clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Feather's ACC Tournament Blog (Thursday, Mar. 8, 2012)


ATLANTA - Duke basketball coach Hal Bradley faced an interesting dilemma on the eve of the 1955 ACC championship game.

Available for download Monday Morning!

In that era, only the tournament champion got an NCAA bid and normally, Bradley's Blue Devils would have had to beat regular season champion N.C. State in the title game to get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.

But Everett Case's Wolfpack was serving a one-year probation for holding an illegal tryout camp (in which Case had decided not to offer skinny New Yorker Lennie Rosenbluth a scholarship). By reaching the tournament finals, Duke had secured the first NCAA bid in school history. No matter what happened in the title game on Saturday night, the Blue Devils were scheduled to catch a train to New York for their NCAA opener on Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden.

The timing created Bradley's dilemma. His team had just played two tough games to get to the ACC finals. After a third straight testing game on Saturday night, how drained would his team be for an NCAA test 72 hours later? Wouldn't it be better to rest his trio of stars - guard Joe Belmont, forward Ronnie Mayer and big man Junior Morgan - and have them fresh for the NCAA opener?

Bradley emphatically rejected that option. He insisted that Duke would honor the process and prove something by beating the mighty Wolfpack for the ACC title. His Devils gave it a great try - leading 47-43 at the half, but eventually succumbing to the great Ronnie Shavlik (24 points and 21 rebounds) down the stretch.

Three nights later, Duke got off to a horrendous start against Villanova, rallied furiously at the end, but lost 74-73.

Did Bradley take the wrong approach to the ACC title game?

Frank McGuire certainly thought so. Four years later, when given precisely the same choice - his UNC Tar Heels were in the finals against a Case team that was again on probation (this time for the Jackie Moreland recruitment).  And his turnaround was even faster - the Tar Heels had to open with Navy on Monday night, less than 48 hours after the title game.

McGuire starting speculating about tanking the ACC title game on Friday night, moments after edging Duke in the semifinals to secure the NCAA bid. He ended up starting his normal lineup, but he subbed far more than usual (McGuire was notorious for riding his starters) and when the Pack took an 11-point lead midway through the second half, he cleared his bench and let his scrubs finish up.

Fans at Reynolds Coliseum were outraged. Reportedly, even Tar Heel rooters in the audience were inflamed by the McGuire surrender. One irate fan snuck into the basement of Reynolds and turned off all the arena's lights.

The funny thing is that all of McGuire's maneuvers blew up in his face - UNC traveled to Philadelphia and was blown out by Navy.


So what does that history lesson have to do with this year's tournament?

Well, it seems to me that today's ACC coaches are often faced with the same dilemma that confronted Bradley in 1955 and McGuire in 1959. Every coach who comes into the ACC Tournament with an NCAA bid already secured has to decide whether to go all out for the ACC title or to coast this weekend and be rested and refreshed for the NCAA Tournament.

In a nice bit of historical continuity, current UNC coach Roy Williams is the most vocal advocate of the take-it-easy school of thought … the one that got McGuire in such troubles. And Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has always gone all out as Bradley did (although with considerably more success).

But I know that there are many Duke fans who tend to side with UNC's Williams. I've heard and read suggestions that many Blue Devil fans wouldn't mind losing early in Atlanta so the players could rest and refresh themselves before embarking on their NCAA quest.

Is there any evidence to support that view?

Well, in the 64-team NCAA era (starting in 1985), Duke had reached the finals of the ACC Tournament 17 times (winning 13).

Duke's NCAA record in those 16 years?

53-13 (80.3)

Duke has been eliminated on Saturday four times and the team's NCAA record in those four years is pretty good - 12-4 (75.0).

But in years when the Devils were eliminated on Friday - in other words, the years when Duke gets the most rest going into the NCAA Tournament -- the team's NCAA record is 4-5 (44.4).

Look at it another way - in every year since 1985 when Duke has reached the ACC finals, the Blue Devils have subsequently reached the NCAA Sweet 16 - that's 17 of 17 years.

In the four years when Duke was eliminated in the semifinals, the Devils reached the Sweet 16 twice.

In the five years when Duke was eliminated in the first round (and still made the NCAA), Duke reached the Sweet 16 exactly once - in 1987, when the Devils lost to N.C. State in the first round, then beat Xavier and Missouri in the NCAA before losing to Indiana in the Sweet 16.

Now, obviously, the best teams are going to do well in both tournaments. But how do you explain 1997, when Duke was the ACC regular season champ, lost to eighth-seeded N.C. State in the ACC quarterfinals, stumbled past Murray State in the NCAA opener, then fizzled against Providence  in the second round.

Then there is 1993. Duke entered the ACC Tournament 23-6 and ranked No. 6 in the nation. The Blue Devils were upset by Georgia Tech in the first round of the ACC event in Charlotte. Sent to the Rosemont Horizon as the No. 3 seed of the Midwest , Duke coasted past Southern Illinois in the opener, but fell to California in the second round.

I think the fact that Krzyzewski has the best NCAA winning percentage of any active coach (and second only to John Wooden in NCAA history) suggests that his approach to the ACC Tournament is not harmful.

Of course, those who disagree would point out that Roy Williams, who also downplayed the Big 12 Tournament when he was at Kansas, owns the second-best NCAA winning percentage of any active coach.


The early indications are that the wrist injury that John Henson suffered in the opening moments of North Carolina's ACC opener against Maryland is not serious.

Still, combined with the foot injury that will sideline Duke's Ryan Kelly for this tournament, Henson's situation evoked memories of the most significant injuries in ACC Tournament history. Keep in mind, we're talking about injuries or illnesses that occurred either during the tourney or just before - not long term injuries (such as James Worthy's broken leg in 1980 or Dexter Strickland's season-ending injury earlier this season).

In addition, we're trying to focus on injuries that impacted the outcome of the tournament - which means they were suffered by players on contending teams. With those guidelines in mind, allow me to count down the most important tournament injuries in history:

No. 7 Mark Alarie, Duke 1985 - The Blue Devil junior scored 21 points in Duke's quarterfinal victory over Maryland, but suffered a hip injury in the first minute of the semifinal against Georgia Tech. He went scoreless in that game and Duke lost by 11 to a team that would win the title the next day.

No. 6 Kenny Smith, UNC 1984 - The freshman point guard broke his wrist against LSU in early February, but his return in the final regular season game seemed to disrupt a once-beaten team that was No. 1 in the nation. Duke, after two narrow losses to the Heels in the regular season, knocked off UNC in the tournament semifinals as Smith missed five of eight shots, scored eight points and turned it over three times.

No. 5 Len Elmore, Maryland 1973 - Maryland's junior center missed the ACC opener with a sore ankle. He did see action off the bench in the semifinals, scoring 12 points and nine rebounds in a tight victory over Wake Forest. Elmore later said he could have played in the finals against N.C. State, but with the Pack on probation, Coach Lefty Driesell elected to sit his star big man and the Terps came up two points short.

No. 4 Bob Bender, Duke 1979 - The junior point guard played one of his best games as Duke edged N.C. State in the semifinals. That night, Bender was rushed to the hospital with stomach pains. He had his appendix removed and was unable to play in the title game against UNC. A week after the full strength Blue Devils beat the Tar Heels 47-40 in Durham (the infamous "Air Ball" game), UNC prevailed 71-63 to ein the tournament.

No. 3 Ty Lawson, UNC 2009 - The ACC Player of the Year hurt his big toe before the finale against Duke. He played in that game after getting an injection for the pain. But Roy Williams elected to sit his star out of the ACC Tournament in Atlanta and the Tar Heels bowed out meekly against FSU in the semifinals. Lawson returned to lead UNC to the national title.

No. 2 David Thompson, N.C. State 1975 - Leg cramps sound like a minor problem, but several doctors later testified that Thompson suffered incredibly severe cramps during the '75 ACC Tournament. Thompson scored 38 points in the opener against Virginia, then had 30 points with 10 minutes to play in the semifinals against top-seeded Maryland when he was sidelined by cramps and unable to go the rest of the way. State managed to hang on to win (blowing most of a 20-point lead) and Thompson tried to play in the title game against UNC. But he wasn't David Thompson, hobbling to 16 points of 7-of-21 field goals, in his final college game. UNC pulled out a 70-66 victory.

No. 1 John Roche, South Carolina 1970 - The Gamecocks dominated the ACC in 1970 the way Duke did in 1999, but late in a semifinal victory over Wake Forest, Roche suffered a terrible ankle sprain. He tried to play in the finals, but missed 13 of 17 shots (including potential game-winners at the end of regulation and the first overtime). The ACC player of the year finished with nine points as N.C. State handed South Carolina its first ACC loss of the season in double overtime.

Those last two are the most important, because they kept their respective teams from getting an NCAA bid.

But what's interesting is seeing how often great teams overcame significant injuries. For instance:

-- ACC player of the year Ron Shavlik suffered a broken wrist in the final regular season game in 1956. He played in the ACC Tournament with an awkward leather cast on his arm and missed 19 of 24 shots from the field. But he had 33 rebounds in the semifinals and finals to help State win the title.

--UNC senior point guard Dick Gruber injured his knee late in the first half against Duke in the 1969 title game. His injury appeared to doom the top-seeded Tar Heels until Charles Scott exploded in the second half, scoring 28 of his 40 points after the break to help UNC erase an 11-point second-half deficit.

-- Walter Davis suffered a broken finger on his shooting hand during the 1977 ACC Tournament. He tried to play in the finals, but after missing one shot, he went to the bench. UNC still pulled it out with Phil Ford and John Kuester driving the Heels past Virginia.

-- Duane Ferrell  was the ACC rookie of the year in 1985, but he suffered a knee injury in the ACC opener. He was scoreless in that game and unable to play in the semifinals and finals, but with Mark Price, John Salley and Bruce Dalrymple starring, the Jackets won their first ACC title anyway.

-- Tony Rutland was playing the best basketball of his life, helping Tim Duncan and Wake Forest build a big lead on Georgia Tech in the 1996 title game. But Rutland went down with a serious knee injury midway through the second half and the Deacs were barely able to hang on to win the title. Afterwards, Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins startled the press by telling them that he never realized that Rutland had been hurt - even though the game was delayed almost five minutes while he was checked and carried off the floor.

-- Trajan Langdon was first-team All-ACC in 1999, but he missed the ACC Tournament with a sore ankle. It barely mattered to that powerful Blue Devil team. Coach K plugged Corey Maggette into the starting lineup and Duke cruised to the title.

-- Duke lost star center Carlos Boozer in the final regular season game in 2001. The Devils should have been crippled without their only post scorer. Instead, Coach K refashioned the team as a free-slowing 3-point shooting team and stormed to the ACC title in Atlanta - the first step on the road to his third national title.

It remains to be seen whether the Henson injury is serious enough to warrant inclusion on either list. He returned only briefly against Maryland and sat out the entire second half. Williams said his status would depend on how his grip functioned in pregame drills Saturday.

Kelly is clearly out - he'll definitely end on one of those two lists. We just have to wait and see which one.


Normally, the notes that schools hand out to the media can be counted on to include stats, play biographies and other sundry details of a team's season.

But the sports information pros who put out those packages, sometimes come up with interesting or diverting items. I was going through the Clemson notes during a TV timeout Thursday night when I found a story that I had missed. It was a summary of a Wall Street Journal breakdown of the NBA money earned by the graduates of various schools in the period 2005-2011.

No. 1 on the list is North Carolina, whose graduates had (according to the Wall Street Journal) earned $852.9 million. That's not surprising - that time period includes most of the career of Michiael Jordan, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Kenny Smith, Antwan Jamieson, Vince Carter, Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse.

Okay, we all knew that UNC has turned out a ton of successful pros.

But what startled me was to see Duke right behind the Heels at No. 2 on the list - turning out pros who had earned $808.9 million.

I've always know the criticism that Coach K's players don't succeed in the NBA is a myth, but I had not realized how mistaken it was.

Duke ranks well ahead of No. 3 Arizona ($737.8 million), No. 4 Georgetown ($727.2 million), No. 5 Michigan ($715.4 million), No. 6 UConn ($678.8 million), No. 7 Georgia Tech ($567.3 million, No. 8 Kansas ($553.6 million), No. 9 Kentucky (553.5 million), No. 10. UCLA (496.8 million).

The ACC has six of the top 22 schools with No. 16 Wake Forest, No. 20 Maryland and No. 22 Clemson (the reason for the note in the Clemson stat package) in the top 25.

Maybe this is out there and I just missed it, but since I hadn't seen it, I thought I'd pass it on. Thanks, Clemson.


When Duke beat North Carolina last month in Chapel Hill on Austin Rivers' late 3-point shot, many Tar Heel fans seemed outraged that the Blue Devils used the 3-point shot to offset their superiority inside and on the boards.

Indeed, one friend suggested that without the 3-point shot, UNC would be the overwhelming favorite to win the 2012 national championship. There is a kernel of truth in his jibe - the Tar Heels do most things very well, but they don't take advantage of the 3-point shot (last in the ACC in 3-pointers made) and don't defend it well at times (overall, they are right in the middle of the ACC pack when it comes to 3-point defense).

The irony of UNC's distaste for the 3-point shot is that the rule is only in existence because of the strong advocacy of Tar Heel legend Dean Smith. The former UNC coach always insisted that the college game needed a shot clock, but that a shot clock would make the biggest, strongest, most talented teams virtually unbeatable. To restore balance in the game, he argued that the shot clock had to be paired with the 3-point shot.

He forced the ACC to link the two new rules during its experimental season in 1983. He used his influence with the NCAA Rules Committee to force through the shot clock (in 1986) and the 3-point shot (in 1987).

This year's UNC team is the perfect reflection of Dean Smith's arguments in the 1980s. It's a big, strong, talented team that would be almost unbeatable under the old rules. But Smith's 3-point shot gives inferior teams a chance.


Dean Smith's legacy throws another ironic twist on another big UNC story this season.

When North Carolina lost to Florida State in Tallahassee, UNC coach Roy Williams pulled his starters and his coaching staff from the arena with 33 seconds left because he feared a stampede by the FSU crowd.  No problem with that decision - Krzyzewski did something similar just before the end of a game in Tallahassee.

The difference is that while Coach K sent most of his team to the locker room, he and his staff remained on the floor with his five remaining players. Roy left his five scrubs to the wrath of the stampeding mob alone while he scampered to safety.

The UNC coach was roundly - and rightly -- criticized for abandoning his walk-ons to their fate.

The irony is that Williams is a protégé of Smith - and no coach in the history of college basketball has been more protective and respectful of his scrubs and walk-ons than the former Tar Heel coach.

Most believe that Smith's attitude was shaped by his time at Kansas, when he was one of the last players at the end of Phog Allen's bench. When Kansas won the 1952 NCAA Tournament, Smith played in the final seconds of the title game, but was not listed in the box score. More importantly, Smith believed he was treated as an afterthought by Allen.

When he became head coach at North Carolina, Smith vowed to treat his marginal players well. Seniority, not talent, was the determining factor for his program. Even the great freshmen and sophomore players carried equipment and waited for the upperclassmen to drink during practice breaks - even if the upperclassmen were walk-ons.

Smith also maintained the only jayvee program in the ACC, using it to develop walk-ons who usually joined the varsity as juniors and seniors. It also gave his youngest assistant coaches experience as a game coach.

One of those young coaches who started mentoring walk-ons on the jayvee team:  Roy Williams.

So for any coach to be caught disregarding his scrubs, it shouldn't have been the current UNC coach.

Available for download Monday Morning!