The Age Of Parity? Maybe Not.
A Return To The Status Quo? Yep.
Duke has won 16 ACC championships in men's basketball. North Carolina also has captured 16 conference titles. That's more than the following schools have combined: Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech (three), Maryland (three), Miami, Virginia (one), Virginia Tech and Wake Forest (four).
There was talk a year ago that the two-pronged dominance of the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels over a period of 20 years or even longer might be coming to an end. The 2007-08 season certainly has suggested otherwise.
"That's what makes this league so unique compared to the other major conferences in the country, is that you don't have just one traditional power. You have two that have stood the test of time," Virginia coach Dave Leitao said. "There are only a select few in the country that claim to be the best year-in and year-out, and we happen to have two in this league."
By Al Featherston
March 11, 2008
Parity? What parity?
A year ago at this time, the Atlantic Coast Conference was supposed to be entering a new basketball era an era of balance and parity.
Mighty North Carolina was battling upstarts Virginia, Virginia Tech, Boston College and Maryland in a mad five-team race for the ACC regular-season title. Equally mighty Duke was mired in the middle of the league standings, fighting it out with Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida State. Even 10th-place N.C. State was good enough to make a run to the ACC Tournament title game.
It was the new face of ACC hoops no more Big Four dominance, no more UNC-Duke center of gravity, just a lot of teams on roughly equal footing.
But the ACC's Era of Parity was short-lived. The league entered the 2008 postseason looking very much as it has over the last quarter-century. North Carolina and Duke sit atop the league standings, separated from their so-called peers by a wide gap in talent, coaching and, most of all, tradition.
"They've established themselves, and they earned that," Boston College coach Al Skinner said. "It's up to everyone else to raise their program to where that status is. There have been various successful teams within the league over the years. It's just that (UNC and Duke have) remained really consistent."
It's that consistency, more than this year's standings, that has separated UNC and Duke from the ACC field.
Go back to 1985 which, admittedly, is an arbitrary starting point. But it coincides with the start of the modern 64/65-team NCAA Tournament. You'll see that in the modern era, UNC and Duke have been the face of ACC hoops.
The neighboring superpowers have won or shared 20 of 24 ACC regular-season titles and 16 of 23 (pending this year's result in Charlotte) ACC Tournament titles. One or the other has played in the ACC championship game in 21 of the last 23 years, missing only in 1990 and 1996.
Nationally, the two blue-clad juggernauts have won (in that span) five national titles and participated in 16 Final Fours. Duke and UNC have had more NCAA Tournament wins than the rest of the ACC put together.
"Traditionally," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said, "it's going to be awfully hard to catch up with Carolina or even Duke."
TWO-TEAM AXIS OF POWER
Duke and North Carolina have been at each other's athletic throats for almost a century, but in a very real sense, the rivalry shares one thing with baseball's celebrated Yankees-Red Sox rivalry: It's only fairly recently that the two rivals have established a stranglehold on their leagues.
In the first three decades of the ACC, the conference was dominated by a shifting series of rising and falling powers.
Everett Case's N.C. State teams ruled the first few seasons of the new league, with the strongest challenges coming from Murray Greason's Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
It didn't take Frank McGuire, imported from St. John's to revive the wreckage of UNC's program, long to raise the Tar Heels into position to challenge and even surpass Case's Wolfpack. But both programs were set back in the early 1960s by probation and an ugly point-shaving scandal.
That opened the door for Duke, guided by Case disciple Vic Bubas, and Wake Forest, guided by former Greason assistant Bones McKinney, to assert their dominance on the league. Midway through the decade, McKinney's program started to slip just as young coach Dean Smith finally got his North Carolina program back to parity with Bubas and Duke.
Smith's Tar Heels won their first ACC title in 1967, beginning the longest sustained run of excellence in ACC history. His rise wasn't just another brief run as an ACC power. Smith took a very good, very successful Carolina program and lifted it to the front rank of national powers up there with Kentucky, UCLA, Kansas and maybe Indiana.
For 30-plus years, Smith's teams were always always among the ACC's elite. Between 1965 and the Hall of Fame coach's retirement after the 1997 season, UNC never finished lower than third in the league standings.
"North Carolina stands alone," Virginia coach Dave Leitao said. "There aren't many other schools in this country that have their own museums for basketball. It speaks to the history that you go up against."
During the first two decades of Smith's reign, he faced a variety of challengers first from Bubas at Duke, then from his old mentor McGuire, who built a short-lived powerhouse at South Carolina.
For a brief period in the early 1970s, the confluence of two remarkable recruiting groups David Thompson, Tommy Burleson and Monte Towe at N.C. State, and John Lucas, Tom McMillen and Len Elmore at Maryland briefly made State-Maryland the twin pillars of ACC basketball. Side note: While the Tar Heels endured a two-year drought against the Wolfpack, Smith's teams actually compiled a better ACC record in 1973 and 1974 than Lefty Driesell's Terps.
Smith regained control of the league with an unexpected ACC Tournament triumph in 1975. He once again took on a succession of challengers Bill Foster's Duke teams; the Ralph Sampson-led Virginia powers; Jim Valvano's early miracle teams, plus an unexpected challenge from young coach Bobby Cremins (like Smith, a McGuire protégé) at Georgia Tech.
The point is that through the mid-1980s, the ACC enjoyed a kaleidoscope of shifting power relationships. Smith's Tar Heel teams were always in the mix, but the teams contesting UNC's dominance shifted with dizzying variety.
Duke was nothing special during this period. After Bubas' departure in 1969, the program struggled to find itself.
It wasn't until Foster put together his Mike Gminski-Jim Spanarkel-Gene Banks class, late in the 1970s, that Duke found itself back among the elite. Like so many other ACC challengers from that era, the Foster-led Blue Devils enjoyed their moment in the sun, but when that one extraordinary team broke up, there was nothing behind it. That left young Army coach Mike Krzyzewski with a massive rebuilding job when he took over in Durham.
It took Krzyzewski several years to put together his own special team. He finally beat UNC and reached the ACC Tournament final in 1984, but it wasn't until his Johnny Dawkins-Mark Alarie-David Henderson team dominated the ACC in 1986 that it was clear that Coach K had achieved parity with Smith's UNC powerhouse.
In itself, that was no small achievement, but it was something that quite a few teams had managed for brief periods. Sloan did it at N.C. State, Driesell at Maryland, Foster for three years at Duke, Holland for three years at Virginia. Valvano did it in 1983, and Cremins did it in 1985.
What made Krzyzewski's climb unusual is that he didn't climb back down off the mountaintop. His 1987 team finished third in the ACC and reached the Sweet 16. He won another ACC title in 1988 and started a run of five straight Final Fours, culminating in his back-to-back national titles in 1991 and 1992.
Krzyzewski had done exactly what Smith had done two decades earlier. He had taken a good, solid program and turned it into one of the nation's elite superpowers. For the first time, you had to mention Duke in the same breath with Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA and North Carolina.
Suddenly, the rest of the ACC was confronted with the prospect of battling not one, but two nationally elite programs.
"That's what makes this league so unique compared to the other major conferences in the country, is that you don't have just one traditional power. You have two that have stood the test of time," Leitao said. "There are only a select few in the country that claim to be the best year-in and year-out, and we happen to have two in this league."
THE LEAGUE'S NEW DYNAMIC
The emergence of Duke as a superpower on UNC's level changed the dynamic of the ACC.
Sure, it was possible for an outsider to challenge the league's two bullies, but it suddenly became much harder to overcome two perennial contenders.
Dave Odom managed a brief moment of parity when he lucked into Tim Duncan, an unheralded prospect from the Virgin Islands the recruiting gurus didn't misjudge Duncan's talent, they just didn't know he existed who blossomed into one of the best college basketball players of the 1990s. Gary Williams, seemingly by sheer force of will, assembled a national championship team at Maryland just after the turn of the century.
But the struggles of those two teams to reach the top indicates just what today's UNC-Duke challengers are facing.
Odom's teams exploited a brief blip in Krzyzewski's program thanks in part to his back trouble and his absence from the bench for most of the 1995 season to leapfrog the Blue Devils in 1995 and 1996. The Demon Deacons also beat Smith's Tar Heels in the 1995 ACC championship game.
Yet it was UNC that reached the Final Four that season, something that eluded the Deacons both in 1995 and 1996. And a year later, with Duncan in his senior season and clearly the best player in college basketball, Odom had to watch as a revived Duke team upset his Deacs in Winston-Salem to steal the ACC regular-season title. Then in the ACC Tournament, North Carolina knocked out Wake in the semifinals, earning the right to open NCAA Tournament play on the Deacs' own home floor.
The reassertion of dominance by Duke and UNC was the death knell for Odom's program, which faded into mediocrity. The fallout from the Demon Deacons' slide clearly contributed to the decision by Odom, who no longer had unwavering support in Winston-Salem, to jump to South Carolina in 2001.
In an apt side note, Wake coach Skip Prosser later mounted another challenge to the league's twin bullies. But even though Prosser won the ACC regular-season title in 2003, it was Duke that claimed the tournament championship. And in 2005, when Chris Paul and company spent the entire year in the national top 10, the Deacons still finished behind both UNC and Duke in the rankings and had to watch as the Tar Heels gained the ACC regular-season championship and the national title. To add insult to injury, the Blue Devils claimed the ACC Tournament championship in Washington, D.C., and beat out the Deacs for a No. 1 seed and a first-round trip to Charlotte to open the NCAA Tournament.
Williams' struggle to overcome the two Tobacco Road giants with his Terrapins has been even more revealing.
His 1995 team was ranked for the first time (No. 10 in the final AP poll) and was part of a four-way tie (with UNC, Wake Forest and Virginia) for the ACC regular-season title. But those Terps didn't even make it to the tournament final, losing an overtime game to North Carolina in the semifinals. Williams' great 1999 team with Steve Francis climbed as high as No. 2 in the nation, but it suffered two lopsided losses to Duke in the regular season, then was upset again by Carolina in the ACC Tournament semifinals.
By 2001, Williams had rebuilt his team around unheralded superstar Juan Dixon, ably supported by point guard Steve Blake and center Lonny Baxter. It was a team good enough to win the national championship. But it was almost derailed at midseason, when Duke staggered the Terps with a rally that erased a 10-point lead in the game's final minute. To their credit, Williams and his players were able to fight their way out of the three-game slump that followed and even get revenge with a victory over Duke in Durham.
However, the postseason was a Duke-blue nightmare. First, the Blue Devils knocked the Terps out of the ACC Tournament semifinals with a last-second Nate James tip-in in Atlanta. Then, after Maryland had fought its way to the Final Four for the first time in school history, the Terps ran into Duke again blowing a 22-point first-half lead to lose in Minneapolis. Two nights later, Williams and his players had to watch the hated Blue Devils claim the title that they believed should have been theirs.
The Terps managed to earn a measure of revenge the next season, returning to the Final Four and giving Williams his first national title and the first for a non-UNC/Duke team from the ACC since N.C. State's Cardiac Pack pulled off its famous upset of Houston in Albuquerque in 1983.
It wasn't quite a perfect revenge. Even though that Maryland team won the ACC regular-season title, Duke took the ACC Tournament crown and finished No. 1 in the final AP poll. Still, the 2002 Terps rank as one of the few teams in the last quarter-century that can claim to have topped both Duke and UNC in the same year.
Maryland has had a measure of success against the two superpowers since 2002. The Terps are a respectable 6-7 against Duke and 5-6 against North Carolina in the last six seasons. But Maryland has not been able to keep up with the two Tobacco Road giants on the larger scene. For instance, UNC has a national title and 11 NCAA Tournament wins since 2002; Duke has a Final Four appearance and 10 NCAA wins in that span; Maryland has four NCAA wins and has missed the tournament twice since winning the title.
Is it any wonder that Williams frequently speaks with such bitterness about the Tobacco Road dominance of the ACC? He sure ain't complaining about how N.C. State and Wake Forest run things in the league.
ONE YEAR MAKES DIFFERENCE
A year ago, North Carolina and Duke were a combined 17-11 against the rest of the ACC in the regular season. UNC was 9-5; Duke was 8-6. Those numbers don't count UNC's 2-0 record against Duke.
That's good, but hardly dominating, and hardly historical.
From 1985-2007, UNC and Duke were 23-23 against each other in the regular season, but they were 469-103 against the rest of the league. That's an 82 percent success rate.
This season's numbers are even better than those historical averages. UNC and Duke are a combined 25-3 (89.3 percent) against the rest of the league.
Yet several ACC coaches suggested that the gap between the Big Two and the Little Ten is not as wide as the records suggest.
"You watch our games, and it's not that Duke and Carolina are blowing people out every night," N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe said. "They are good, tough ballgames. I think it tells you that our conference is very strong."
Florida State's Hamilton made the same point.
"Even though they are sitting there at (14-2 and 13-3), there were a lot of games they've played in that have been in a lot of doubt," Hamilton said. "Right now, they're a little cut above. But I think the gap is narrowing, and you're going to see at some point in time the other teams in the league get close to them."
Indeed, UNC and Duke played an extraordinary number of close games for two teams that finished so far ahead in the standings. The Tar Heels may have lost only twice (once to Duke), but they had one overtime and one double-overtime victory over Clemson; a one-point overtime win at Florida State; one-point wins at Georgia Tech and Virginia; plus a 10-point win at Boston College that saw the Tar Heels rally from an 18-point second-half deficit.
Duke didn't have as many narrow wins, but the Blue Devils came from behind in the second half to win six times in the ACC this season, including a 13-point second-half rally to edge N.C. State in Raleigh.
Krzyzewski pointed to the Pack's performance against Duke as one of a number of games that weekend that showcased the league's competitiveness.
"This past weekend shows what an amazing conference we have," he said at the time. "There's not another one like it in the United States. The three teams that have losing records at the bottom of the league (all played great).
"At Virginia, you have a kid who scores 40 points. They score 90 and almost beat Miami. Boston College has a kid who scores 46, and they're beating one of the first-place teams by double digits in the second half. Then N.C. State is beating us and outplaying us for most of the game. I just don't see that happening in other conferences.
"I just wish we would celebrate the great quality of play we have. This league is a terrific league, and it competes every night."
Maybe, but it's hard to earn national recognition when it's been dominated for so long by the same two teams. It's easy to break down the gaudy records that North Carolina and Duke have posted this season and show how narrow their edge really is, but it's hard to see that in the context of a quarter-century's dominance of the league.
"Everybody's got the budget now," Maryland's Williams said. "Everybody spends on recruiting. So nobody's really got the edge. It's going to be competitive."
"I've been very fortunate to have coached in the SEC, the Big 12, the Big East and now the ACC," FSU's Hamilton said. "I've been associated with the Kentuckys, the Kansases, the Georgetowns and the Syracuses. I've been fortunate to watch and be around a lot of great teams.
"There is absolutely nothing negative about Duke and Carolina being two of the winningest programs in college basketball. They have elevated the status of everybody else very similar to what I think Florida State did in football. I think they always give you a standard to which you try to obtain.
"But what you also notice is that even as talented as Duke and Carolina have been, they've played a lot of close games. That means they've raised the level of play. Even though they've won a lot of close games, I think the gap has definitely narrowed some not in a negative way, but in a positive way."
Hamilton pointed out that having the two superpowers in the league can help the up-and-coming programs. As an example, he cited his own team's drive to earn an NCAA at-large bid.
The Seminoles ultimately fell off the NCAA bubble, but not before winning three straight ACC games. A March 4 victory in Chapel Hill over the nation's No. 1 ranked team would have at the very least turned FSU into a team under discussion. That didn't happen, but at least the chance was there, a chance that wouldn't have come if the Seminoles were playing a lesser opponent.
"In order to get the attention of the committee, we're going to have to do something exceptional," Hamilton said before the game. "And I can't think of anything that would be more exceptional than to beat a team of the caliber of North Carolina."
FUTURE DOMINANCE COMING?
When Smith built his North Carolina program into a superpower, he had to do his work in the shadow of the great Duke program Bubas had established in Durham. Two decades later, when Krzyzewski tried to get his Duke program off the ground, he had to contend not only with Smith's juggernaut in Chapel Hill but with young rival Valvano, who had just won a national title at N.C. State.
Yet Smith succeeded in wresting ACC dominance from Bubas, and Krzyzewski prevailed to put Duke on equal footing with the Tar Heels.
There are coaches in the conference right now who can and have challenged the Big Two successfully. The question is whether there's anybody who can sustain a challenge long enough to either replace one of the league's two powers, or even turn the Big Two into a Big Three.
"There are teams like us that can challenge for the league title last year, then struggle as we have this year," Leitao said. "When you look at the history of teams in this league, it's not uncommon to have an ebb and flow. It's very difficult to find that consistency to be the best year-in and year-out."
But several ACC coaches said they relish the opportunity to go up against the dominance of UNC and Duke.
"I always look at it as something to entice a kid to come in," N.C. State's Lowe said. "When you're talking about being able to play and play right away at N.C. State and play against a Duke or North Carolina to me, that's appealing. That was one of the reasons I came to N.C. State, because Carolina certainly had a great program then. I looked at Carolina, but I thought, If I go to N.C. State, I'll be able to play against those guys, and I'll be able to play as a freshman and really kind of make a name for myself.' I thought that way, so I guess other guys think that way. Sometimes they do, and other times they want to play for those teams.
"But I also look at us as being one of those teams. We haven't been nationally ranked as high as they have been, and we haven't been where they have been the last few years, but this is still a big-tradition program. This is still one of 14 schools with two or more national championships, so we have a lot to offer here."
Miami coach Frank Haith took a team that was the worst in the ACC a year ago and turned it into a near-certain NCAA Tournament entry this season. He used a victory over Duke to catapult his Hurricanes into NCAA consideration. Can he use the prospect of playing against Carolina and Duke every year as a tool to take his program to the next level?
"I think it does help in terms of recruiting. You know you're going to play against two of the best teams in the country," Haith said. "I grew up in North Carolina, so I'm excited about being in the ACC and competing against the best teams in the country. I think most coaches will tell you, if you're a competitor, you look forward to that."
Leitao, who was so close to achieving parity with the Tar Heels a year ago, isn't discouraged by his 2008 team's struggles. He still likes the prospects of achieving success in the shadow of the Big Two.
"There is plenty of room in this league for more than one team to go to the NCAA Tournament or to win the national championship," Leitao said. "Other schools have proven that."
They've proven they can compete short-term, yes.
But in the last quarter-century, nobody has been able to keep up with UNC and Duke for very long. The two programs now separated by eight miles of suburban sprawl remain the ACC's "double standard," to borrow a famous term used by Krzyzewski in a different context 25 years ago.
Last year's parity looks more and more like an illusion now. This year's standings reflected the ACC's status quo. Will the postseason, too?
Al Featherston, formerly of the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun, has covered ACC basketball for 38 years. He is a regular contributor to the ACC Sports Journal and the author of the 2007 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.