Wilson was stunning. On Saturday, he gained 113 yards on foot (a penalty negated another long run) and threw for 220. He rushed for one touchdown and threw for three. His play-action and ball fakes were crisp, and his efforts to create second chances and to find first downs were remarkable. Wilson now holds the school’s record for most consecutive pass attempts without throwing an interception. And he’s got support O’Brien gave junior halfback Jamelle Eugene more work than senior Andre Brown on Saturday, as if he wanted to test next year’s backfield against a strong Miami. If it was a test, Eugene and Wilson passed handily.
State has looked good at times this year (and miserable only on occasion). But they’ve looked mostly splendid during these past two weeks. More importantly, they look meticulously coached. The box scores could tell you as much, I suppose, since they’ve taken both of those games against good opponents. But the real proof comes through the subtleties on the field, as when the State defense relaxed on a 3rd and 8 Saturday, allowing Miami quarterback Robert Marve to complete a short pass to Graig Cooper. But two defenders expertly stood between Cooper and the marker, State’s cognizance forced a punt and maintained their 7-0 lead into the next stand. Even though the Miami kicking teams the ball away from Andre Brown with pooch kicks and skid balls, State’s special teams were solid, too. What’s more, State only earned two penalties against Miami and allowed offered only one turnover to Miami’s four. That’s discipline.
Sure, the team’s still got holes: Miami’s 96-yard pass up the middle for a touchdown Saturday represents what’s been a sizable soft spot for the team most of the year, and Miami broke the ranks of the offensive line too often for hurries, sacks and tackles for loss. Still, it was hard to leave Carter-Finley Stadium Saturday without intuiting that the recent past and the next several years of N.C State football would have looked and will look awfully different with a healthy Russell Wilson behind center—and that Tom O’Brien is finally putting positive force behind a program long wafting in the doldrums.
Similarly, the key question for Duke’s men’s basketball team remains the same as it did last year: Who’s going to play center, and will that player be any count? Until Friday’s home game versus Duquesne, it didn’t seem as if the Devils had an answer. Juniors Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas (listed as a forward) had combined for only 16 percent of the team’s offensive output and less than 25 percent of its total rebounds against generally shorter opponents. On Friday, though, the Devils improved to 7-0 as a fiery Thomas dropped 21 points over the Duquesne Dukes. Though Thomas didn’t start and only played 17 minutes, he executed with a confidence and swagger that’s been markedly absent from Zoubek’s game during his three years at Duke. But Zoubek looked OK on Friday, too: Though the starter scored only 6 points in 13 minutes, he nabbed a loose ball at one point, sprinting down the court and sinking a difficult lay-up under pressure. Granted, he got blocked during the next trip down the court….
Still, Duke’s biggest weakness in a roster that’s absolutely packed with talent (New Chinese proverb: “If Greg Paulus is your sixth man as a senior, look up.”) didn’t look so obvious Friday. It should be an interesting season.