So last night I watched a mediocre, unimportant basketball game.
Now it was important to me, because I was a Carolina fan. It was, in fact, very important to a lot of UNC and Duke fans, and the extent to which they enjoyed it hinged pretty much on which team they were rooting for and how tolerant of poor play they happened to be. It was less important, but still of interest, to fans of other ACC teams, especially, say Maryland, who has a vested interest in the ACC title race as well as a desire to see how defense could stifle Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer. Outside of the ACC, the game should have little to no importance at all, since Carolina is struggling and Duke is better, but not dominant.
But this is Duke-Carolina. ESPN paid a lot of money to air this game, and all sorts of news organizations sent columnists to cover it. This can't just be a game, there has to be a storyline. And so they've come up with one.
This was the game that ended UNC's NCAA Tournament hopes.
What? You weren't aware there were tournament hopes? Me neither, but I've been off watching a team lose seven of their last eight games. Seth Davis, however asked multiple players about the team's tournament chances, and I'm going to assume by the quotes he got that the players thought he was a crazy person that had slipped by security. Rush the Court led by claiming "the conventional wisdom surrounding this game was that Carolina needed to win both Duke games (and a whole bunch in-between) in order to have enough of a resume to make the NCAA Tournament for the seventh straight year." I didn't remember anyone talking about the tournament going into this game, but I was mainly reading people who had a vested interest in the rivalry rather than folks looking for a reason not to switch the channel. Most everyone else just trotted out their UNC eulogies for the season, which aren't news to anyone following the team and aren't of interest to anyone not. But that at least is understandable, if not a particularly interesting read. These folks have other beats to cover – I'd rather be reading explanations on Texas's troubles, for instance – and this was just filler because you were expcted to write something about the game, so why not this?
If I was a Duke fan, I'm not sure how I would feel about this year's coverage. On the one hand, the Blue Devils were completely ignored, just another wall the Heels ran into. Less a team than a piece of the landscape on UNC's Magical Misery Tour. On the other hand, this game showed some serious flaws in the Duke offense, and may have shown the way past them, with Mason Plumlee's increased playing time in the wake of Lance Thomas. (Me, I'm unconvinced in this regard. Thomas has a much higher +/- than Plumlee over the last 11 games.) But none of that will be explored, because it doesn't make a good story.
The real irony in the NCAA tournament fixation, though, is that it was completely irrelevant to the game at hand, and folks still got it wrong. UNC played better against Duke than they did against either Maryland or Virginia. They're hopes improved from an ice cube's chance in hell, to well, a slightly larger ice cube's chance in hell. And no one in their right mind would look ahead to that. They'd treat it like the players are, not looking any further ahead to the next game, the next chance to improve, the next place where a little bit of confidence can be gained, a bit of footing can be found. This is the way 90% of college basketball is played, and if last night's game marked the end of people paying attention to Carolina, I'm sure it's a relief to all involved.