Stiles: New Year’s resolutions for the Big 4

Chris Stiles Sports editor

Believe it or not, the tradition of New Year’s resolutions dates back thousands of years, all the way back to ancient Babylon around 2000 B.C.

A resolution-related activity of my own doesn’t even date back four years, much less four millenniums, but it too is becoming a personal tradition: publishing attainable goals for the new year for our state’s largest college athletic programs.

It’s hard to judge whether some of the resolutions in last year’s column were met, given how disruptive COVID-19 was to the sports calendar in 2020. (As an aside, a lesson learned in 2020: be flexible.)

Nonetheless, with the hope for gradually-increasing normalcy in 2021, in sports and otherwise, here are some New Year’s resolutions for North Carolina’s “Big Four” ACC schools.

North Carolina

These resolutions have often been a binary goal, but my resolution for North Carolina is for the men’s basketball program to be patient — with the advice that if they do so, they’ll eventually look more like the Tar Heels we’re used to seeing.

The Tar Heels struggled through last season to Roy Williams’ first losing record (14-19, 6-14 ACC), and currently sit 7-4 overall with a 2-2 ACC mark. Even though there was no NCAA Tournament in 2020, the Tar Heels would have been certain to miss it; looking at them through that lens, they’re trying to avoid missing missing the tournament in back-to-back years for just the second time since it began allowing at-large bids in 1975 (Matt Doherty’s last two seasons in 2002-03 being the first instance).

But this year’s Tar Heels look very different from last season’s team, with the freshman class Roy Williams brought in. Limited practice leading up to the season has hurt them, as has playing some more-experienced teams, and some hot teams. But as the Tar Heels get more reps under their belt, the assembled talent should begin to mesh together. Saturday’s crunch-time win over Notre Dame was a positive step.

This isn’t to say they’ll win the ACC, but being a top-half team in the league and making the NCAA Tournament are both very possible.

N.C. State

The highest-ranked team in the state isn’t in Durham or Chapel Hill, but is the women’s team at North Carolina State. Their resolution for 2021 is to make the program’s second Final Four appearance.

The late Kay Yow led the Wolfpack to the Final Four in 1998, and that run is surprisingly also the program’s only Elite Eight appearance. The team lost in the Sweet 16 in the last two NCAA Tournaments held, in 2018 and 2019, as part of a woeful 1-12 all-time record in that round. So the team’s first goal will be to get the Sweet 16 monkey off its back — but ultimately they’re good enough to get to the Final Four.

The Wolfpack won the ACC Tournament in March and would have been a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This season the Wolfpack are 10-0 and have the most impressive win of anyone, a road win at then-No. 1 South Carolina, who had won 29 straight games overall dating back more than a year.

Winning on stages like that one and the one last March in Greensboro show this program, which has improved throughout Wes Moore’s tenure, is ready to make the jump and reach the Final Four in 2021.

Duke

Duke’s football program left a lot to be desired in 2020, with a dreadful 2-9 season with just one conference win. So, for 2021, the goal for David Cutcliffe and his team should be to be competitive again; I’ll quantify this goal through bowl eligibility.

While Duke is far from a football school — I can hear your gasps that this isn’t a basketball resolution — the Blue Devils had become pretty consistent under Cutcliffe, with bowl appearances in six of the previous seven years before 2020, and wins in the three most recent of those bowls. The Blue Devils won 10 games and the ACC Coastal Division in 2013, and have won eight or more games three more times since. They also won the Victory Bell over UNC five times in seven years from 2012-18.

To get back to that level, defense is the most pressing concern. That’s not to say the offense wasn’t sporadic in 2020, or that quarterback Chase Brice’s lone season in Durham wasn’t an immense disappointment — but in Duke’s last four games it allowed at least 48 points in each game and 54.0 per game.

A College Football Playoff appearance or an ACC title isn’t a reasonable goal, at least not for the immediate future. But the Blue Devils can certainly be far more competitive than what they showed last year.

Wake Forest

Steve Forbes came to Wake Forest as men’s basketball coach in 2020, and while his first season could potentially be a struggle in terms of results, a resolution for the team is to show the effort the coach preaches.

From his introductory press conference in May to several interviews since, Forbes has been clear what the desired identity of his teams is: play hard, share the ball, be tough on defense, rebound with two hands and execute. Over the last decade, the Deacs have been missing some of the points in that creed all or most of the time, including the last six seasons under Danny Manning.

Roster turnover through the pandemic-stricken offseason meant Forbes was basically starting from scratch and the team doesn’t yet know each other well; throw in nearly a month of missed practices and games after a virus outbreak on the team in late November, and the climb is that much more steep.

So instead of proposing a wins-and-losses goal — which would be a tough gauge anyway, with the uncertainty of how many games will be played — I’ll simply say that playing hard and improving fundamentals is a goal for this edition of Deacs. Establishing that identity, even if the season produces a poor record, can go a long way towards helping the Deacs build under Forbes in the coming years.

Chris Stiles can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter at @StilesOnSports.