Try as we might to live in the present, few of us avoid looking ahead to the upcoming weekend, our next vacation, or the end of an odious election campaign mounted by Vernon Robinson. This habit is well known among college sports fans in the Triangle, who may welcome football season with enthusiasm but all too soon have basketball on their minds. "Well, there's always basketball" is our regional equivalent of that well-worn, universal statement of fan patience and weary optimism, "Wait till next year."
The drift in focus is particularly understandable this fall, when for the first time since 1987 all three area Atlantic Coast Conference football teams are assured of losing records. This is a worse showing than usual, but in keeping with a modest tradition at Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State.
None of those programs have been able to sustain a level of excellence in football during the modern era, or to approach the success enjoyed by Durham's undefeated N.C. Central University in its last year as a member of the Division II Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA). The last time Duke had a winning record in football was 1994. UNC last was a winner in 2001. N.C. State, despite pretensions of grandeur, has its second losing record in three years.
The lowly stature of ACC football in these parts has a self-perpetuating quality. When Steve Spurrier prospered at Duke or Mack Brown at North Carolina, they left, parlaying their success into coaching positions at real football schools. Each went on to win a national championship at their new perch, Spurrier at Florida in 1996 and Brown at Texas in 2005.
The divergent status of Triangle football and basketball could not be greater. Exceptional coaches abound on ACC basketball sidelines and have since the sport gained traction in the region due to the sustained success of N.C. State's Everett Case in the 1940s and '50s. While the area's football teams have yet to win a national title, the men's basketball teams have won nine, the women one.
As for the last time either the men or women at Duke, UNC and N.C. State all suffered a losing record in the same ACC basketball season, you must go back to, well, never.
One reason ACC basketball has been exceptional, especially on the men's side, is the constant pressure of being measured against two of the five most successful programs in NCAA history.
"We're the only conference in the country that has two schools like North Carolina and Duke," says Maryland's Gary Williams, who coached in the Big East and Big 10, power conferences comparable to the ACC. "Name the five top programs in the country for the last 50 years; everybody would put Carolina and Duke in there. So we wake up with that every day, when you coach other teams in the league. The good part of that is, that's something to shoot for."
Williams has prospered within that environment, with 13 straight postseason bids and two visits to the Final Four, capped by an NCAA title in 2002. But that record pales in comparison with the championship-caliber consistency reached at Duke and UNC under a pair of Hall of Fame coaches.
From 1975 through 2001 North Carolina went to a record 27 consecutive NCAA tournaments, 23 under Dean Smith. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski has taken the Blue Devils to 22 NCAA appearances in 23 years, including the last 11. Smith went to 11 Final Fours, winning two championships. Krzyzewski has gone 10 times, with three titles. Smith won 13 ACC Tournaments, Krzyzewski 10. Smith's teams finished three seasons ranked atop the Associated Press poll, Krzyzewski's seven, most recently in 2006.
Smith retired following the 1997 season. Yet, other than a stumble under Matt Doherty in 2002, the Tar Heels have largely followed Smith's exacting blueprint to produce at least 19 wins and a postseason bid each year. UNC reached a new peak in 2005, capturing the NCAA title, fourth in school history, under former Smith assistant Roy Williams.
Most any competing coach or school would fall short by comparison, which ultimately helped to drive Herb Sendek from N.C. State.
Sendek was consistently successful, tying a school record with five straight NCAA bids. But he was not successful enough. In a decade at Raleigh his teams failed to win an ACC title, finish first during the regular season, or reach the Final Four. Perhaps worse, his Wolfpack lost the last six meetings with the hated Heels, usually by double-digit margins. The drumbeat of dissatisfaction that accompanied last season's 22-10 finish and NCAA bid, a laudable showing in most neighborhoods, drove Sendek to Arizona State.
"It makes you more cynical," Wake Forest head coach Skip Prosser says of Sendek's fate. "It hardens your resolve. It makes you less trusting."
Enter Sidney Lowe, a former N.C. State point guard hired to replace Sendek following a protracted search. Lowe has no college coaching experience and comes directly to Raleigh from a position as an assistant coach in the pros. Those traits neatly mirror UNC graduate John Bunting, who failed to win regularly and was fired last month as Tar Heel football coach. But they also match the profile of Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weis, highly successful in two years at his alma mater.
There's no telling which direction Lowe will take the Wolfpack, other than toward an embrace of a rich school tradition that includes NCAA basketball titles in 1974 and 1983. "N.C. State is a program," Lowe says in a deep voice that flows like honey. "It's not Sidney Lowe. It's N.C. State's program and that's the way I approach it."
That may be true, but the Wolfpack's fortunes have ebbed and flowed, infrequently producing national powers.
"I think it's a lot easier to come up there and make a big splash for two or three years than it is to be up there as one of those top 25 teams every year," UNC's Williams says. "To me that is so much more difficult."
Coaches generally define a program by internal standards. Those include a sense of stability and continuity as well as a distinctive playing style and approach to the game. When Krzyzewski coached Team USA in international competition this past summer, he spoke of creating a "culture" in which players would ultimately come and go without compromising the prowess or ethic of the program.
"I think it's almost something that's in the players' hearts and minds, to get a little John Adams-y," says Prosser, an inveterate reader. "You can see it in their eyes, what they have on their chest, what it says on the front of that shirt ... That's sort of been what we've tried to do at Wake Forest, to make sure that shirt meant a whole, whole lot. It wasn't just within your team, it was within your student body, within your general fan base. And it's a neat thing."
Clemson's Oliver Purnell previously built winners at Radford, Old Dominion and Dayton before moving to the ACC's historically least successful program. The fourth-year Tiger coach said it takes about three seasons to establish a framework that meets a coach's specifications.
"When you see and feel that the kind of culture that you want established is there, when you see players really grabbing onto your philosophies, really embracing values that you preach day in and day out for your program, when you see and hear them start to talk about and exhibit those behaviors, then I think you've got your program established," he says.
Bowing to the inevitable, he quickly adds, "Having a certain success level on the floor is important in establishing your program as well." Purnell's teams have won more games each year he's been at Clemson; their 19 victories in 2006 were the most at the school since 1999.
Having players reinforce a coach's teachings amongst themselves also is key to perpetuating a program's core concepts, says Shane Battier.
"It's not only can they hand it down, it's their job, it's their duty, to uphold the tradition," says the member of Team USA. Battier, currently a member of the Houston Rockets in the National Basketball Association, led the 2001 Blue Devils to Krzyzewski's third and most recent national championship as a senior.
Krzyzewski, entering his 27th season at Duke, felt his program was established in 1986-87, when his first great recruiting class graduated, yet the Blue Devils kept winning. "A program is about continuity," says the ACC's senior men's coach, "and, if you have continuity of excellence, can you keep doing it?"
Lowe, the floor leader of N.C. State's 1983 championship squad, must answer that question eventually. First, though, he'll have to retool. Wolfpack fans are a patient, supportive lot, Sendek's fate notwithstanding, and years may pass before we know if consistent excellence can be achieved at Raleigh.
"As far as my era here, we'll just try to really go out and compete and represent our school and try to win games," Lowe said. "We know it's a tough challenge in the ACC. But this is what it is here. This is the ... Mecca, I think, of college basketball."
The balance of power among Triangle basketball programs appears to be shifting from Duke to North Carolina, or at least to an even footing.
Both the Blue Devil men and women have been the standards of measure in recent memory, dominating in unprecedented fashion. Gail Goestenkors' women finished first during the regular season all but once between 1998 and 2005, winning a record five straight ACC titles from 2000 to 2004. Krzyzewski's squads finished first in the ACC in seven of the past 10 seasons, including 2006, and won the ACC Tournament an unmatched seven times in the last eight years.
The equation began changing in 2005. North Carolina's men finished first and won the NCAA title. Sylvia Hatchell's North Carolina women, led by charismatic point guard Ivory Latta, likewise finished tied with Duke atop the ACC standings and won the first of two consecutive ACC titles.
Duke and North Carolina spent the majority of last season taking turns at the top of the women's polls, the Blue Devils starting at No. 1 and the Heels ending there. UNC finished 33-2, the most wins in program history, and reached the Final Four for the second time ever. Duke was 31-4, its sixth consecutive 30-win effort, and made its fourth Final Four since 1999.
Both squads remain in the national title picture, and suffer still the sting of falling just short of the championship.
UNC returns eight of its top nine players, starting with Latta, the 2006 ACC player of the year. She paced Carolina in scoring (18.4), 3-point shooting, assists and steals, and has recovered from knee surgery. Close support is provided by All-ACC forward Erlana Larkins and multifaceted senior Camille Little. Larkins led the squad in rebounding last season, with Little and Latta providing double-figure scoring. Highly regarded freshman Jessica Breland, a 6'3" McDonald's All-American, could contribute immediately.
Hatchell likes to swarm opponents on defense and to push the ball offensively. "I lay awake at night thinking about ways to play faster," she said.
Goestenkors tries to grin and go on. She posted in Duke's locker room a saying, "What is delayed is not denied," sent by N.C. State coach Kay Yow. "That's kind of been our little theme this summer and on into this year," Goestenkors says.
Keep the ball rolling could be another theme. Monique Currie and Mistie Williams, last year's leaders, are gone, but the cupboard is far from bare. At the forefront are seniors Lindsay Harding, a fleet point guard, and 6'7' center Alison Bales, a revelation during the '06 NCAA tournament. Sophomore Abby Waner showed signs of stardom, too. The Devils added a pair of highly touted freshmen, scrappy defender Bridgette Mitchell and strong post player Joy Cheek.
Ostensibly, however, the team to beat remains Maryland, the ultimate '06 winner.
The Terrapins defeated North Carolina in the national semifinals as Latta was injured, then Duke in overtime to win the NCAA title, the second for an ACC program after UNC in 1994. Essentially everyone returns for the 34-4 Terrapins and coach Brenda Frese, led by All-ACC post player Crystal Langhorne, frontcourt mate Marissa Coleman and guards Shay Doron and Kristi Toliver. The Terrapins are the national preseason pick for No. 1, just as Florida, returning five starters from its 2006 championship squad, is considered the team to beat among the men.
When it comes to admirable comportment and a consistently competitive program, few compare with Lowe's counterpart at N.C. State, Kay Yow.
The ACC's senior coach enters her 32nd season with an NCAA-caliber squad almost evenly divided between seniors and freshmen. Senior guard Ashley Key is a superior defender. She and junior forward Khadijah Whittington, among the ACC's top rebounders (8.0 per game), are the sole returning double-figure scorers. Look for guard Nikitta Gartrell, part of a well-regarded freshman class, to make an immediate splash.
"It could be dynamite when you take the enthusiasm of youth and put it together with experience," says Yow, seven victories shy of 700 for her coaching career. "It could be great. Or, we could find we're struggling just a little bit because this end, the inexperienced end, can't quite live up to where we need them to be."
And there are plenty of creditable challengers to Maryland and the Triangle trio.
Boston College retained three starters, most notably guards Kindyll Dorsey, its only returning double-figure scorer (11.3), and playmaker Sarah Marshall, second in the ACC in assists with 5.8 per game. Florida State, coming off consecutive 20-win seasons, is rife with young talent. Georgia Tech finished last season by losing eight of nine, but four starters are back, including guard Jill Ingram, second in the league in steals (64) in 2006. Virginia under Debbie Ryan, in year 30 at Charlottesville, weathered an early-decade slump to post consecutive 20-win records. The Cavs return four starters, paced by center Siedah Williams and league assist leader Sharnee Zoll (6.3 average).
The ranks of also-rans begin at Clemson, with a thin roster and a single returning starter. Miami, coached by former Duke player Katie Meier, replaces three of its top five scorers, including the ACC's best in Tamara James. Virginia Tech could surprise, but has 10 underclassmen. Wake Forest followed its first winning season since 1991 with a 12-16 effort, then bid adieu to players who accounted for two-thirds of its points. Probably last season's biggest winner was ACC women's basketball.
Advocates insisted for years the ACC was the equal of any league. The claim rang hollow as the SEC and Big East won more titles, placed more teams in the Final Four, and crowded the top 10. Then in 2006, the ACC sent seven teams to the NCAAs for the second season in a row and saw Duke, Maryland and UNC reach the Final Four and finish atop the polls. Only the Big East men in 1985 matched the feat of placing three teams in the same Final Four.
By contrast, 2006 was less than sterling for ACC men. A mere four teams got NCAA bids. None reached the Final Four, only the fourth shutout in 26 years. Boston College entered the league and, like Virginia Tech and Miami in 2005, shook up the status quo, even taking Duke to the wire in the ACC Tournament finals.
This year the ACC men have a national contender in North Carolina, which boasts rare talent and depth. Roy Williams' squad is led by sophomore All-American Tyler Hansbrough, a rugged inside performer who hunts the ball with the avidity of a squirrel at an unguarded birdfeeder. The Heels promise to spread playing opportunities by pushing action at both ends.
UNC is dominated by underclassmen, a weakness muted by having seven returnees who played at least 12 minutes per game in 2006. Seniors Reyshawn Terry and Wes Miller, previously lost on the bench, emerged last season. Terry's scoring average jumped a dozen points, to 14.3; all but six of 70 field goals by Miller, a tenacious defender, came from 3-point range.
A gaggle of sophomores earned valuable seasoning in '06 as the Heels won 10 of their last 11 regular season games. Bobby Frasor paced the team in assists and can fill either guard slot. Arcus Ginyard and Danny Green are complementary wings with good defensive skills.
Three McDonald's high school All-Americans in a dazzling six-man freshman class figure to gain instant prominence in abbreviated collegiate careers.
Big man Brandan Wright, a slender 6'9" shotblocker, is an athletic, skilled lefty. Off-guard Wayne Ellington, never to be nicknamed "Duke," is an arresting athlete with a superior 3-point touch and an efficient, seemingly effortless game. Playmaker Ty Lawson is strong, an exceptional defender and competitor, and a transforming presence with the ball. "Ty is as fast as there is," one ACC assistant coach says. "He is in constant attack mode."
Add forwards Alex Stepheson and Deon Thompson, and Williams has enough options to match anyone.
Duke likewise boasts a celebrated freshman class, with skilled 7-footer Brian Zoubek and a trio of McDonald's All-Americans. Guard Jon Scheyer, according to a college recruiter, "has an unbelievable knack for scoring" and is gaining valuable experience as an early fill-in for injured playmaker Greg Paulus. Wing Gerald Henderson, a prep teammate of UNC's Wayne Ellington, is a strong, gifted athlete and the son of a former pro. Forward Lance Thomas is powerful and relentless near the basket.
They join a prominent trio previously limited by injuries. Tough, versatile junior DeMarcus Nelson, once a noted shooter, has yet to enjoy a healthy season. Josh McRoberts came on as a freshman to display rare ball skills for a big man despite needing back surgery during the off-season. Paulus, who led the ACC in assists (187) and turnovers (118) as a freshman, played with a wrist that required postseason surgery, then broke his foot last month.
The Devils must replace a pair of All-Americans—J.J. Redick, the ACC's career leader in scoring (2,769 points) and free throw accuracy (91.2 percent), and Shelden Williams, Duke's top career rebounder and shotblocker. There are no seniors.
Duke has overachieved the past two years, stretching thin squads to capture consecutive ACC titles and finish among the top three in the polls. Last year's squad was 32-4, easily best in the ACC. Now Krzyzewski may have the luxury of stability, variety and depth, if he will use it. "Our mindset is that we can be really good," he says.
Meanwhile, the Sidney Lowe era begins with modest expectations at N.C. State. Four of last season's top five scorers are gone. Sendek's two best recruits withdrew their commitments and went elsewhere. The last remaining big man with significant experience, Andrew Brackman, stuck with baseball, where his 97-mile-per-hour fastball makes him a coveted pitcher.
Lowe promises his team will play flexibly and freely. "I want them to be able to express themselves," says the 46-year-old. Look for the Pack to run plays that create mismatches, particularly involving 6'7" junior Gavin Grant. Engin Atsur, a steady senior guard, is the other seasoned returnee.
Most of the squad is comprised of freshmen and unproven sophomores. The leading options are wing Courtney Fells and forwards Ben McCauley, Brandon Costner and Dennis Horner.
One coaching standard Lowe promised to avoid was using modest predictions as motivational fodder. "It's not motivation for me at all," he says. "As far as expectations, it's to go out and compete, go out and play hard, go out and represent N.C. State University in a class manner."
Beyond the Triangle, the better ACC men's teams are Boston College, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
Physical and efficient, Boston College returns a strong cast led by all-league forward Jared Dudley. Junior Sean Williams is the only center we've seen block three shots from 3-point range during a career, let alone in a single game, as he did at N.C. State last February. Georgia Tech, a loser last year, has virtually everyone back. Coach Paul Hewitt strengthened the brew by adding a potent freshman class, most especially McDonald's All-Americans Javaris Crittenton, a heralded point guard, and forward Thaddeus Young.
Virginia Tech, a loser 10 times last year by five or fewer points, will be the league's surprise team. The Hokies return their three top players, including a senior backcourt and gifted big man Coleman Collins, presumably at peace after playing through his father's slow death by cancer.
Four other teams have the wherewithal to break into the league's upper echelon.
Clemson returns center James Mays, an academic casualty last year, and a solid backcourt of Cliff Hammonds, K.C. Rivers and vastly improved Vernon Hamilton, the first Clemson player to lead the league in steals (83 in 2006). Florida State lacks a proven inside presence, but boasts All-ACC forward Al Thornton and a tough, athletic perimeter corps. Maryland may have solved its ballhandling problems (more turnovers than assists in '06), and has front-rank players in forwards Ekene Ibekwe and James Gist and guards Mike Jones and D.J. Strawberry. Virginia benefits from perhaps the league's top backcourt, All-ACC guards Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds, and a year of adjustment to no-nonsense coach Dave Leitao.
Miami, Wake Forest and N.C. State should bring up the rear. Frank Haith's Hurricanes have top-notch guards in Anthony Harris and Denis Clemente, but everyone else is a question mark. Last season, Wake Forest experienced an historic decline, plummeting from 13-3 in the league to 3-13. With a drop in experience and no obvious leader, it's time to rebuild.
Barry Jacobs, a founding writer of the Independent Weekly, has covered ACC basketball since 1976.