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Hoop hysteria: ACC basketball is serious business along Tobacco Road

by Ogi Overman

One of the first questions newcomers and first-time visitors to the great state of North Carolina often ask is: How did ACC basketball get to be such a big deal around here?

The long answer would take many more pages than the editor of this fine publication is willing to commit, even for a cover story, but the short answer is this: Castleman D Chesley. And even that requires some elucidation.

In 1957 Chesley, a fledgling Philadelphia TV producer, had planned to broadcast the NCAA East Regional semifinals, played that year in Philadelphia’s Palestra, to a regional audience on WPPB-TV in Wilmington, Del. The game pitted Canisius against North Carolina and, because UNC was coming into the contest undefeated, Chesley had a hunch that there might be an audience for the game back in North Carolina. So he hastily arranged for three NC stations to carry the contest ‘— WBTV in Charlotte, WTVD in Durham, and WFMY in Greensboro ‘— and secured primary advertising from Pilot Life Insurance. UNC won the game 87-75, and all the parties involved decided to continue televising Carolina’s NCAA Tournament games until they lost.

What ensued was in every conceivable way the stuff of legend. After a 67-58 East Regional finals win over Syracuse came what many would argue was the most dramatic, heart-stopping, storybook Final Four, certainly up to that point and probably since.

In the semifinals undefeated Carolina was stretched to the limit by Michigan State, led by All-American Cazzie Russell, before prevailing in triple overtime 74-70. Yet what scribes were already calling the greatest game in college basketball history was about to become only the second-greatest game of that weekend.

Although UNC came into the finals sporting an unblemished 31-0 record, they were actually the underdog because their foe, mighty Kansas, was paced by the seemingly unstoppable 7-1 All-American (and future ladies’ man) Wilt Chamberlain. When the final buzzer sounded ‘— actually the fourth final buzzer ‘— Carolina had escaped with a 54-53 victory, again in triple overtime.

Today, the case could be made that college basketball owes its current popularity to UNC’s two wins in that tourney. It had all the earmarks; the stars were perfectly aligned; every factor had coalesced to make this the event that would propel NCAA basketball onto the national stage formerly occupied on the college level solely by football. Carolina ‘— and, by extension, the whole state and the whole conference, had become king, and hereinafter ACC basketball would rule. In March of 1957 Carolina had captured not only a national championship but the heart and soul of an entire state.

CD Chesley was sitting on a gold mine. And he knew it.

The Makings of a Dynasty

There is, of course, a corollary to that story. There were other colleges in the state and conference that fielded basketball programs. Not everybody was a Carolina fan ‘— it just seemed that way. (Still does.) NC State’s legendary coach Everett Case is credited with bringing the game to the state and his teams were the league’s first powerhouses. In fact, since the conference’s formation in 1953, NC State, Duke and Wake Forest all had better winning percentages than UNC. From 1954’–’56 State was 28-8, 78-15; Duke was 30-8, 61-21 and Wake was 26-14, 53-31. Meanwhile, Carolina was 24-15, 39-26 during that span. The loop’s other four original members ‘— Virginia, Maryland, Clemson and South Carolina ‘— would spring the occasional upset, but by and large the state’s Big Four, as they came to be known, were the dominant forces.

But after ’57 it was UNC, under Frank McGuire and then Dean Smith (who, ironically, was an assistant at Kansas when the Heels beat them) that became the dominant program. Naturally, this prompted many fans of the other schools to become ABC fans ‘— Anybody But Carolina ‘— which only served to heighten the rivalries and the intensity.

Most of those same fans, however, would band together once conference wars were finished to pull for the league’s survivors in NCAA tourney play. By the late ’60s and early ’70s it was generally conceded that the ACC had become the nation’s premier league, a fact that remains unchanged today, even as the loop’s makeup has been altered somewhat. One team, South Carolina, departed in 1971, but in its place came, in succession, five new schools: Georgia Tech (1978), Florida State (1991), Miami and Virginia Tech (2004), and Boston College (2005).

Since that watershed year of 1957, an ACC team has ascended to the NCAA throne nine more times: N.C. State in 1974 and ’83; Duke in 1990, ’91 and ’01; Maryland in 2002; and Carolina in 1982, ’93 and ’04. After Duke’s having the upper hand more often than not over the last 15 years, the balance of power seemed to have shifted back in UNC’s favor with last year’s national championship. But that was before four members of that squad left early for the NBA, leaving an unprecedented talent void for coach Roy Williams to fill.

And that brings us to the present, with Duke returning to the head of the class, newcomer Boston College making its presence known immediately, Wake and NC State among the upper tier, and Carolina struggling early but maturing in time to be competitive by March.

The 53rd annual ACC Basketball Tournament returns to the Greensboro Coliseum this year, March 9-12, 2006. While there will be one clearcut favorite, don’t be surprised to see at least half a dozen squads advance to NCAA tournament play and two or three more head to the NIT.

Which, in a nutshell, is what all the hysteria is about around here.

The 2005-’06 Race

Duke, pure and simple, is loaded. Virtually every publication and preseason poll has them ranked No. 1 nationally (OK, Street & Smith has them No. 2 behind Michigan State), and they’re a lock to romp through the ACC. With two consensus All-Americans and Player of the Year candidates returning in JJ Redickand Shelden Williams, they’d be a Top 5 team if they were surrounded by jayvees.

They’re not. Redick will be joined on the perimeter by Sean Dockery and Williams underneath by Lee Melchionni, all seniors, giving coach Mike Krzyzewski his most experienced team since the Laettner-Hurley-Hill era.

But the real dagger through the heart is that Duke’s freshman class contains three McDonald’s All-Americans ‘— point guard Greg Paulus, forward Josh McRoberts and center Eric Boateng ‘— plus Lithuanian Martynas Pocius, possibly the best European shooting guard entering college this year, and blue chip forward Jamal Boykin.

Anything less than a Final Four appearance by the Devils will be a disappointment. This edition is a serious contender to be cutting down the nets in Indianapolis come late March.

ACC traditionalists who expect conference newcomers to pay their dues and take their lumps before becoming competitive will be sorely disappointed with Boston College this season. All-Big East picks last year, senior Craig Smith and junior Jared Dudley give coach Al Skinner the most potent forward tandem in the ACC.

The Eagles started 20-0 last year and finished 25-5. With four returning starters they are ranked in the Top 15 nationally and picked to finish second in the ACC. A good early-season indicator of their strength will come Dec. 6 against Michigan State.

Anyone fearing Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser would fall on his sword after all-everything point guard Chris Paul left for the NBA after his sophomore season will be delighted to know that he is alive and well. And so are his Demon Deacons.

With 6-9, 280 pound manchild Eric Williams opting to stay after testing the NBA waters and all-conference guard Justin Gray each returning for their senior seasons, the Deacs have the second-best inside-outside combo in the loop. Forward Chris Ellis and swingman Trent Strickland both showed flashes of brilliance last year, and more will be expected of center Kyle Vissar.

With Paul gone, this unit may be hard-pressed to duplicate last year’s 27-6 mark. But they still have enough firepower to finish third in the ACC and make the NCAA field.

It’s much the same prognosis for NC State without Player of the Year (his junior year) Julius Hodge. Many expect this to be 6-8 forward Ilian Evtimov’s year to become a truly dominant force but, unlike Hodge at times, he should not feel that he has to carry the burden alone. With Engin Atsur, Cameron Bennerman and Tony Bethel steady in the backcourt, and Andrew Brackman and Cedric Simmons among the best shot-blockers in the league, the Pack is a well-rounded squad.

The keys may be whether McDonald’s All-Americans Brandon Costner (6 foot 8 inch forward) and Courtney Fells (6 foot -5 inch guard) live up to their press clippings. If they emerge, they should eclipse last year’s 21-14 mark, and a return trip to the Sweet 16 would not come as a surprise.

Last year Maryland did not make the NCAA field for the first time since 1993. Don’t expect that to happen again this year.

With three double-digit scorers returning in Nik Caner-Medley (16.0), Chris McCray (14.1) and Travis Garrison (10.1), plus DJ Strawberry, James Gist and Ekene Ibekwe, the Terps are solid. The wild cards are how well Strawberry’s season-ending knee injury heals and how efficiently Sterling Ledbetter steps in to replace mercurial point guard John Gilchrist. If all goes according to coach Gary Williams’ plan, the Terps will be back in their accustomed spot in the upper echelon of the nation’s finest conference.

When the ballots were tallied at Media Day at Grandover a couple of weeks ago, the assembled scribes and broadcasters had chosen North Carolina to finish sixth in the ACC. Of course, many of those same folks are grads of UNC’s fine journalism school, so their picks may have been a bit prejudiced. Based on what they lost ‘— their top seven scorers, including four NBA first-rounders ‘— and what’s coming back ‘— David Noel’s 3.9 average ‘— the Heels should’ve been picked to finish in the cellar. But based on their incoming freshman class, which may be as good as Duke’s, maybe they are a middle-of-the-pack team.

The new cast of characters is led by 6-9 forward Tyler Hansbrough, who is the early favorite for Rookie of the Year. Also look for Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard (both 6 foot 5 inch swingmen) and 6 foot 3 inch guard Bobby Frasor to get plenty of PT. They’ll be thrown into the fire early and will be expected to develop quickly, but even the most ardent Heels fans should not expect miracles. Roy Williams’ hair may be as gray as Bobby Cremins’ by March.

Last year those same media mavens picked newcomer Miami to bring up the rear of the conference. Instead they finished 7-9, 16-13, and until a late-season fade, were an NCAA contender. This year they’re picked seventh, but their chances of making the field of 64 (OK, with that silly play-in game it’s 65) are probably better than last year. The reasons are: a) Guillermo Diaz (18.6 ppg) is the most explosive and fun-to-watch player in the ACC; b) his backcourt mates Robert Hite and Anthony Harris give the Canes the best perimeter in the league; c) Gary Hamilton and Anthony King are rock-solid underneath; and d) the four-man recruiting class will provide immediate help.

Miami may not sneak up on anyone this year, but they won’t have to. They have the talent to win 20 games even without the element of surprise.

If Miami was overlooked last year, Virginia Tech wasn’t even on the radar screen. Yet, like their fellow ACC rookies, the Hokies surprised everybody with an 8-8 conference record, 16-14 overall. Rest assured, foes won’t make that same mistake this time around.

With guards Zabian Dowell (14.4 points per game) and Jaman Gordon (10.9 ppg) and forwards Deron Washington (7.9 ppg) and Coleman Collins (11.4 ppg) returning, plus a healthy Markus Sailes (who took a redshirt season last year because of stress fractures), the only hole that needs plugging will be at center. Although Coach of the Year Seth Greenburg brings in four highly touted freshmen, none of them is a true center. And for that reason, VT looks more like a bubble team than a contender this year.

The same is true for the other tech, Georgia Tech, which returns exactly zero starters. With five seniors and early NBA defector Jarrett Jack gone, coach Paul Hewitt will turn to a talented but unproven sophomore class to step up. That group ‘— point guard Zam Fredrick, two guard Anthony Morrow, forward Jeremis Smith and center Re’Sean Dickey, plus freshman guard Lewis Clinch ‘— clearly has the talent. But with a tougher conference top to bottom, this youthful squad has NIT written all over it.

Believe it or not, there is some optimism around Clemson this season. This could be the year they beat Carolina at Chapel Hill, breaking their 0-forever streak of futility. Only drawback is that the game won’t take place until Feb. 4, and by then Carolina’s kiddie corps may have matured into a fairly decent team.

The good news is that the Tigers return three quality starters from last year ‘— Vernon Hamilton, Shawan Robinson and Cliff Hammonds. The bad news is that they are all three guards’… and the team finished 5-11, 16-16. The big question mark is whether center Akin Akingbala can hold his own against the Williamses of the league. Probably not.

The good news-bad news situation at Florida State is almost identical to that of Clemson. The ‘Noles return four starters, but it’s from a 4-12, 12-19 team. Coach Leonard Hamilton will look to 6-9 freshman Uche Echefu, who chose FSU over UNC, for immediate help. But it won’t be enough.

First-year coach Dave Leitao, taking over the reins from Pete Gillen at Virginia, may wish he’d stayed at DePaul before the season’s over. Granted, Sean Singletary is one of the better guards in the league, it’s just that the Wahoos are not in the same league as most of the rest of the ACC.

So there you have it, sports fans. But be forewarned, strange things happen in this league. Last year alone, Duke lost to Virginia Tech, Wake Forest lost to Florida State, and UNC lost to Santa Clara ‘— and then went on to win the national title!

And that, folks, is what all the frenzy’s about around here.

Think Ogi’s lost his ACC marbles? Let him know, comment on this story by emailing Ogi Overman at ogi@yesweekly.com.

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