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Big Four No More?

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

****************** Since the creation of the ACC, the league's four Tobacco Road teams have produced 45 conference championships, nine NCAA

titles, 32 Final Four appearances, 71 Sweet 16s and 233 NCAA wins. Meanwhile, the non-North Carolina schools have managed just eight conference championships, one national title, six Final Fours, 34 Sweet 16s and 95 NCAA wins.

Entering the final weeks of the 2006-07 regular season, however, only one North Carolina-based ACC team (UNC) had a winning record in conference play, and N.C. State and Wake Forest appeared destined for the bottom of the standings.

What's going on?

******************



By Al Featherston
ACCSports.com

February 20, 2007

Early on a March afternoon 50 years ago, South Carolina put the finishing touches on its 84-81 upset of Duke in the first game of the 1957 ACC Tournament. Senior Grady Wallace poured in 41 points to spark the sixth-seeded Gamecocks' second-half rally, before approximately 8,000 fans at N.C. State's Reynolds Coliseum.

They didn't realize they were watching an historic victory, the first time in the four-year history of the ACC that a team from outside North Carolina had beaten a Tobacco Road team in the tournament.

Before the Gamecocks pulled off their upset, the teams known as the Big Four were a collective 11-0 against the non-North Carolina teams. And even though coach Gene Shue's fourth-seeded Maryland Terrapins would beat two Tobacco Road teams en route to the 1958 ACC title, by the time Duke cut down the nets after winning the 1960 championship, the Big Four had improved its record against the rest of the league to a dominant 22-3 in ACC Tournament play.

53-SEASON STREAK IN JEOPARDY

That dominance has continued to the present day.

While the shape of the ACC has changed a number of times over the years, the power structure of the league has not. Teams such as Clemson, Maryland and Florida State might take turns as the league's top football powers, but when it comes to basketball, the "Big Four" North Carolina schools on Tobacco Road have reigned supreme.

Oh, there has been a succession of challengers to the Big Four's rule — from Shue's Terps in the 1950s, to Frank McGuire's South Carolina Gamecocks in the late 1960s, to Lefty Driesell's Terps in the 1970s, to the Terry Holland/Ralph Sampson teams at Virginia in the early 1980s, to Bobby Cremins' Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to Gary Williams' Terps in more recent times.

Those challengers have won an occasional title or have appeared to achieve a very temporary superiority in the league, but it's never lasted. One Big Four power or another always has fought back and returned control of the league to Tobacco Road.

This season the ACC's outsiders are mounting another assault on the four North Carolina powers. For once, they have strength in numbers. With eight outsiders taking on the Big Four, there's a two-to-one edge. That shows up in the standings, where three of the top four and seven of the top nine teams are from outside the Big Four.

North Carolina remains a real power, but the Tar Heels are the last power left standing on Tobacco Road this season. Once-mighty Duke is reeling, fighting desperately to salvage a once-promising campaign. N.C. State and Wake Forest, so competitive in the early part of this decade, are temporarily out of the fight, with both reduced to playing a spoiler's role in this year's league race.

Overall, the outsiders reached last week with an 18-11 record against the Big Four. That's a stunning reversal of the normal state of affairs.

In the last 10 years, the Tobacco Road teams have averaged a 27-13 record against the out-of-state teams in the league, with a high of 31-9 in 2005 and a low of 24-16 in 2002. And if Duke doesn't rally to finish in the top four of the ACC standings, that will mark the first time in the 54-year history of the ACC that the Big Four has failed to put at least two members among the top four in the final league standings.

It's a new world in the ACC, and the Big Four is facing its greatest challenge since the league was formed. Will this be the end of Tobacco Road's dominance, or will the North Carolina teams beat off this challenge, just as they have defeated so many others in the past?

N.C. TEAMS DOMINATED EARLY

The Big Four ruled ACC basketball country before there ever was an ACC.

Go back to the beginning of the old Southern Conference, and you'll see an early struggle between the early Big Four teams and future SEC teams for superiority. The Tobacco Road teams won eight titles from 1921 (when the first Southern Conference championship was awarded) through 1939. Six early titles went to teams that would break off in 1933 and form the SEC.

The ACC's future non-North Carolina members won twice — South Carolina in 1933 and Clemson in 1939. That lone Tiger title (Clemson's only conference championship in 86 years of men's basketball competition) was significant because it marked the last gasp of the non-North Carolina teams.

From 1940-53, when seven Southern Conference teams joined independent Virginia to form the new ACC, Big Four teams won 13 of 14 titles, missing only in 1942 when George Washington won the Southern Conference.

The jump from the Southern Conference to the ACC did nothing to change things. The Big Four merely carried its dominance over to the new league, without pesky George Washington to worry about.

Start with the ACC Tournament, since that's the official championship of the league.

N.C. State has won 10 ACC titles, which is two more than all of the nine non-North Carolina schools that are or have been members of the league have managed to win in total.

And N.C. State merely ranks a distant third in the Big Four when it comes to ACC championships. Duke leads with 16. North Carolina has 15. Wake Forest has just four ACC titles, which sounds pitiful until you consider that it's one more than any of the non-North Carolina schools has managed.

Overall, the Big Four has won 45 ACC championships. The rest of the league has won eight.

Of course, skeptics will point out that 45 of the 53 ACC Tournaments have been played on Tobacco Road — 13 in Raleigh, 21 in Greensboro, 11 in Charlotte — giving the in-state schools a big edge. That argument might have more weight if it wasn't for the fact that the North Carolina schools have won six of the eight tournaments played outside the state, three of four in Atlanta and three of four in Washington/Landover.

When you check out regular-season results — which for 50 of the league's 53 seasons were shaped by a perfectly balanced schedule — you'll see that Big Four teams have won 37 titles outright and tied for 16 others. That doesn't mean that the Big Four has won or tied for all 53 ACC regular-season titles. Many of the ties were between or among Big Four teams.

The easiest way to get the real picture is to check out the rare regular-season titles won by non-Big Four teams. Those schools have combined to win seven regular-season titles outright: South Carolina (1970), Maryland (1975), Maryland (1980), Virginia (1981), Clemson (1990), Georgia Tech (1996) and Maryland (2002). The outsiders have tied for first place five times, always with at least one Big Four school.

Those results don't look all that different from the tournament results.

NCAA, ACC NUMBERS TELLING

Want more?

Check out the NCAA Tournament split between the Big Four schools and the non-North Carolina schools.

Tobacco Road has produced nine NCAA titles (four by UNC, three by Duke, two by N.C. State), 32 Final Four appearances (15 by UNC, 14 by Duke, two by N.C. State, one by Wake Forest), 71 Sweet 16s and 233 NCAA wins. Note: UNC and N.C. State have a pre-ACC Final Four that's not counted here.

The non-North Carolina schools have managed one national title (Maryland in 2002), six Final Fours (Maryland, Virginia and Georgia Tech have two each), 34 Sweet 16s and 95 NCAA wins. Note: Florida State also has made a Final Four appearance, but that was before the Seminoles joined the ACC.

Of course, the non-North Carolina teams got few NCAA Tournament chances in the years before the NCAA opened up the field in 1980. But since the limits on participation were lifted that season, the non-Big Four teams have surpassed the Big Four teams in the tournament exactly three times:

  • 1984: Virginia reached the Final Four, while Wake Forest was the last surviving Big Four team, losing to Houston in the Midwest Regional final.

  • 2002: Maryland won the national title, while Duke, the last Big Four survivor, lost to Indiana in the South semifinals.

  • 2004: Georgia Tech reached the national championship game, lasting one game longer than Duke, which fell to Connecticut in the national semifinals.

Put all of those numbers together, and an amazing fact emerges: In the entire history of the ACC, there has not been a single season in which a Big Four team failed to either (1) win or share the regular-season title, or (2) win the ACC Tournament title, or (3) go further in the NCAA Tournament than any other ACC team.

In fact, 1990 is the only year when a Big Four team failed to claim some share of the ACC's twin championships. Clemson won the regular-season race outright, and Georgia Tech beat Virginia in the ACC Tournament final. That also happened to be the only time no Big Four team reached the championship game.

But Tobacco Road reclaimed 1990 honors in NCAA play. Duke, which had finished a game behind Clemson in the regular-season race, then lost to Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament semifinals, made it all the way to the NCAA title game. The Blue Devils lasted one game longer than Georgia Tech, which fell to UNLV in the semifinals.

DRIESELL SYMBOLIZES OUTSIDERS

The Big Four's dominance of the league long has haunted coaches from outside North Carolina.

Maryland's Gary Williams jokes about being in Alaska, he's so far from the center of the ACC. Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt treated backstage bystanders to a bitter tirade against the ACC and its "Big Four bias" in the moments after his team's close loss to Duke in the 2005 ACC title game.

But let Lefty Driesell stand as the symbol of all that frustration.

It's almost as if the energetic and garrulous coach was working in hell — tortured by being given a program that was always on the verge of great success, but at the last moment, finding that success denied by one of the Four Horsemen. The Four Horsemen were known in days of yore as Death, Famine, War and Pestilence, but known to Driesell as Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest. The Ol' Left-hander may be the greatest college coach who never reached a Final Four, and the reason he never reached one was the series of Tobacco Road roadblocks that he kept tripping over.

Driesell's problems with the Big Four actually started before he arrived at Maryland.

The unknown young coach first made a national reputation by upsetting Wake Forest and Duke early in the 1962-63 season. But when Vic Bubas' Blue Devils returned the favor a season later in Durham, Driesell exploded in the post-game and declared that Bubas was "yellow" if he didn't play Davidson in Charlotte the next year. Driesell may have been forgetting that, a year earlier, he had celebrated his upset of Duke by thanking Bubas for being generous enough to play Davidson in Charlotte.

The bad feelings caused the temporary cancellation of the Duke-Davidson series, but Driesell found a new Big Four coach to fight. His duel with North Carolina's Dean Smith started on the recruiting trail, when the young Tar Heel coach stole his prize recruit Charlie Scott out of Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute. To add insult to injury, Smith's UNC team edged Driesell's Wildcats in the 1968 East Regional championship game, as Scott poured in 18 points and pulled down six rebounds.

A year later, Driesell again matched up with Smith in the East title game, telling reporters: "I'd rather die than lose to North Carolina again."

But he did lose again, this time on a last-second shot by Scott from the top of the key. The player Driesell lost to Smith scored 32 points, pulled down eight rebounds and added four assists, as the Heels knocked Lefty's best Davidson team out of the NCAA Tournament — one game short of the Final Four.

Instead of dying, Driesell jumped from Davidson to Maryland. By joining the ACC as an outsider, he would open himself up to almost two more decades of torture at the hands of the Tobacco Road teams.

Ironically, Driesell might have been a Big Four coach himself. En route to College Park for that fateful 1969 regional matchup with UNC, Driesell stopped in Durham to talk to officials about succeeding the retiring Bubas as the Blue Devils' coach. The former Duke benchwarmer had some support, but he also had too many enemies who remembered his 1964 outburst and argued that he didn't fit Duke's "image."

Instead, Driesell succeeded Frank Fellows in College Park, vowing to make Maryland "the UCLA of the East." What actually happened is that he made them the Davidson of the ACC, a consistently excellent team that couldn't get past the Big Four team standing in its way to greatness.

The Left-hander assembled an incredibly talented team in College Park. He even repaid Smith for the "theft" of Scott by stealing gifted forward Tom McMillen from the Heels at the last moment. He also swooped down on Tobacco Road and landed brilliant point guard John Lucas out of Durham's Hillside High, located about six miles from the Duke campus. He added powerful center Len Elmore from New York City and slender but deadly wing guard Mo Howard from Philadelphia.

It was a great team, one of the greatest in ACC history. It just happened to come along at the same time as coach Norm Sloan was putting the finishing touches on an even greater team at N.C. State.

Sloan's Pack — built around towering center Tom Burleson, tiny point guard Monte Towe and the transcendent talent of David Thompson — first stuck it to Driesell's powerful team on Super Bowl Sunday (Jan. 14) in 1973. In a game seen by most of the nation, thanks to a landmark syndication deal, Thompson scored the winning basket at the buzzer, soaring over the Maryland big men to tip in Burleson's miss.

That would be the first of six straight N.C. State victories over the Terps, all by excruciatingly close margins. That includes the Wolfpack's 76-74 victory in the 1973 ACC title game and State's 103-100 overtime win in the 1974 ACC Tournament championship game. The latter widely is considered the greatest game ever played.

STRANGE RESULTS DENIED LEFTY

There's also a widely held theory that Driesell lost that game because of his hatred of UNC and Smith.

The powerful Terps massacred North Carolina 105-85 in the semifinals on Friday night. It appeared that Driesell was taking his years of frustration out on the Heels. Despite the lopsided nature of the game (Maryland was up 16 at the half and never threatened in the second half), the Terps starters went almost all the way. Three starters played all 40 minutes, and two more played 38 each. One night later, Driesell blamed fatigue for the crucial errors his players made in the final moments of regulation and in overtime against N.C. State.

Would those mistakes have been made had Driesell forgotten his grudge against UNC and rested his starters?

A year later, Maryland would sweep the regular-season series from the Wolfpack, only to fall to N.C. State 87-85 in the ACC Tournament semifinals. With the game tied and Thompson sidelined by cramps, backup point guard Craig Davis dribbled the ball off his foot at midcourt, kicking it 40 feet forward, right into the hands of freshman Kenny Carr, who laid it in for the game-winner.

That would not be the last fluke play to deny Driesell an ACC championship. In 1980, his Terps won the regular-season title but found themselves trailing Duke in the final seconds of the ACC title game. Albert King put up a 15-foot jumper that missed, but Buck Williams — another gem Driesell stole off Tobacco Road — appeared to be perfectly positioned to tap in the game-winner. However, Kenny Dennard undercut the leaping Williams, dropping him to the floor to preserve Duke's 73-72 victory.

Things were supposed to be different when the ACC Tournament moved to the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., the next season. And, indeed, things did start out well for the Terps, who were playing less than 20 miles from their campus. Driesell's team edged Duke in the first round, then upset top-seeded Virginia in the semifinals.

But waiting in the final was an old nemesis. Smith's Tar Heels trailed Maryland most of the way in the title game but closed the gap late and finally won on a late jumper by — of all people — Mike Pepper.

That marked the fifth time in less than a decade that Maryland had lost the ACC championship game to a Big Four school — once in overtime, twice by one point, once by two points and once by nine points. Throw in Driesell's 1968-69 NCAA losses to UNC (by a grand total of six points), plus the heartbreaking 1975 ACC Tournament semifinal loss to N.C. State, and it's not hard to see why Driesell — and the entire Maryland nation — developed a fanatic paranoia about the Big Four.

That all bubbled up in 1984, when Driesell at long last beat a Tobacco Road team when it counted. His Terps rallied from a 30-27 halftime deficit to defeat Duke 74-62 in the ACC championship game. Making it that much sweeter, the Terps also knocked off State and Wake in the earlier rounds.

"Back when I first started out ... I said, ‘If we win that thing, I'm going to get my car in here, and I'm going to get that trophy and screw it on the hood, and I'm going to ride all around the state of North Carolina for a week,'" Driesell told reporters. "I was really going to do that. Now, I'm too old for that. I've got to go home and get some sleep."

DUKE, WAKE HALTED CHALLENGES

As it turned out, Driesell was too old. He would never again contend for an ACC championship.

After the Len Bias tragedy forced him out at Maryland, Driesell moved on to James Madison, where fate — and the Big Four — dealt him one more cruel blow. His Dukes were on the verge of a major upset over North Carolina in Hawaii, only to be beaten by a desperation shot by point guard King Rice that hit the rim, bounced what seemed like 20 feet in the air, and dropped back through the net to give the Tar Heels a one-point victory.

Meanwhile, the Big Four coach Driesell beat in the 1984 ACC final would become another Tobacco Road monster, crushing the dreams of the non-North Carolina coaches the way Smith did for so many years.

Mike Krzyzewski flexed his muscles by finishing off Holland's challenge to the Big Four after Smith's Tar Heels and Jim Valvano's Wolfpack had taken the measure of the great Sampson-led teams in the early 1980s. One
of Coach K's darkest moments was a bitter 109-66 loss to Sampson and the Cavs in the first round of the 1983 ACC Tournament.

Krzyzewski learned that Sampson, who had picked up a foul for elbowing freshman Jay Bilas 11 seconds into the game, had complained to reporters that Duke was a dirty team. Coach K was still fuming as the team's coaches and a handful of administrators gathered at Denny's for a late-night dinner.

Sports information director Johnny Moore raised his glass of water and offered a toast. "Here's to forgetting tonight," Moore said. Krzyzewski stopped him. "No, here's to never forgetting tonight," the coach said.

The next fall, when the Duke players gathered for the first day of practice, they saw the Virginia score — 109-66 — lit up on the scoreboard. That Duke team would sweep its two games from the Cavaliers. The next Duke team would beat Virginia twice without a loss. The next Duke team beat the Cavs three times. In fact, the Blue Devils would not lose to UVa again in that decade.

During that era, Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins won three ACC titles in nine seasons — the strongest showing by a non-Big Four program in history — but in the end, Cremins didn't have the staying power to outlast UNC's Smith, Duke's Krzyzewski and N.C. State's Valvano. And even when Cremins finally claimed his first outright ACC regular-season title in 1996, his Jackets found their path to the ACC championship blocked by yet another Big Four school, Wake Forest with Tim Duncan.

TERPS' WILLIAMS UNDERSTANDS

Another successful Maryland coach mounted a strong assault against the Big Four's dominance of the ACC in the 1990s and early 21st century.

Gary Williams, who played for Driesell at College Park, took over a shattered Maryland program and quickly restored the Terps to excellence. He began a string of 10 straight first-division ACC finishes in 1994 and gave Maryland its first two Final Four trips in 2001 and 2002 and its first national title in the latter year.

Yet, for all of that success, Williams has been tortured by the Big Four in much the same way Driesell was tormented. Six of Williams' first eight trips to the ACC Tournament ended as losses to Big Four teams.

Williams' great 1999 Steve Francis-led team won 28 games and climbed as high as No. 2 in the nation, but Duke was No. 1 that year and twice routed the Terps in the regular season. Williams was denied an ACC Tournament rematch with the Blue Devils when North Carolina, enduring a lackluster season under Bill Guthridge, upset the Terps in the semifinals. That defeat left Williams raging on the sidelines, venting his frustration at Tobacco Road's control of the ACC to officials at the scorer's table and to fans behind his bench.

Two years later, another great Maryland team would meet Duke in four classic games, losing three in a manner that even Driesell would have found unbearable.

The first was in College Park, when the Devils rallied from a 10-point deficit in 55 seconds and won in overtime. After Maryland won in Durham, Duke knocked the Terps out of the ACC Tournament on a last-second tap-in by Nate James. Three weeks later, Maryland's first-ever Final Four trip was spoiled when Duke overcame a 22-point first-half deficit and won 95-84.

True, the Terps did bounce back to win the ACC regular-season title and the national title a year later, but even then, Williams had to watch Duke cut down the nets at the ACC Tournament, after N.C. State upset Maryland in the semifinals.

The connection between Driesell and Williams is astonishing. Going into this season, both had exactly the same winning percentage (54.9) in ACC play. Driesell was 17-16 in the ACC Tournament, with one title. Williams was 15-15, with one title. The current Maryland coach did sweep three Big Four teams to win the 2004 ACC title, but overall his record against Tobacco Road teams in the tournament is a dismal 6-11.

BIG FOUR WILL BOUNCE BACK?

The curse of the Big Four lives on.

Or does it? Does this season's challenge by the non-North Carolina teams represent a historic redistribution of power in the ACC, or is it merely the most extreme of those rare — and short-term — blips when the Tobacco Road teams slip?

Well, look at the teams that have been bullying the Big Four. The common thread is experience. The non-North Carolina teams are much more experienced this season than the in-state schools.

There are, in fact, just three recruited seniors playing on Tobacco Road: center Kyle Visser at Wake Forest, forward Reyshawn Terry at UNC and oft-injured point guard Engin Atsur at N.C. State. Only three recruited juniors are listed on the Big Four rosters: swingman DeMarcus Nelson at Duke, point guard Quentin Thomas at UNC and swingman Gavin Grant at N.C. State.

Contrast that with Virginia Tech (4-2 against the Big Four), which starts three seniors and a junior, or Virginia (4-1 against the Big Four), which is getting clutch play from senior wing J.R. Reynolds and junior point guard Sean Singletary (along with senior Jason Cain and juniors Tunji Soroye, Adrian Joseph and Ryan Pettinella), or Boston College (2-3 against the Big Four), which features superb senior forward Jared Dudley, along with senior Sean Marshall and juniors John Oates and Tyrelle Blair.

This list goes on. Maryland starts three seniors and a junior. Clemson starts a senior and three juniors. Florida State starts senior all-star Al Thornton and two juniors, three after point guard Ralph Mims replaced third-year sophomore Toney Douglas (injured) as a starter.

What's happened is that the Big Four teams are caught in an unusual cycle of inexperience.

North Carolina, which starts one senior, one sophomore and three freshmen, has the overwhelming talent to overcome its inexperience in most cases. (Both Virginia Tech losses were clear cases of a veteran team trumping a more talented young one.) Duke, which starts a junior, two sophomores and two freshmen, is almost talented enough to compete at the top level, but inexperience clearly has hurt the Devils in clutch situations. N.C. State has only one regular who had ever been a regular before this season. That's Atsur, who has been hurt for much of this season. Wake Forest, trying to break in three freshman starters and three more freshman reserves, is struggling to compete.

"You'd like to think that these guys can compete in the upper echelon when they are sophomores or seniors," Deacons coach Skip Prosser said, "especially seniors."

That's what makes it likely that the Big Four will bounce back next season.

Duke's young players will not only be a year older, but Krzyzewski is bringing in another influx of prep All-American talent. State coach Sidney Lowe will be addressing his numbers problem with the additions of a prep All-American big man and two transfer guards. Prosser will add two more promising recruits, and just as importantly, his core group will be a year older.

North Carolina doesn't have any big-time recruits lined up for next season, but the Tar Heels are so deep and so talented that unless there's an unexpected exodus of underclassmen to the NBA, Williams could have an even better team next year, even without Terry and maybe one or two underclass defections.

On the other hand, Boston College, Virginia Tech and Maryland will suffer devastating graduation losses. Florida State and Virginia also will lose key players.

Relative to the rest of the league, the Big Four should be much better next season. So will it be a return to the old days, when Tobacco Road was the heart and soul of ACC basketball?

Maybe ... but maybe not. Expansion has altered the ACC lineup. It's not insignificant that the Big Four, which used to be half the league, now makes up just a third of the new ACC. Numbers do matter.

There are now eight teams to challenge the Big Four, and that doubles the odds that one or two of those teams will be on an up-cycle in a given year. It's true that many of this year's non-North Carolina powers will take a graduation hit, but there are at least a couple that won't.

Georgia Tech is almost as young as the youngest team on Tobacco Road, and Hewitt appears to be the one ACC coach who can approach Krzyzewski and UNC's Williams on the recruiting trail. The Yellow Jackets will lose senior guard Mario West next season, but they also will add two heralded recruits and possibly regain suspended guard Lewis Clinch. And Clemson's revival under coach Oliver Purnell should continue uninterrupted. The Tigers will lose senior point guard Vernon Hamilton, a quality player to be sure, but they will return the rest of a talented roster.

So while the Big Four figures to regain some of its lost prestige in the coming seasons, it's going to be difficult for the Tobacco Road schools to maintain the iron grip they've held on the ACC for so long.

It's a new league, and there are more new challengers to the North Carolina quartet that has ruled for so long.

Lefty should be very happy.

Al Featherston, formerly of the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun, has covered ACC basketball for 37 years. He is a regular contributor to the ACC Sports Journal and the author of the recent release "Tobacco Road: Duke, Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest, and the History of the Most Intense Backyard Rivalries in Sports," which is available in bookstores and at Amazon.com.