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Imagine, if you will, a time and place where college basketball players stayed four years. You had to win your conference tournament or you couldn’t play in the NCAA Tournament. Arenas were stuffed full of maniacal fans, and the pressure to win nearly drove coaches crazy.
That was the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball Tournament when I was growing up.
Today, the tournament means nothing other than the entertainment value of seeing your team play another game. If your team is good, they’re going to the NCAA Tournament the following week any way. If they’re bad, they could run the table and qualify for the NCAA’s the next week, but the odds of that happening are right up there with ordering a unicorn from Amazon, so in all likelihood, the season ends.
But go back to 1970. No matter how good you were, you had to the win the tournament or you went home. Before 1975, all conferences only got one bid to the NCAAs. Players couldn’t leave early for the ABA or NBA. Freshmen were ineligible. Heck, you weren’t even allowed to dunk. Getting a ticket to the event was like winning the lottery. The atmosphere was electric.
The 1970 tournament is the first one I really remember, and it featured a South Carolina team that had gotten through the ACC with a perfect 14-0 record. They had John Roche, Bobby Cremins and a host of players the rest of the league really hated. They were cocky, physical and very good. They were ranked No. 3 in the country and the only other team in the field ranked was No. 19 N.C. State.
They met in the finals back when the title game was on a Saturday night. The game was televised by C.D. Chesley and you found yourself humming along to “Sail With The Pilot” during commercials for Pilot Life Insurance. The Wolfpack slowed the ball down (this was also before the shot clock) and the game went into overtime. Twice. Although South Carolina was clearly the better team, Vann Williford and NC State prevailed
If you weren’t an ACC basketball fan then, this game converted you. South Carolina, even though ranked No. 3, 14-0 in the ACC and 25-3 overall, didn’t go to the NCAAs.
The next year was just as good, with North Carolina and South Carolina meeting in the ACC finals. It went back and forth the entire game, coming down to a jump ball under the North Carolina basket with only a few seconds left. South Carolina’s Kevin Joyce, who was 6-foot-3, was jumping against UNC’s 6-10 Lee Dedmon. Depending on your point of view, either Joyce outjumped Dedmon or Dedmon tipped the ball backward, but it ended in the hands of South Carolina’s Tom Owens. He was all by himself and easily scored the winning layup as time expired.
The pastor of my church, a staunch North Carolina fan, started his sermon the next morning asking for the wisdom to understand why a guy 6-10 would tip the ball backward toward his own basket in such a situation.
Yeah, in my neighborhood, we took ACC basketball seriously.
Then came the 1972-73 season. N.C. State had Tommy Burleson, David Thompson, Monte Towe and a host of others that took the league by storm. On Super Bowl Sunday of 1973, they beat Maryland 87-85 in a nationally televised game that made the rest of the country sit up and notice. Maryland had John Lucas, Tom McMillen and Len Elmore and the game was one of the best regular-season games I’d ever seen.
In retrospect, it was merely an appetizer.
The two teams would meet in the ACC finals that year, with the Wolfpack again prevailing by two points, 76-74. But it was the next year in 1974 when the two teams played that produced what in my mind is the greatest college basketball ever played. With the pressure of win or not make the NCAA’s, a packed house in Greensboro and the rest of the country watching on a Saturday night, No. 1-ranked N.C. State won a 103-100 overtime decision over the No. 4-ranked Terps.
Neither team deserved to lose. N.C. State would then go on to dethrone UCLA and win the national championship.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that would be the pinnacle of ACC Tournaments. The next year, the NCAA started offering at-large bids, mainly because of the situation where South Carolina in 1970 and Maryland in 1974 were so highly ranked and didn’t get in. That lessened some of the appeal of the ACC Tournament, but there were still two more memorable tournaments for me.
One was the 1982 tournament in Greensboro, which was also my first time covering the event. North Carolina – with James Worthy, Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins – and Virginia, led by Ralph Sampson, Othell Wilson and Jeff Jones, met in the finals. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that much talent on a college basketball floor since, and in the first half the two teams put on a show.
Included in that show was Perkins diving for a ball, falling over the press table that was courtside and nearly wiping out a sportswriter. That was me. I chuckled for years when Chesley and Raycom used footage of that in their promotional commercials, and while most only noticed a North Carolina player diving for a ball, I had a different memory.
The second half started out like the first, but with 8 minutes to go and UNC only leading 44-43, Dean Smith went to the four corners to slow the ball down. Smith really wanted UVA to come out and guard man-to-man so they could take advantage of Worthy and Perkins and possibly get some layups, but Terry Holland politely declined to send his team out to do so.
From the 8-minute mark until the final 26 seconds, we all sat and watched North Carolina dribble the ball at the time line. UNC would win 47-45 and a year later, the NCAA decided enough was enough and instituted a shot clock for the college game.
The other great memory came the next year the tournament went to Atlanta for the first time, and will always be my favorite. Virginia and Ralph Sampson were ranked No. 2 in the country. North Carolina was ranked No. 5 and the two were favored to meet in the finals. NC State was unranked, had lost 10 regular season games and was 8-6 in the ACC. They struggled to even win in the first round with a one-point victory over Wake, and the media quickly left Coach Jim Valvano after a few minutes of questions after the game because everyone wanted to get back to their seat to see the next game between Virginia and Duke.
Only 3 writers – including myself – hung around to talk more, and Valvano was in a talkative mood. We went on for another 10 to 15 minutes with the conversation covering everything from basketball to Italian food. If you ever heard Valvano give one of his talks filled with one liners, that was the conversation. And since Virginia would boat race Duke 109-66, it’s not like I was going to miss any crucial plays of that game.
It was fun. Then Valvano’s world changed forever.
The next night he would go from struggling coach to shocking the world when the Wolfpack beat UNC in overtime. Sunday afternoon, they’d do the same to UVA. Weeks later he’d be running around a court in Albuquerque, New Mexico, looking for someone to hug when his Survive and Advance team won the NCAA Tournament.
I think of that conversation every now and then. Because while it led to incredible fortune for Valvano, six years later he would be forced out of coaching in Raleigh. Nine years later he would be diagnosed with cancer. 10 years later, he would be gone. In the span of a decade, he had gone from the lows of 10-loss season, to the highs of being a national champion, to the end of his life.
Another reminder to enjoy every moment. No one knows what the next day will bring.
Since then, the tournament has gotten more and more meaningless, as a half dozen or more teams from the league go on to the NCAAs. Winning an ACC Tournament title is still something special for a school’s trophy case, and a good tournament could improve a team’s seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
But otherwise, it’s not the same as those days back in the 70s. Not even close.
So old guys, rejoice. There will always be ACC Tournaments.
But none like what we got to see.