Looking Back 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 Years
"They beat us, pure and simple," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in 1997, after N.C. State became just the second eighth seed to defeat a first seed in the ACC Tournament. "They were better than us today. Period."
By Al Featherston
March 6, 2007
The ACC did not exist when eight basketball teams gathered at Duke Indoor Stadium (which eventually would be re-named Cameron Indoor Stadium) for the 1947 Southern Conference Basketball Tournament.
That three-day event six decades ago shaped the future of basketball in the South. It set in motion a train of events that would make the soon-to-be-born ACC the nation's best basketball conference and turn the ACC Tournament into the focus of the hoops hysteria that would consume Tobacco Road and beyond.
There is an odd numerical connection between the 1947 Southern Conference Tournament in Durham and the 2007 ACC Tournament that will be played out early this month in Tampa, Fla. Not only are the two events separated by exactly 60 years, but that time frame also breaks down into perfect 10-year segments from 1947 to 1957 to 1967 to 1977 to 1987 to 1997 and each of those "ACC Tournaments on the Seven" proved to be a pivotal and exciting event that increased the momentum of ACC basketball mania.
A skeptic would dismiss the 10-year sequence as mere coincidence. However, a mystic might suggest that the numerical pattern has a deeper meaning, and perhaps even a sign of divine favor for ACC hoops.
FAN INTEREST ALREADY BLOSSOMING
The Southern Conference was, of course, the granddaddy of southern intercollegiate sports. It was a huge, diverse league that spawned both the Southeastern Conference (in 1933) and the modern ACC (in 1953).
From the very beginning, the teams that one day would form the ACC were prominent basketball powers in the old Southern Conference. Kentucky won the first tournament championship in 1921, but North Carolina won three of the next four titles. N.C. State and Maryland also captured early championships. Between the departure of the SEC schools and the foundation of the ACC, future ACC teams won 18 of 21 Southern Conference titles.
In the years leading up to the 1947 tournament, Duke and UNC were the two programs vying for conference supremacy. The Tar Heels, led by former Durham High star Bones McKinney (who had played a season at N.C. State before serving in World War II) and All-Americans Jim Jordan and John "Hook" Dillon, had reached the NCAA title game in 1946 before losing to Oklahoma A&M. But Duke, led by another former Durham High star, Gordon Carver, and future All-American Ed Koffenberger, had beaten out the Tar Heels for the 1946 Southern Conference title.
Going into the 1946-47 season, the two neighborhood rivals had combined to win seven of the previous nine Southern Conference titles. Living in their shadow on Tobacco Road was N.C. State, which had endured a 6-12 season in 1946 under coach Leroy Jay.
But the new season produced a new balance of power in the Southern Conference. First-year N.C. State coach Everett Case, an Indiana high school legend who came to Raleigh out of naval service in World War II, engineered one of the most dramatic turnarounds in basketball history. He stocked his team with a number of Indiana prep products, many of whom had gained maturity and experience playing service ball during the war.
Case's Red Terrors (the nickname Wolfpack was still two years in the future) won 21 regular-season games, including a split with Duke. N.C. State also beat UNC in Chapel Hill, but the rematch in Raleigh was cancelled by the fire marshal when fans overwhelmed tiny Thompson Gym.
The growing fan interest sparked by Case was so great that the Southern Conference Tournament, which had been held at Raleigh's old Memorial Auditorium from 1933-46, was moved to Duke's sparkling new arena for the 1947 event in order to accommodate ticket demand.
Surprisingly, the Blue Devils now without Carver, but still a power with Koffenberger at his peak were upset in the first round by South Carolina. North Carolina was without McKinney, Jordan and coach Ben Carnevale (who had left UNC for a more lucrative position at the Naval Academy how times have changed!), but Dillon's return helped first-year coach Tom Scott guide the Tar Heels to a second-place regular-season finish and a spot in the title game against N.C. State.
UNC, riding a 10-game winning streak, took an early 20-7 lead on State, but Case countered with a revolutionary strategy a full-court press that brought his team back into the game and provided just enough of a cushion for State to hold on for a 50-48 victory in front of the largest crowd ever to see a basketball game in the South.
Afterward, Case introduced an old Indiana high school custom, cutting down the nets to celebrate his team's triumph. That's believed to be the first time the net-cutting ceremony was used after a college game.
But there were many other reasons that N.C. State's victory in the 1947 Southern Conference Tournament was a pivotal moment in basketball history. In a single season, Case had transformed one of the worst programs in the conference into the best. And he would keep his program at the top through the final seven years of the old Southern Conference and into the first three years of the ACC.
During that span, Case won nine of 10 conference titles, losing only by a single point to Wake Forest in the 1953 Southern Conference championship game. He kidnapped the tournament away from Duke, luring first the Southern, then the ACC to his larger Reynolds Coliseum. The new league would hold its postseason tournament in Reynolds for the first 13 years of its existence.
It was during this era that Case, the greatest promoter the ACC has ever known, began to convince fans than basketball was as important and as rewarding as football. But his mighty program was so dominant that the burgeoning interest in hoops began to cool. After a decade of Case rule, it was time for a real rival to emerge.
That would happen exactly one decade later again "on the seven."
TELEVISION, NCAA TITLE ARRIVE
Case's dominance of basketball on Tobacco Road didn't sit well with N.C. State's rivals in Chapel Hill. Carnevale's once-powerful program slumped badly under Scott, with back-to-back 12-15 seasons in 1951 and 1952. Worse, the Tar Heels lost 15 straight games to Case and the Wolfpack.
UNC athletic director Chuck Erickson went looking for a new coach who could compete with N.C. State's juggernaut. Ironically, he found his man in Reynolds Coliseum. It was there that Erickson met St. John's coach Frank McGuire, a pugnacious New Yorker whose Redmen knocked off State and Kentucky to win the NCAA East Regional title.
Erickson lured McGuire to North Carolina before the 1952-53 season, but it took the dapper Irishman four years to build a team that could challenge N.C. State for ACC supremacy. In another bit of irony, his single most important building block was a Case reject.
Lennie Rosenbluth wanted to play at N.C. State, but a teacher's strike in New York City wiped out the young star's senior year of high school. When Case watched him play in an illegal tryout (one of many that would earn the Pack a year of probation in 1955), he was not impressed with the slender, out-of-shape forward.
McGuire, desperate for talent, was happy to claim the young forward. He carefully built his UNC offense around Rosenbluth, who averaged 25.5 points per game for a 10-11 team in 1955. The Tar Heels got a lot better a year later, when McGuire added four New York Catholic League products to his starting lineup. McGuire's "Yankee Tar Heels" actually tied N.C. State for the ACC regular-season title in 1956, although the year ended on a sour note with an upset loss to Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament semifinals.
UNC entered the 1956-57 season with all five starters returning from an 18-5 team. The Tar Heels thought in terms of finally surpassing N.C. State as the ACC's best team. Instead, UNC reeled off 24 straight regular-season wins, including a sweep of Case's Wolfpack. McGuire's "Four Catholics and a Jew" weren't always dominant, but they always found a way to win.
"They had nice players, but they weren't imposing defensively," said Bucky Waters, a junior that season at N.C. State and later the head coach at Duke. "They did nothing flashy. It just seemed like Rosenbluth was always getting a basket when they needed it. There was nothing commanding about them. We always felt we could beat them. We just never did."
It's hard to recapture the drama that must have existed as the eight ACC teams gathered in Raleigh for the 1957 ACC Tournament. Despite UNC's 24-0 record and No. 1 national ranking, the Tar Heels still had to win three games in three days to represent the league in the NCAA Tournament.
The first step, an 81-61 rout of Clemson, came easy. But looming in the semifinals was the same Wake Forest team that had knocked UNC out of the 1956 ACC Tournament. In three earlier meetings, UNC had beaten the Deacs by eight in the Dixie Classic title game, by three in Chapel Hill and by five in Winston-Salem.
Technically, the Deacons were coached by Murray Greason, who was completing the final season of a distinguished, 23-year career. But it was an open secret that the team actually was being run by Greason's lead assistant, Horace "Bones" McKinney. The former UNC standout had returned from the NBA in 1952 and entered the Wake Forest Theological Seminary. Greason asked McKinney to join his coaching staff. Even after Bones was ordained a Baptist minister, he remained at Greason's side, gradually taking more and more of the responsibility for recruiting and coaching the team.
Wake Forest had moved its campus to Winston-Salem the previous summer, but McKinney brought his team back to familiar Gore Gym in the hamlet of Wake Forest (near Raleigh) to prepare them for their tournament matchup with McGuire's unbeaten Tar Heels. He devised a unique defensive scheme, a variation of the 1-3-1 zone, that he called the "Fruit Salad" defense.
McGuire's unbeaten team forged an early lead with a 10-0 first-half run and clung tenaciously to its slim advantage until Deacons center Jim Gilley sank two free throws with 55 seconds left to put Wake on top 59-58. Suddenly, UNC's dream season was in jeopardy. McGuire's response was to go to his go-to guy.
Guard Bob Cunningham (no relation to 1960s UNC and NBA star Billy Cunningham) got the ball to Rosenbluth, who turned and dribbled into the lane. Wake forward Wendell Carr tried to defend the play and collided with the UNC star just as the shot went up.
"I knew it was in the moment it left my hand," Rosenbluth said. "I could just feel it go in the basket, like it had eyes."
Referee Jim Mills blew his whistle as the ball swished through the net. The 12,000-plus fans in Reynolds held their breath, waiting for Mills to make the call. Although McKinney would contend to his dying day that Rosenbluth should have been called for charging on the play, Mills called Carr for blocking and Rosenbluth added a free throw to give UNC the 61-59 win.
"I always felt the foul should have been on Rosenbluth," Bones said in an interview in the late 1980s. "But now, as I mull it over, we couldn't have won a national championship that year and North Carolina did, so it worked out."
UNC's victory over Wake Forest would turn out to have historic consequences, far beyond the Tar Heels' later success that season. Sitting in the Reynolds Coliseum stands that night was a young, independent television producer named C.D. Chesley. He had produced several experimental football telecasts the previous season, but watching the drama of UNC's narrow victory over Wake inspired him to focus on basketball instead of football.
Chesley produced telecasts of UNC's two Final Four games later that month for a regional network of five North Carolina stations, then sat down with the ACC and negotiated a game-of-the-week package for 1958 that brought the new league into the television age years ahead of its rivals.
UNC's dramatic victory over Wake in the 1957 ACC Tournament semifinals took the basketball hysteria in the region to new levels. The Tar Heels disposed of South Carolina in the ACC title game with little trouble, then marched past Yale, Canisius and Syracuse to earn a trip to the Final Four in Kansas City.
The story of UNC's improbable back-to-back, triple-overtime victories there over Michigan State and Kansas (with Wilt Chamberlain) has been told time and again, especially this season, the 50th anniversary of that triumph. But none of it would have happened without that narrow victory over Wake in the 1957 ACC Tournament.
Exactly 10 years after Case had put his mark on Southern/ACC basketball, McGuire had taken the sport to new heights and ended N.C. State's decade-long rule of the sport.
LEGENDARY COACHES PASS MANTLE
Surprisingly, McGuire's 1957 triumph didn't lead to a decade of domination for the Tar Heels. NCAA probation and an ugly 1961 point-shaving scandal devastated the programs at UNC and N.C. State. University president William Friday elected to de-emphasize basketball at both schools.
That decision created a power vacuum that McKinney at Wake Forest and Vic Bubas at Duke rushed to fill. Although the Demon Deacons enjoyed some early success, including the school's first and still only Final Four trip in 1962, by the time the 1967 ACC Tournament rolled around, Bubas had emerged as the new king of ACC basketball.
Bubas, one of Case's early Indiana imports, had played at N.C. State (scoring the first basket ever at Reynolds Coliseum), then remained in Raleigh to serve on the Wolfpack staff. Duke athletic director Eddie Cameron, as anxious as Erickson to find a coach who could challenge the N.C. State powerhouse, lured Case's top assistant to Durham.
It didn't take Bubas as long to make an impact. He guided the Blue Devils to an unexpected ACC championship in 1960, then followed with title runs in 1963, 1964 and 1966. His tournament success no coach has ever matched his 78.6 winning percentage in ACC Tournament play was one reason so many observers felt that second-seeded Duke should be considered the favorite for the 1967 ACC Tournament.
The truth was that nobody had much faith in UNC's young coach. True, Dean Smith had led the 1966-67 Tar Heels to the regular-season title and a two-game sweep of Duke, but surely the tournament-tested Blue Devils with three starters back from the previous year's Final Four team, including All-American Bob Verga wouldn't lose to the Heels for a third straight time, right?
However, Smith had a weapon of his own junior forward Larry Miller, a player once judged to be headed to Duke.
Bubas was regarded as the greatest recruiter of his era. But Smith, who was twice hung in effigy by UNC students during the 1965 season, stunned the ACC world that spring when he beat Bubas head-to-head for Miller, a burly 6-4 forward from Catasauqua, Pa.
"Miller was the first guy we got that Duke wanted," Smith said.
Miller proved his value in the final seconds of North Carolina's first matchup with Duke in 1967, a Jan. 7 game in Durham. The Tar Heels led most of the way, but with the Duke crowd egging them on, the Blue Devils fought back to tie the game with less than a minute to play.
On the UNC bench, Smith stood up and tried to call timeout to set up a winning play. Miller ignored, or didn't see, his coach. He took a pass and slashed through the Duke defense to score the winning basket.
"I can't tell you how much I was hoping no one had seen my timeout signal," Smith told reporters. "Fortunately, they hadn't."
UNC dominated the rematch 92-79 to finish ahead of the Blue Devils. Of course, the regular-season title meant nothing without a repeat in the three-day conference tournament. After years of complaints by rival coaches that playing the tournament in Raleigh was an unfair advantage for N.C. State, the ACC finally moved its showcase event to a neutral site, the Greensboro War Memorial Coliseum.
Not too surprisingly, first-place UNC and second-place Duke advanced to the title game. The Blue Devils had to beat back South Carolina, coached by McGuire (formerly of UNC), in the semifinals. The win was impressive enough to convince quite a few ACC veterans that Duke would continue its dominance of the ACC Tournament.
The headline in a Greensboro newspaper proclaimed: "Duke to win Tournament," topping a column written by respected writer Smith Barrier. Miller cut out the headline and pasted it inside his locker. Then he went out and almost single-handedly proved Barrier and the other skeptics wrong.
Miller hit 13 of 14 field goal attempts and finished with 32 points and 11 rebounds as the Tar Heels were in control almost all the way in their 82-73 victory. Bob Lewis added 26 points as UNC won just its second conference championship since 1940.
It would be the first of three ACC titles in a row for the Tar Heels, and the first of 13 league championships for Smith.
SMITH INSPIRES OLYMPIC JUMPS
In the summer of 1976, UNC's Smith coached the U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal in Montreal.
Of course, it wasn't that simple. After the fiasco in the 1972 loss to the Russians in Munich, the American public demanded a victory in Montreal. And there was a public outcry when Smith selected seven ACC players to be the heart of his national team.
Smith always insisted that he had just one vote on the selection committee. But what the controversy over his role in the process obscured was the fact that to the nation at large, the ACC wasn't good enough to deserve more than half of the roster spots on the Olympic team.
"If I'm a Pac-8 or Big Ten fan, and you tell me the ACC's the best basketball conference in the country, I'm going to laugh at you until you prove it," Maryland coach Lefty Driesell said. "I don't know if the ACC is as strong as the reputation it has here, because our teams have done so poorly in the playoffs."
Driesell was not far off. In its first 23 years of existence, the league had produced just two national champions UNC in 1957 and N.C. State in 1974. And after a run of seven Final Four teams from 1962-69, the ACC had produced just two more Final Four teams since 1970.
Obviously, the criticism of Smith was muted when UNC point guard Phil Ford and Indiana's Quinn Buckner led the Olympic team to a perfect record in Montreal and the gold medal. However, the skepticism about the ACC's overall strength was still very much an issue when the seven league teams (South Carolina had left the ACC and Georgia Tech had not joined yet) gathered in Greensboro for the 24th annual ACC Tournament.
North Carolina, which still featured three Olympians in Ford, center Tom LaGarde and swingman Walter Davis, was the pre-tournament favorite. Under the NCAA rules in place at the time (which allowed two teams per conference into the tournament), that practically guaranteed the Tar Heels an NCAA bid, but the focus was not so much on winning the tournament as it was toward laying the groundwork for a strong postseason run.
"When we were healthy," Smith said, "I thought we were the best team in the country."
But UNC's health didn't last past a 27-point rout of Maryland in January. The next week in practice, LaGarde tore knee ligaments and went to the sidelines. And late in the ACC Tournament semifinals against N.C. State, Davis suffered a broken finger, an injury so painful that his screams in the locker room brought tears to the eyes of his teammates.
A year after losing to sixth-seeded Virginia in the 1976 ACC title game, the Tar Heels were in danger of stumbling once again. Playing without LaGarde and Davis, the Tar Heels trailed the seventh-seeded Cavs 64-56 with seven minutes to play in the title game.
It looked even more bleak when both Ford and freshman phenom Mike O'Koren fouled out down the stretch. But senior guard John Kuester, who usually functioned as a defensive stopper in the backcourt, took over the reins for the crippled Tar Heels and whipped them past Virginia in the final seconds.
"I can't ever remember winning a game like this," Smith said. "It was pure effort. I looked over at the bench toward the end and saw Ford, O'Koren, Davis and LaGarde sitting there."
UNC would enter the NCAA Tournament without LaGarde or Davis, although Smith had hopes that both would return if the Heels could survive the early rounds. Instead, his team suffered another blow when Ford, who had sparked a comeback from a 14-point, second-half deficit against Notre Dame (coached by vociferous ACC critic Digger Phelps) hyper-extended his right elbow with 1:16 left in that game.
UNC entered the regional final against Kentucky two nights later with LaGarde out, Davis playing with a splint on his surgically repaired finger, and Ford unable to extend his right arm. He played just 15 minutes and scored just two points against a powerful Wildcats team that would win the national championship a year later, with four of the five starters who faced the Tar Heels.
Yet, somehow, short-handed UNC seized a 53-42 halftime lead. Ahead at the break, Smith decided to rely on his Four Corners delay game to slow the pace in the second half. With Ford ailing, Smith put Kuester in the middle. The senior from Richmond, who averaged fewer than 10 points per game that season, did an amazing imitation of his more famous teammate, scoring 19 points and adding the regional MVP trophy to the Case Award he'd claimed two weeks earlier.
UNC arrived in Atlanta for the Final Four looking like a MASH unit. LaGarde, who had hoped to return for the national semifinals, was on crutches after re-injuring his knee in practice. Davis' hand was swaddled in a huge bandage, and Ford's injured arm was in a sling. Carolina fans had taken to taping two fingers together in a show of solidarity with their injured heroes.
Even with all of the injuries, UNC came within a missed layup by reserve Bruce Buckley of giving Smith his first NCAA title. The short-handed Tar Heels knocked off UNLV's Runnin' Rebels in the semifinals, then took Marquette to the wire in the title game.
Still, UNC's strong NCAA showing with a crippled team was a powerful answer to the ACC's critics. It touched off a decade of success that would lift the league from NCAA underachievers to without question the nation's strongest conference.
In the decade starting with 1977, the ACC would win two more national titles, play in the title game six times, produce eight Final Four teams and see every league member (including newcomer Georgia Tech) reach the Sweet 16.
EXCITEMENT REACHES RARE LEVEL
It's hard to argue that the 1987 ACC Tournament in Landover, Md., changed the face of college basketball as the tournaments in 1947, 1957, 1967 and 1977 obviously did but it's fair to argue that 1987 was the most exciting ACC Tournament ever played.
The excitement started on the very first day, when seventh-seeded Wake Forest upset second-seeded Clemson behind the heroics of tiny hero Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues. The first day ended with more drama. Sixth-seeded N.C. State, which has accomplished little in postseason play since its 1983 miracle run to the national title, upset third-seeded Duke in overtime.
That set up a matchup of second-division teams in the semifinals that would produce one of the most memorable games and one of the most controversial calls in ACC Tournament history. It also would showcase one of the most unlikely superstars in ACC history.
Muggsy Bogues, listed at 5-3 in height, was a product of one of the great high school teams of all time. His Baltimore Dunbar squad featured future college standouts David Wingate (Georgetown), Reggie Lewis (Northeastern), Gary Graham (UNLV), Keith James (UNLV) and Michael Brown (Clemson). Bogues was voted the team's MVP. Wingate, who teamed with Patrick Ewing at Georgetown, later called Bogues the greatest player he'd ever played with.
"He activates primal fear in the guards he faces," Wake Forest assistant coach Ernie Nestor told the Washington Post. "They know that he can strip them at halfcourt in front of God and the world."
Bogues, who played behind Danny Young as a freshman, burst onto the national scene as a sophomore, when he turned in a dazzling performance in a nationally televised game against N.C. State. Sitting courtside was NBC commentator Al McGuire, who went berserk as Muggsy terrorized the Wolfpack with his quickness.
"In 40 years," McGuire told his audience, "I've never seen a player dominate a game the way Bogues did."
Although Bogues starred on bad teams at Wake, he earned the respect of his opponents. At Duke, coach Mike Krzyzewski ordered his guards to switch point guard responsibilities so that whichever man Bogues wasn't defending took over the playmaking duties. N.C. State's Jim Valvano instituted what he called the Muggsy Rule for his guards: "If you don't see that little sucker in front of you, never, never dribble the basketball."
That rule came into play in the 1987 semifinals, as N.C. State tried to get past Wake and the pesky Bogues. The Deacons' little man had burned Clemson for 21 points, nine assists, four rebounds and three steals the day before. Against State, he was again magnificent, with 17 points, eight assists and six rebounds.
"Muggsy is unbelievable," Valvano said. "I don't know of another player in my 20 years of coaching who's more difficult to defend. Here's a 5-foot-3 guy who absolutely dominates the game. When he goes out, there's a sigh of relief. When he comes back in, he's everywhere."
N.C. State was able to survive the tiny terror in double overtime, thanks in part to the foul trouble that finally sent the Wake star to the bench. Wake coach Bob Staak found himself fuming about one of Bogues' five fouls. Midway through the first half, Bogues drove the lane and collided with State's Quentin Jackson. Official John Moreau called a block on Jackson, but official Tom Fraim called a charge on Bogues. When the two officials couldn't agree, they compromised with a double foul, essentially calling a block and a charge on the same play.
"That was one of the most bizarre calls," Staak complained, "in the history of college basketball."
North Carolina, which had waltzed through the regular season with a perfect 14-0 ACC record, had to survive its own scare in the semifinals, going two overtimes to eliminate Virginia. But the Tar Heels (with veteran assistant Roy Williams on the sidelines) were still the overwhelming favorites in the final to defeat a State team it had beaten by 16 and 18 points in the regular season.
Valvano had tweaked his team since the last meeting with UNC. He replaced talented but selfish point guard Kenny Drummond with Jackson, a DeMatha product who didn't score much but provided an element of stability in the playmaker role. Jackson had scored just six points against Wake Forest, but he also committed just two turnovers in 40 minutes against Bogues' pressure.
"Quentin is doing a fantastic job of running what we want," Valvano said.
Jackson would do an equally impressive job against UNC's Kenny Smith, helping to hold the All-American to seven points on 3-of-13 shooting.
The Pack's winning boost would come from another newcomer to the starting lineup, junior Vinny Del Negro. His father had played for coach Adolph Rupp at Kentucky until he quit the team over a lack of playing time. For more than two years at N.C. State, Del Negro had the same problem, rarely getting off the bench, averaging fewer than two points per game as a freshman and sophomore. But unlike his father, the younger Del Negro didn't quit, and his persistence paid off as he moved into the starting lineup late in his junior season and began to emerge as a star.
Del Negro was the Pack's most consistent player in the ACC Tournament, scoring 15 points against both Duke and Wake Forest, then adding 12 in the title game against UNC, including the two free throws with 14 seconds left to give State a 68-67 lead. UNC designed a play to set up Smith for the game-winning shot, but reserve guard Kelsey Weems kept the ball away from the Tar Heel star and forced Ranzino Smith and Joe Wolf to launch prayers that weren't answered.
Jimmy V had his second ACC Tournament miracle. It would prove to be his last. It also would be the last ACC title for State, the league's first superpower.
Nobody in the ACC fared all that well after the 1987 ACC Tournament. State was knocked out of the NCAA playoffs by a Florida team led by former Wolfpack coach Norm Sloan. UNC was upset by Syracuse in the East Regional final. Duke lost to eventual champion Indiana in the Sweet 16.
But that in itself would prove to be a milestone. The 1987 season would be the first and only time in the 64-team NCAA era that the ACC finished with a losing NCAA Tournament record.
UNC DYNASTY CLOSES CHAPTER
Midway through the 1996-97 season, it didn't seem possible that UNC's Smith would get the 25 wins he needed to pass Kentucky's Rupp as the winningest coach in NCAA history.
But by the time the 1997 ACC Tournament opened in Greensboro, who knew what was possible?
The 1997 regular season was perhaps the craziest in ACC history. Preseason favorite Wake Forest was derailed, largely because of two home-court losses that both turned on clear officiating errors. Another officiating snafu helped Duke claim a key win at Virginia, and the Blue Devils rode that break and the best three-point shooting in the league to an unlikely first-place finish.
North Carolina also was rated a preseason favorite, but after opening the season with three straight league losses, the Tar Heels were lucky to finish in the first division. Indeed, only a late collapse by N.C. State in Chapel Hill prevented an 0-4 ACC start. After ending the first half of the season with a loss at Duke, Smith's Tar Heels were 3-5 in the league and 12-6 overall.
But a soft midseason schedule helped the Heels get a little momentum, and with freshman point guard Ed Cota feeding sophomore forwards Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter, UNC entered the tournament on a nine-game winning streak, good enough for the No. 3 seed.
The Heels had a surprisingly easy path to the championship game, beating Virginia in the quarterfinals and coasting past second-seeded Wake Forest in the semifinals.
The once-mighty Deacons weren't the same team that had been ranked No. 1 earlier in the season. Senior center Tim Duncan was still the best player in the league indeed, the best in all of college basketball but the team was collapsing around him. The guards had no confidence, freshman center Loren Woods was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and talented Spanish forward Ricardo Peral was just a shell of the player he once had been.
"I swear," Odom said. "Our perimeter guys are like gunfighters who lost a fight somewhere and can't get their confidence back."
But as UNC cruised into the final, the other side of the bracket was the scene of considerable drama.
Few noticed that first-year N.C. State coach Herb Sendek had revived his downtrodden team in the second half of the season. After starting 0-7 in the league, the Pack had won four of its final nine games. That wasn't enough to escape the "Les Robinson Invitational" on Thursday night in Greensboro, but it should have provided some warning of what was to come.
N.C. State disposed of slumping Georgia Tech in the tournament's play-in game as expected, but what was not expected was the Pack's 66-60 victory over top-seeded Duke in the quarterfinals the next afternoon. It was just the second time in ACC history that No. 8 had beaten No. 1, and the first time that the 8/9 play-in game winner had knocked off the top seed.
"They beat us, pure and simple," Krzyzewski told the press. "They were better than us today. Period."
N.C. State was better than fourth-seeded Maryland one day later, as guard C.C. Harrison and forward Danny Strong combined for 39 points in the 66-58 win. However, the real hero was unheralded freshman point guard Justin Gainey, who went the entire 40 minutes in the victories over Tech, Duke and Maryland, providing the floor leadership Sendek's team had lacked for most of the season.
Gainey went another 40 minutes in the championship game, for a total of 160 in four days, but it wasn't enough as UNC held on for a 64-54 victory.
The title was the 13th and last for Smith, who had won his first ACC title exactly 30 years earlier on the same court. The victory over State was the 875th of his career, leaving him just one short of Rupp on the victory list.
Smith would get the two wins he needed to overtake the former Kentucky coach a week later, during the NCAA sub-regional in Winston-Salem. Smith would add two more wins in the East Regional in Syracuse, before his season was ended by eventual champion Arizona in the national semifinals in Indianapolis.
No one knew at the time that Smith would retire before the 1997-98 season. Just as 1947, 1957 and 1967 marked major changes in the ACC power structure, 1997 marked the end of the Smith era at UNC.
CAN ANYONE CATCH KRZYZEWSKI?
When Smith retired, there was a new coaching giant ready to succeed him as the ACC's dominant coach.
Duke's Krzyzewski had been dueling the Tar Heel legend for supremacy since the mid-1980s, but it was only after Smith's departure that Coach K was able to put a stranglehold on the league.
Starting in 1997, Krzyzewski has won either the ACC regular-season or tournament title in every single season. His Blue Devils have reached the ACC Tournament championship game nine straight times and have won seven of the last eight titles.
That's a run of success that looks very much like Case's dominance from 1947-56. Since then, no other coach not Bubas, not Smith, not Driesell, not Valvano and not even Krzyzewski in his early years has ever approached that level of consistent success.
Will it continue this season in Tampa? Duke isn't one of the pre-tournament favorites. To win the title or even to extend Krzyzewski's streak of championship game appearances the Blue Devils will have to play their way out of Thursday's first round.
Can the Devils do it? Or will 2007 come to represent the end of their decade-long domination?
Perhaps the time is right for the ACC Tournament to become another of those remarkable "Tournaments on the Seven" that so often have marked turning points in ACC basketball history.
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 ACCSports.com, 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.