By Al Featherston
March 21, 2006
The ACC has built its reputation as the nation's best basketball conference on a half-century of postseason success.
Thanks solely to UCLA coach John Wooden's incredible 12-year run between 1964 and 1973, the Pac-10 has more championships than the ACC. But no conference -- and especially not the Pac-10 -- can approach the ACC in overall NCAA Tournament victories or in tournament winning percentage. The ACC has produced more Final Four teams, more Elite Eight teams and more Sweet 16 teams than any other league.
But that legacy was still in the future 50 years ago, when N.C. State suffered what stands in hindsight as the ACC's single biggest NCAA Tournament disappointment. A four-overtime loss to an unknown Canisius team cost Everett Case's greatest Wolfpack team a shot at the national championship and highlighted the one flaw in the résumé of one of the league's true coaching giants.
To understand the impact of N.C. State's 1956 loss, you have to understand the basketball landscape at that time.
When Case first arrived in Raleigh after World War II, he immediately transformed N.C. State from a basketball nonentity into a giant that dominated its neighbors on Tobacco Road and in surrounding states. His first team, stocked with Indiana schoolboy products, took a 6-12 program and turned it into a 26-5 powerhouse that swept both the Southern Conference regular-season and tournament titles. Over the next 10 years, Case would average 26.5 wins per season and win nine conference championships, losing only the 1953 Southern Conference finale by a single point to Wake Forest.
The Gray Fox, as Case was known, dominated his rivals in the Southern Conference and (after 1953) in the fledgling ACC. He beat up on top national teams in his Dixie Classic, a holiday tournament that matched the Big Four against a wide variety of powerful outsiders.
But that success never seemed to translate into NCAA Tournament splendor for the Wolfpack. Case's mediocre 6-6 NCAA scoreboard stands as the one flaw in his historical résumé. At the time, the coach's postseason failures were used by Eastern writers to discredit the NCSU program -- and, by extension, to discredit the whole conference that Case ruled with such an iron hand.
Part of the problem was his own fault. His 1955 and 1959 ACC champions were placed on probation for recruiting violations and thus were not allowed to participate in the NCAA Tournament. But Case also was plagued by bad timing and the awkward NCAA selection process in those early days.
N.C. State's powerful 1948 and 1949 Southern Conference champs were judged to be in the same region as mighty Kentucky. As good as Case's Hoosier Hotshots were, coach Adolph Rupp's great Alex Groza, Ralph Beard and Wah-Wah Jones teams were better and took the lone NCAA spot reserved for a southern team.
State did represent the South in the 1950 NCAA Tournament. That turned out to be Case's only Final Four appearance, although nobody thought in terms of a Final Four in those days. The tournament actually was an eight-team event, with every game played in New York. N.C. State routed Holy Cross to reach the national semifinals, where the Wolfpack lost to eventual champion CCNY. Case, so aware of the value of the homecourt in basketball, must have recognized the unfairness of having to face coach Nat Holman's great City College team in Madison Square Garden.
Geography played a large role in Case's NCAA frustrations. In most seasons, State would win the Southern or ACC championship on a Saturday night in Raleigh, then be forced to rush to New York or Philadelphia for a first-round NCAA game on Monday night.
The Pack's 1954 ACC champions got a break. Their first-round NCAA matchup was scheduled for Reynolds Coliseum. But Southern Conference champion George Washington protested the prospect of facing N.C. State on its own home court, so the obliging Case arranged to move the game to Duke Indoor Stadium.
Funny, but after the Wolfpack edged George Washington in Durham, nobody raised questions about the unfairness of playing LaSalle in the Philadelphia Palestra, the Explorers' home away from home. On Friday night, exactly a week after N.C. State's narrow victory over Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals, All-American Tom Gola led LaSalle to an 88-81 victory over the Pack. That early round matchup with the eventual NCAA champs was typical of the kind of bad luck in NCAA play that seemed to characterize Case's tenure.
But everything seemed to be set up for N.C. State to make a strong NCAA run in 1956. For once, there was a nine-day gap between the ACC title game and the NCAA opener in Madison Square Garden. And Case had assembled what looked to be the best of his many outstanding teams. The Pack started four seniors and a junior, including All-American center Ronnie Shavlik, All-American guard Vic Molodet and his speedy backcourt mate John Maglio.
"I'll match my two guards," Case said, "against any in the country."
His team routed No. 5 Brigham Young in early December, then beat No. 4 North Carolina to win the Dixie Classic. The Pack opened the season with 11 straight wins before losing to Tobacco Road rival Duke in Durham, on a night when Molodet was sidelined with a viral infection. State got revenge on the Blue Devils with a victory in the ACC Tournament semifinals, then routed Wake Forest in the title game to climb to No. 2 in the nation.
National pundits already were speculating about a possible NCAA title game between the powerful Wolfpack and unbeaten San Francisco. The Dons boasted All-American center Bill Russell, but with All-American guard K.C. Jones ineligible for postseason play, it appeared that Case's well-balanced team had the firepower to knock off the defending national champs.
But the dream game was never played.
Case's misfortune started in the Wolfpack's final regular-season game, an easy win over Wake Forest, when Shavlik suffered a hairline fracture of his left wrist. Although it first was announced that the ACC player of the year would not play again that season, Shavlik returned for the ACC Tournament with a soft cast on his wrist. His offensive game obviously was hurt by the injury -- he scored a total of just 18 points in the three tournament games -- but he did contribute 16 rebounds in the semifinal win over Duke.
Shavlik's courageous performance brought him considerable notoriety. He even was flown to New York to appear on the Perry Como Show. The rest of Case's team followed for a Monday night matchup in Madison Square Garden with Canisius, which had won 14 of its last 15 games.
Bucky Waters, a little-used Wolfpack guard from South Jersey, has a vivid memory of that N.C. State-Canisius game. Waters, of course, later became the head coach at Duke and still serves as a college basketball television analyst.
"There was a quote in the papers that day -- Bones McKinney said it, but it was attributed to Case -- What's a Canisius?'" Waters said. "Well, they had a pretty good team; they had three guys who played in the NBA. You can imagine how that (quote) fired them up."
The NCAA Tournament had expanded again and included 25 teams in a most unbalanced field. There were just five teams in the West Regional and six in the two middle regionals. But there were eight teams in the East, including such powers as Holy Cross, West Virginia and Temple, in addition to the Wolfpack.
In the first game of the doubleheader at the Garden that night, Harry Litwack's Owls edged Holy Cross on a last-second shot by guard Guy Rodgers. That first game, delayed by a long controversy over Rodgers' shot, seemed to last forever for the impatient Wolfpack.
"We waited all day to play," Waters said. "I remember how hungry I was. The last time we ate was eggs at 4 o'clock."
It was almost 10 p.m. before the State-Canisius game tipped off. The contest would stretch long into the night, as the Wolfpack couldn't put away its unheralded opponent, despite a spectacular 25-point, 17-rebound effort by the one-armed Shavlik.
"I would hate to see Shavlik with two arms," Canisius coach Joe Curran said after the game.
However, N.C. State's guards played uncharacteristically tight throughout the game, and the Wolfpack trailed most of the way. It didn't help that Molodet picked up four fouls in the game's first 16 minutes, three of them charges. Case's defense kept Canisius stars James McCarthy and Bob Kelly under control, but unheralded Hank Nowak poured in 29 points. It took a strong rally by the Pack to tie the game in regulation, then force a second, third and, finally, an incredible fourth overtime.
"I can't understand why we seem to play so poorly in Madison Square Garden," Case said. "I guess it's because the boys want to win so badly, they just try too hard."
For all of the problems, it finally looked as if the Pack would prevail when Maglio and senior Phil DiNardo scored back-to-back baskets to give N.C. State a 79-78 lead with a minute left in the fourth overtime. It was well past midnight, with 14 seconds left on the game clock, when Maglio went to the foul line with a chance to clinch the win.
"Even if he just missed it normally, we would have won," Waters said. "Instead, the ball hit the front of the rim and kicked out long, and they threw in a desperation shot."
The shooter was little-used Canisius sub Frank Corcoran, who averaged less than one point per game. His name and number weren't even listed in the game program. His running one-hander was his only basket against N.C. State, but it was enough to ruin the Pack's national championship hopes.
"That loss really broke Case's heart," Waters said. "He always said that really was his best team."
It also turned out to be the coach's last shot at postseason glory. By the time Case's 1959 team won the ACC title, N.C. State was on probation again. This time it was for five years, for offering illegal inducements to a Louisiana prep star named Jackie Moreland. Just as that penalty was ending, a gambling scandal broke out that set the N.C. State program back for the final years of Case's career.
The most painful irony for the legendary Wolfpack coach was that it was his bitter rival in Chapel Hill who finally found the postseason magic that Case lacked.
A year after Canisius handed N.C. State its greatest disappointment, coach Frank McGuire led North Carolina to 32 straight wins and a national title -- and the first stage of the ACC's impressive journey to NCAA Tournament greatness.
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