Triangle neighbors Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State are getting top-notch play at the point. It’s a big reason why they’re headed to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 together for the first time in a decade.
The freshman-senior duo of Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook gives the Blue Devils a pair of proven playmaking scorers. For the Tar Heels, a healthier Marcus Paige is back to knocking down big shots. And the Wolfpack’s Anthony “Cat” Barber keeps sprinting by defenders in the open court.
They’re battle-tested, including against one another.
“They’re all very competitive – you’re going against the best and you want to perform against the best,” said Jeff Capel, Duke’s associate head coach who played some point for the Blue Devils in the 1990s. “I think it’s helped make them all better.
“I’m sure our guys are looking at, ‘What did Barber do? What did Paige do?’ Paige is looking at, ‘What did Barber do?’ They’re all looking. That’s what competitors do.”
North Carolina’s Triangle region features three Atlantic Coast Conference programs – Duke in Durham, UNC in Chapel Hill, N.C. State in Raleigh – with about a 30-minute drive between any of the three campuses.
They’ve combined for 11 NCAA titles, but this is only the fourth time they’ve all gone to the Sweet 16 in the same year, the others were 1986, 1989 and 2005, according to STATS.
Duke (31-4) was expected to get there as the No. 1 seed in the NCAA’s South Region. So was North Carolina (26-11), the West’s No. 4 seed which survived the opening weekend for the first time since 2012.
But N.C. State (22-13) is one of the tournament’s top stories after rallying from 16 down to beat LSU on a last-second shot and then stunning top-seeded Villanova.
Also in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2012, the East’s No. 8 seed earned its first win against a No. 1 seed since coach Jim Valvano led that memorable “Cardiac Pack” championship run in 1983.
Guard play has been huge for all three teams.
It was Jones distributing and Cook burying 3-pointers against Robert Morris and San Diego State, Paige having a big second half against Arkansas or Barber weaving his way through Villanova’s pressure.
“They’re different,” Capel said, “but they’re winners.”
Jones is averaging 6.5 assists at the helm of a Duke offense shooting 58 percent through two NCAA games. Cook – who moved to a combo-guard role with Jones’ arrival after playing mostly at the point previously – is averaging 18.5 points and shooting 56 percent, including 9 for 18 on 3s.
At UNC, Paige was a preseason pick for Associated Press all-American and ACC player of the year, but he had a slow start and then battled a troublesome foot injury for more than two months.
Now the smooth left-handed junior is looking more like himself again. After averaging 13.2 points and shooting 40 percent through the first 30 games, he’s averaged 17.9 points and shot 47 percent over the past seven dating to the regular-season finale against Duke.
“I’m healthy, that’s the biggest part,” said Paige, who scored 20 of his 22 points after halftime in Saturday’s win against the Razorbacks. “I’m a little bit more aggressive than I have been attacking the basket. … I would just say confidence, health and just understanding that I’ve got to be a playmaker at this point in the year.”
Then there’s Barber, a sophomore averaging 15.8 points over his last 13 games with improved range on his shot to go with the kind of speed that had earned him his nickname before stepping foot on campus.
His run has included wins at Louisville – N.C. State’s next opponent – and UNC along with a 34-point night against Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament. Barber scored 17 points against LSU, then had 13 despite foul trouble against Villanova.
“For us, when Cat Barber took his game somewhat to another level here … it changed everything for our team,” coach Mark Gottfried said before the win over Villanova. “I thought he became, at times, as good as anybody in the country.”
Playing in the ACC, which has five Sweet 16 teams, certainly helped prepare them all for the tournament. Duke, UNC and N.C. State played each other twice, forcing Jones, Cook, Paige and Barber to push themselves to keep up with one another.
Now they’re leading teams still advancing in March – all from the 919 area code.
“That just shows how good our conference is, how you’ve got to come to play every night,” Jones said. “In each game you’re battle-tested. You know you have no choice but to get better.”
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.