It may be hard for the younger generation to understand, but it's true: All across the Triangle there is a cohort of college basketball fans, aged roughly 45–55, who recall a hoops-watching adolescence in which N.C. State, not Duke or North Carolina, was the school that had won a national title in living memory.
They also remember an adolescence in which David Thompson, not Michael Jordan, was the high-flying legend young players dreamed of becoming.
And they remember a time when fans would circle Carolina-State and Duke-State games on their calendars just as fast—or faster—than the semi-annual Carolina-Duke games.
N.C. State's national championship of 1974, including legendary victories over Maryland in the ACC Tournament final and Bill Walton and John Wooden's UCLA in the national semifinal, cemented a remarkable two-year stretch (1972–74) in which State dominated both locally and nationally, compiling a 57–1 record.
Nine years later, just one year after Jordan's famous jumper to give Dean Smith his first national title, Jim Valvano's Wolfpack answered with an absurdly improbable run through both the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament to pick up the school's second title in a decade. Seven of the nine wins in that run came by a bucket or less or in overtime. The Wolfpack managed to beat Ralph Sampson and Virginia twice during that run—once with the three point shot in place (in the ACC Tournament final) and once without it (in the West Region final).
That sequence of wins, culminating with Lorenzo Charles' dunk at the buzzer to win the title against Houston, will never be forgotten. What's less easily remembered was that Valvano, after settling for the National Invitation Tournament [NIT] in 1984, fielded teams throughout the remainder of the 1980s that were often equal if not superior to the 1983 team in terms of talent. N.C. State reached the Ellite Eight in 1985 and 1986 and the Sweet 16 in 1989.
Altogether, Carolina, Duke and State each qualified for the NCAA Tournament in seven of the first 12 seasons (1979–80 to 1990–91) after the traditional cap on two teams per conference was lifted. Twice (1986 and 1989) all three schools sent teams to the Sweet 16, something that's only happened once since (2005).
N.C. State's disappearance from the upper echelon of ACC basketball has been long, painful and in some ways surprising. Valvano was forced out as coach in 1990 after allegations of improprieties in the program were published by journalist Peter Golenbock in his book Personal Fouls. Many of the specific charges in the book were contested or refuted, but the image of a program out of control stuck. The public image of Valvano and his program were not helped by the meltdown of star center Chris Washburn, who left N.C. State after his sophomore season for the NBA in 1986 only to fall victim to a drug habit that within three years got him banned from the league, having played just 72 games.
Valvano's charisma and visible courage in battling cancer made him once again an overwhelmingly popular figure at the time of his death in 1993, and not just among State fans. Donald Williams, Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four for North Carolina in 1993, dedicated his 25-point effort in the final to Valvano in a postgame interview.
That same year, Valvano's successor, Les Robinson, suffered through a miserable 8–19 season. It didn't get much better in his remaining three seasons, all losing ones. ACC fans began referring to the ACC Tournament play-in game (reserved for the eighth and ninth-place teams) as the "Les Robinson Invitational."
The cerebral Herb Sendek was hired to replace Robinson in 1996 and immediately restored the Wolfpack to NIT-level respectability. The arrival of future ACC Player of the Year Julius Hodge in 2001–02 lifted the program up a level, and State enjoyed a string of five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, including that Sweet 16 run in 2005.
Even so, it wasn't good enough for State fans, and Sendek packed his bags for Arizona State in 2006. Sendek's better teams were still not in the same class as Duke's or Carolina's (apart from the last two years of Matt Doherty's tenure), and State was still not able to compete with them for the nation's top recruits. Sendek's preferred deliberate style, while effective, wasn't terribly attractive for prep hotshots either. Still, Sendek's accomplishments with the Wolfpack look much more impressive in light of the failed Sidney Lowe era, which mercifully ended in 2011. (Memo to the Duke athletic director tasked with the inevitable job of replacing Coach K: Both Carolina and State have proven that hiring a popular player off of a national championship team to be your school's head coach isn't always a great idea.)
Now, as the 2012–13 season gets under way, the world seems to have turned again. State is the official preseason favorite in the ACC, as anointed by the league's sportswriters and (in a separate poll) its coaches. That judgment is based largely on the fact that State has a talented and experienced veteran core along with a solid class of newcomers, highlighted by the smooth offensive talent T.J. Warren.
But it is also informed by the quality of basketball that Mark Gottfried's team was playing by the end of last season. Not only did State make the Sweet 16—they came a whisker away from beating national runner-up Kansas. A win against the Jayhawks might well have led to a Final Four appearance, given that the regional final opponent would have been a beaten-up North Carolina team sans Kendall Marshall.
None of this, of course, is lost on the State faithful, who sense the time is now for their basketball program to make the vault back to equality with Carolina and Duke.
In a cosmic sense too, the time might well be ripe to finally put to bed the post-Valvano hangover, a story with so much pain and heartbreak. Consider this remarkable development: Washburn himself, once the poster boy for the excesses of college sports and the waste of drug use, now gives testimonial speeches to young basketball stars in the NBA's Rookie Transition program and numerous other venues. Clean for more than a decade, he co-owns and operates a restaurant (Washburn's Wings and More) in Hickory.
If Washburn can pull himself together and write a new and inspiring chapter to his own story, a basketball program as storied and prestigious as N.C. State's can do the same.
Still, it's a long and bumpy road to Atlanta for next spring's Final Four, as the Pack discovered Sunday night, losing 76–56 to Oklahoma State in the Puerto Rico Tipoff. It will take some time for State's new blend of personnel to match the chemistry achieved at the end of last year, and competition in the league will be fierce. Duke's Seth Curry and Carolina's James Michael McAdoo are no slouches; neither are Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams.
But there is good reason to think that, come season's end, State will again be within arm's length of the school's first Final Four in 30 years. This time, they won't just be happy to be there—they'll be playing to win.
As we were preparing this story for publication, news broke that Maryland would be departing the ACC for the Big Ten, beginning in the fall of 2014. This move is a blow to the ACC and its tradition. Maryland never quite became the "UCLA of the East," but the Terrapins contributed many memorable players, personalities and performances to the league. Like former Terp greats Lefty Driesell, Tom McMillen and Len Elmore, I'm appalled by this development and concerned for the league's future. I have written more about my objections online at the Indy's Triangle Offense sports blog, and I expect to discuss the implications of Maryland's move for the ACC's future in my Friday contributions to this group blog. You can follow the blog at @IndyweekSports and me at @ThadWilliamson.
ACC pick hits
We asked several contributors to give us a few things to look for this season.
Name you'll know by March: As soon as freshman Marshall Plumlee steps on the court for his first regular season game in a Blue Devils uniform (which could come as early as Nov. 28), a new edition of the Plumlee gang will be fair game for trolling anti-Duke fans.
Game you need to see: Last year, Ohio State shot nearly 60 percent from three-point land in a very lopsided 85–63 win over the Blue Devils. On Nov. 28 , the two teams are paired up for a rematch in Durham. The Buckeyes could easily have the same kind of shooting night if neither Quinn Cook nor Rasheed Sulaimon can keep Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas under control. ESPN, 9:30 p.m.
Person to avoid: Lil Wayne and his music. On Nov. 13, following Duke's 75–68 victory over Kentucky, Duke freshman guard Rasheed Sulaimon sent out a tweet claiming that the rapper—a devout Wildcats fan—cursed at him from his courtside seat and that the verbal attack made him a little "shook" (scared). Lil Wayne must be a miserable little man. —Eric Tullis (@erictullis)
Name you'll know by March: Freshman point guard Marcus Paige. Ready or not, the slender Iowan already has earned the starting position and must lead an offense that lacks creative shot-makers.
Game you need to see: Indiana Hoosiers in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The game's in Bloomington, Ind., on Nov. 27. ESPN, 9:30 p.m.
UNC will lose: At both Duke and N.C. State because the Tar Heels lack the experience to prevail in those hostile environments against teams boasting at least equal talent but if the Tar Heels shoot three-pointers with high-30 percent accuracy, they'll still win 12 ACC contests in the expanded, 18-game conference schedule.
Person to avoid: Anyone wearing an NCAA investigator badge. —Rob Harrington (@Rob_Harrington)
Game you need to see: Michigan on Nov. 27. A big, early meeting between unlikely preseason AP Top 10 opponents. ESPN, 7:30 p.m.
Name you'll know by March: Rodney Purvis. The highly touted freshman guard is already a starter and regular double-digit scorer.
N.C. State will win the ACC if: The trio of senior Richard Howell, junior C.J. Leslie and freshman T.J. Warren give the Wolfpack enough rebounding to complement their up-tempo offense during league play.
Biggest roadblock to winning the ACC: Karl Hess
The name you'll know by March: Alexis Jones, a 5'-8" freshman guard, is working into the flow quickly.
Duke will make the Final Four and perhaps win the NCAA championship if: ...the Blue Devils have general good health and just stay in a winning rhythm. Their junior class may be the best in the country, and sophomore center Elizabeth Williams should be a national player of the year candidate next season. They would need to upset Connecticut and deal with Brittney Griner at Baylor, but those games are a long way off.
The name you'll know by March: Xylina McDaniel, the 6'-2" freshman forward and daughter of former NBA star Xavier McDaniel.
The game you need to see: Ohio State, Nov. 28, 7 p.m. at Carmichael Arena, ESPN3. UNC will beat the No. 20 Buckeyes in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge game if they keep up their 40 minutes of intensity and beat them up and down the floor. But they will lose to the Buckeyes if they can't establish a solid inside game or if they lose the battle of the boards.
Game you need to see: Michigan State, Nov. 29, 7 p.m. at Reynolds Coliseum, ESPN3. The Wolfpack will beat the Spartans if they have a balanced offense and Marissa Kastanek, Myisha Goodwin-Coleman and the other guards can get a little attention with outside shooting. But they will lose to the Spartans if they commit too many turnovers and have a bad shooting night. —Mike Potter (@mikepotterrdu)
This article appeared in print with the headline "That '70s show."