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Al Featherston on Saturday at the ACC Tournament!

TAMPA -- When Dean Swift’s friend Lemuel Gulliver visited the land of the Lilliputians, he found the nation in rebellion because of a religious dispute.The great prophet Lustrog had decreed that “All true believers shall break their eggs at the convenient end.” By royal edit, the “convenient end” was defined as the small end. Unfortunately, the neighboring Blefuscudians interpreted the words to mean that eggs should be cracked at the big end.

A faction of Lilliputians adopted the Blefuscudian heresy. In an effort to stamp out the rebellion, over 11,000 “Big Enders” had been put to death and more than 40 warships were lost in the civil war.

The death toll in the ACC is not quite as steep, but the nation’s best basketball conference has long been divided by a similar philosophical schism -- what is the true ACC championship?

By royal degree, the ACC Tournament winner is anointed as the league’s official champion. But there is a strong faction, encouraged by the beliefs of surrounding conferences, that the regular season winner is the “real” champion.

Throughout ACC history, these two belief systems have dueled … and the running battle will continue Sunday when the true heirs of both cults meet for the 2007 ACC championship.

You have to understand that Everett Case is the high priest of ACC orthodoxy and N.C. State is the haven for true believers. In opposition to Case is Frank McGuire, the great heretic, who has passed his hatred of the ACC Tournament down to his spiritual successors.

So when No. 1 seeded North Carolina meets No. 10 seeded N.C. State in the ACC Tournament finals at 1 p.m., more than a championship will be decided. The soul of the Atlantic Coast Conference will be at stake.


Just before the 1957 ACC Tournament, the old Charlotte News took a poll of the eight ACC coaches at that time. Seven of the eight voted to abolish the tournament. Everett Case stood alone for truth, glory and the ACC way.

The Gray Fox had grown up in Indiana high school basketball and he understood that basketball is a tournament sport. He loved the postseason event, proclaiming -- “The Tournament is a banquet and every game is a feast.”

Case won 10 tournament titles between 1947 and 1959. As his program declined, his disciple Vic Bubas began his rise. The young Duke coach -- who had played and coached under Case -- won his first tournament in 1960 and retired after the 1969 season with the best tournament winning percentage in ACC history.

But Bubas is not the only Case disciple to defend the faith. His teammate at N.C. State took over the Wolfpack program in 1966 and also preached the glory of the tournament.

Logically, Norm Sloan should have criticized the tournament in 1974. His Wolfpack team had just completed a second straight undefeated ACC season and was ranked No. 1 in the nation. But unless the Wolfpack won the ACC Tournament, they wouldn’t get the chance to challenge UCLA for the national title. Still, on the first day of the ‘74 ACC Tournament, Sloan stood with a group of young reporters at the Greensboro Coliseum and talked about how much he loved the tourney.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Good things seem to happen to N.C. State in the tournament.”

Good things did happen to Sloan’s team in the tournament. Beating Maryland in the greatest game ever played propelled N.C. State to the 1974 national title, highlighted by a semifinal victory over mighty UCLA on the same Greensboro Coliseum court.

Good things are happening to N.C. State in this year’s tournament. The Wolfpack -- 5-11 against the league in the regular season -- has beaten Duke, regular season co-champ Virginia and third-place Virginia Tech to reach the title game.

N.C. State’s run is an eerie parallel to the Pack’s 1997 tournament run, when Herb Sendek’s first team knocked off Georgia Tech in the play-in game, upset top-seeded Duke in the quarterfinals, then knocked off Maryland in the semifinals before losing to UNC in the title game.

That’s the only team in ACC history to play four games in the tournament … until this year’s team does the same Sunday.

The current coach, Sidney Lowe, was recruited by Sloan, but played the last three years under Jim Valvano. The charismatic Jimmy V was not a Case disciple, but he shared his reverence for the tournament. Valvano’s greatest moments came in tournament play -- starting with the 1983 miracle that Lowe quarterbacked at point guard.

“This would be bigger than ours,” he said, explaining that the 1983 team was a bunch of veterans, while this year’s team is mostly composed of inexperienced kids. “Much bigger than ours.”

Just to clarify, I think Lowe meant that winning the ACC title in 2007 would mean more than it meant to win the 1983 ACC title … he was not comparing it to the victory in the national championship game.

It’s not going to be easy. The 1997 team ran out of gas and the current Wolfpack team is hobbling. Irreplaceable point guard Engin Atsur tweaked his injured hamstring against Virginia Tech and was clearly hobbling throughout the second half. Gavin Grant limped into the interview room with a huge bag of ice of his sore knee. And Courtney Fells is playing with a strained elbow.

A victory is most unlikely, but it would be a perfect manifestation of N.C. State’s role in ACC history.


Roy Williams is starting to bristle at the widespread perception that he doesn’t care about winning the ACC championship. That’s a perception that many old-time Carolina fans seem to share.

“I get more letters from 75-year-old fans criticizing me for downplaying the tournament,” the Tar Heel coach said. “I’ve always wanted to win it. People act like I don’t.”

As one of the critics who has suggested that Williams doesn’t give the tournament a very high priority, let me point out that (1) he consistently argues that the regular season is a better way to determine a championship than the tournament; (2) at least twice he’s called the ACC Tournament “the world’s largest cocktail party”; (3) last week he bragged that his four Final Four teams all lost in their conference tournaments.”

Williams inherited his distaste for the tournament from the coaching mentors. It starts with Frank McGuire, who hated the ACC Tournament as much as N.C. State’s Everett Case loved it. It was McGuire who called the three-day event “Russian roulette” and once tried to convince UNC athletic director Chuck Erickson to pull UNC out of the ACC. McGuire always denied that he supported South Carolina’s withdrawal from the ACC, but by a strange coincidence it happened soon after his best Gamecock team -- 14-0 in the ACC regular season and ranked No. 2 nationally -- was upset in the ACC Tournament finals.

Dean Smith, who trained under McGuire, never liked the tournament, even though he ended up winning more titles than any other coach (he leads Mike Krzyzewski 13-10).

To Smith, the three-day weekend was a necessary evil and during his early days, when only the tournament champion received an NCAA bid, his top seeded teams usually won the tournament.

However, after 1980 when the NCAA opened the tournament up to an unlimited number of teams per conference, Smith changed his approach. He started to put less and less emphasis on the ACC Tournament. As a result, between 1983 and 1988, UNC won or shared the ACC regular season title five times in six years, but failed to win a single tournament title in that span.

Smith later said that the title drought frustrated so many Tar Heel fans -- maybe some of those same gray-hairs who are now writing Roy -- that he changed his approach again and in 1988, he started putting emphasis back on the tournament. The Heels lost a bitterly contested title game to Duke in 1988, but bounced back to win an equally hard-fought title game in 1989 and won three more times in Smith’s final eight years.

What’s significant is that Williams joined Smith’s staff at Carolina just as the legendary coach was de-emphasizing the ACC Tournament. When Roy went to Kansas, he focused more on the regular season than the tournament. In 15 seasons in Lawrence, Williams’ Jayhawk teams won nine regular season titles and just four tournament titles.

Since returning to Chapel Hill, Williams has won one regular season title outright and shared another. He’s still looking for his first tournament title. Looking at UNC’s tournament performances under Williams:

-- His 2004 team lost in the first round to Georgia Tech on a last-second shot by Jarrett Jack. Considering that Georgia Tech would reach the NCAA championship game in San Antonio, that’s hard to characterize as a subpar performance by the Heels.

-- His 2005 team took the weekend off in Washington, D.C. after winning the ACC regular season title. Carolina came from behind to beat No. 9 seed Clemson, 88-81, after trailing most of the way. One day later, UNC gave up 35 points to Will Bynum in a 78-75 loss to Georgia Tech. Considering that UNC would storm to the national title in St. Louis, it is fair to characterize those two games as a subpar performance by the Tar Heels.

-- His 2006 team smashed Virginia in the quarterfinals, but lost a tough, hard-fought game with Boston College, 85-82, in the semifinals. Considering that UNC had lost by seven to BC in Chapel Hill earlier this season, that has to rate as a solid effort by the Tar Heels.

Now is 2007 team is in the ACC finals -- UNC’s first appearance in the championship game since 2001. In a tournament dominated by underdogs, North Carolina manhandled Florida State in the quarterfinals, then dominated Boston College in the semifinals. “We haven’t won an ACC championship in a while,” freshman Brandan Wright said. “The guys on the team really want that.”

There was a theory floating around the St. Pete Times Forum before UNC’s semifinal appearance that Williams wanted to get home early. It would give banged-up big man Tyler Hansbrough more time to heal and it would give his whole team time to rest before opening NCAA play Thursday in Winston-Salem (where UNC is sure to be sent, either as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed).

Instead, North Carolina came out Saturday and knocked Boston College back with its passionate play. The Tar Heels appeared to feed of the fury of Hansbrough, who attacked the glass like he’d clearly like to go at Duke’s Gerald Henderson.

Hansbrough managed just nine points on 4-of-10 shooting, but he pulled down 13 rebounds. Williams noted that this is the second straight game in which his sophomore big man has hit less than 50 percent from the floor.

“It’s obvious that mask bothers him a great deal,” Williams said.

Williams told reporters earlier than they had to talk Hansbrough into wearing the mask during the games in the games down here. He has a non-displaced fracture as a result of the blow from Henderson last weekend and the team’s doctors are concerned that another blow could displace the bone -- which could turn the injury into something more serious.

But Williams also confirmed that Hans rough “hates” wearing the mask. It will be interesting to see if he continues to wear the plastic protective devise in next week’s NCAA Tournament. After all, this is “just” the ACC Tournament.


Duke fans will soon know when and where the Blue Devils will be playing in the NCAA Tournament. By the time you read this, the selection announcement will be but a few hours away.

I don’t claim to have any advance knowledge of Duke’s fate. As I wrote in Friday’s story, I wouldn’t be surprised by anything between a No. 6 and No. 8 seed. And with a seed that low, the committee could send the Blue Devils to any one of its eight sub regional sites -- only the higher seeds are geographically protected.

However, I want to address one topic of speculation that’s rampant on the DBR message boards -- the idea that the NCAA Selection Committee will set up a Duke-Kentucky or a Duke-Texas Tech matchup for television purposes.

If something like that happens, it will be happenstance and not a conscious action.

Let me explain.

Back in the late 1980s, when I was working at the Durham Herald-Sun, media members were just starting to try and understand how the NCAA selection process worked. The rules were still evolving -- when UNC offered its home floor as a sub regional site in 1988, the school did it with the expectation that it would be allowed to play at home. That’s the way the process had worked for a generation -- teams that furnished a home court were always allowed to play there. However, Duke beat the Tar Heels three times that season, including the ACC title game, and when the pairings were announced, the Blue Devils were sent to Chapel Hill, while UNC was shuffled off to Salt Lake City.

It seems that the committee had decided -- without telling anyone in advance -- that the home court advantage was unfair. From that year on, its been a rule that teams can’t play on their home court (and the rules carefully define what constitutes a home court).

A year after the 1988 controversy, UNC beat Duke in another hotly contested ACC title game. A few hours later, UNC coach Dean Smith was stunned to learn that his team was being shipped off to Atlanta for the Southeast Regional, while Duke would be staying in the East and playing in Greensboro.

On the surface, Smith’s outrage appeared justified. Why was first-place UNC moved out of “it’s natural region” (in the felicitous phrasing of the UNC coach), while second-place Duke was allowed to play closer to home? Was it, as Smith darkly hinted, due to the machinations of Duke athletic director Tom Butters, who had joined the selection committee? Or was there something in the NCAA seeding procedures that dictated the committee’s actions?

In an effort to decipher the mystery, I obtained a copy of the NCAA’s handbook containing the rules and procedures for seeding. Starting in 1990, the Herald-Sun sponsored an annual mock seeding party each year in the week before the ACC Tournament, when we’d try to seed the field using the NCAA’s own rules and procedures. I like to think we had some very good input from some informed sources. Bill Brill, one of the first media members to probe the mysteries of the selection process, was a big help. Barry Jacobs participated, bringing his deep knowledge of basketball to the table. Tom Butters declined an invitation to participate in the mock seeding party, but he was generous with his suggestions and advice.

What we found in the process of duplicating the NCAA’s effort was how many rules the committee had to juggle in the process of putting together the field. One of the biggest problems were the rules governing multiple teams from the same conference. Keep in mind that:

1 -- teams from the same conference can’t be seeded to meet until the regional finals (except in the rare case when a conference produces nine or more entrants);

2 -- the top three seeded teams from each conference have to be seeded in different regionals;

3 -- teams from the same conference can’t be in the same regional if they are seeded in the same group of four (1-4; 5-8; 9-12; 13-16). Thus, even though a No. 6 and No. 7 seed wouldn’t meet until the regular final, they had to be in the different regionals.

In addition to these complications, there’s an annoying thing called the S-curve. What that means is that the committee tries to balance out its field by matching the best No. 1 seed with the weakest No. 2 and the strongest No. 3 and the weakest No. 4 -- and so one. When you lay out the field columns of four and track the 1-through-64 progression, it looks like an “S’ curving backwards and forward through the field.

As it turns out, the S-curve is the reason North Carolina was sent to the South in 1989, so infuriating Smith. The committee believed that Georgetown was the strongest No. 1 seed and as the Big East champion, they had to be in the East. The committee rated North Carolina as the best No. 2 seed that season and thus didn’t want to put them in the same region as the best No. 1 seed.

Thus, Carolina ended up in the South with the weakest No. 1 seed (Oklahoma), when Duke -- judged to be the weakest No. 2 seed, was paired with Georgetown in the East. Of course, the committee, bound by so many other seeding rules, rarely achieves a perfect S-curve. Still, that’s the goal.

Okay, the point of all this is that when we did our mock brackets, we found it was IMPOSSIBLE to factor in such considerations as: “Wow, we could match Duke and Kentucky -- that would be good for TV.”

There are just too many variables that have to been considered to play with the matchups like that. And, remember, the committee has to finish its bracket in a few hours on Sunday afternoon so it can be unveiled early Sunday evening.

On the other hand, there are so many connections between teams that several good early-round matchups are bound to happen every year.

Take Duke this season. As a 6-7-8 seed, the Blue Devils will be paired with an 9-10-11 seed. And what are the teams that are likely to be in that range? Kentucky is one, to be sure. If Texas Tech makes it into the field (no lock), Bobby Knight’s team is likely to be one of the lowest at-large teams and that means an 11 or a 12. Arizona, Purdue, Michigan State, Syracuse, Villanova, Xavier and Illinois are all teams that could be in the critical range.

So the pairings are announced and, let’s say its No. 7 Duke vs. No. 10 Illinois. People will say, “Ah-ha, the committee knows about the bad blood between Bruce Weber and Coach K over the recruitment on Jon Scheyer, who played for Weber’s brother in high school. What a great story line they set up for TV!”

Or if it’s No. 8 Duke vs. No. 9 Syracuse: “Wow, Krzyzewski and Boeheim -- two Hall of Fame coaches. TV will love that one.”

Duke-Arizona -- “Krzyzewski and Olsen in a rematch of the 2001 national title game!”

Duke-Michigan State -- “The best NCAA Tournament rivalry of the 21st Century. Krzyzewski and Izzo have the best NCAA winning percentages of any active coaches!”

You see how it goes … there are dozens of matchups that will have fans nodding and telling each other that the committee set up the pairing for the benefit of CBS. I would argue that:

(1) With all the rules and procedures they have to follow, it’s almost impossible to set up great matchups intentionally;

(2) With all the great story lines out there, it’s impossible not to come up with several great first-round matchups.

Duke could be involved this season or maybe we’ll get Weber State-North Carolina. Shades of 1999 and Harold “The Show” Arceneaux! Or it could be Maryland-Georgetown (probably not in the first round) or Kansas-Illinois (Bill Self left Illinois for Kansas) or Indiana-Texas Tech or Ohio State against Butler or Xavier (the two schools where Motta coached before Ohio State).

All we know is that Duke will play somebody, somewhere Thursday or Friday. And whether that somebody is Kentucky or Texas Tech or Illinois or Old Dominion or somebody else, it will be the toughest first round opponent Duke has faced in at least a decade.

That’s enough to worry about.


THE CASE OF THE SHRINKING BOAT: I don’t know what this has to do with the ACC Tournament or basketball in general, but it’s freaking me out.

Thursday as I walked the 200 yards along the Hillsbrough River from the media hotel to the St. Pete Times Forum, I was admiring a huge cruise liner -- bigger than the mothballed battleships several of us media types visited in Bremerton, Wash., when we were in Seattle for the Final Four -- tied up at dock just in front of the arena. Friday, as I made the same walk, I noticed that the cruise ship was gone and its berth was filled by a three-decking fishing trawler -- maybe one tenth the size of the passenger liner.

Then Saturday, the fishing boat was gone, replaced by a two-deck pleasure cruiser -- a good sized boat, but still less than half the size of the fishing boat.

I can’t wait until Sunday’s walk to see what’s next. I’m guessing a row boat or one of the racing skulls that was plowing the river Saturday morning. But at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a rubber raft.

CHRISTIAN LAETTNER was on hand Saturday to be honored as part of the ACC Legends program.

It’s been exactly 15 years since Laettner was a senior in Duke. He scored 25 points in the 1992 ACC Tournament finale against UNC to earn MVP honors as Duke cut down the nets in Charlotte. Two weeks later, he hit that memorable shot to beat Kentucky, then a week after that, led the Devils to their second straight national title.