Whenever North Carolina suffered a tough, competitive loss in the 1970s or 1980s, Tar Heel coach Dean Smith would whip out one of his favorite clichés:
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"It was a great game if you didn't care who won."
Of course, Dean always cared and so do most of us - when our own team is involved.
I was thinking about Dean's words Saturday night, after watching Duke edge Virginia in Charlottesville. It struck me how similar that game was to the one earlier in the week, when Notre Dame edged Duke in South Bend.
In both cases, the winning team surged back from a double-digit lead in the final minutes and won the game with some remarkable accuracy down the stretch from the 3-point line.
Those were both "great games" by Smith's criteria - but only one of them felt great to Blue Devil fans.
There have been a lot of close games in the ACC this season. Saturday was one of the most entertaining days in ACC history as five of the six games went down to the wire The trend continued Sunday as Florida State rallied to edge Miami by one point when the 'Canes' missed a driving shot at the buzzer.
On Saturday, Duke at Virginia was not decided until Tyus Jones nailed his cold-blooded 3-pointer with 11 seconds left. The North Carolina at Louisville game went into overtime - after the Tar Heels blew an 18-point second half lead. Pitt upset Notre Dame, but only after the Irish missed a 3-pointer with under 10 seconds left that would have been the game-winner. Virginia Tech had not one, but two three-pointers that would have tied Wake Forest in the closing seconds in Winston-Salem.
And, of course, the most dramatic game of all came in Atlanta, where N.C. State's Trevor Lacey hit a runner from 30 feet at the buzzer to beat Georgia Tech in overtime.
But Saturday's drama was the norm, rather than the exception this season. Going into Monday night's Virginia-North Carolina game, the ACC has had:
-- three double overtime games
-- six other overtime games
-- four games decided by one point
-- four games decided by two points
-- 20 games decided in regulation by five points or less.
That's 29 ACC games that would be classified as close games. And remember, that's in less than half a season - a year ago, the full ACC regular season produced just 44 games decided by five points or less.
And that definition of "close game" doesn't even include Duke's win Saturday at Virginia, which was certainly a close game, even though it was decided by six points (or Virginia's earlier win at Notre Dame by the same margin and in much the same manner).
The point is that the league has been amazingly competitive - almost a throwback to the 1980s, when the depth of the ACC was breathtaking, year after year. And it's not just the top of the middle-level ACC teams..
Take Georgia Tech (10-11, 1-8 ACC) for instance. The Yellow Jackets are dead last in the standings as of Monday morning, but look at their ACC resume:
-- a double overtime loss at Notre Dame
-- a one-point loss to Syracuse (in which the Jackets had a good shot and a tip to win)
-- a 3-point loss at home to Notre Dame
-- a 5-point loss at Pittsburgh
-- a two-point loss at home to Boston College
-- Saturday's one-point loss in overtime to N.C. State on a Hail Mary at the buzzer
That's six of the Jackets' eight losses that could easily have gone the other way.
And it's not just Georgia Tech.
Virginia Tech (9-12, 1-7 ACC ) is a half-game out of last place. Yet, four of the Hokies' ACC games have come down to a 3-point try to win or tie at the end of regulation. Virginia Tech missed those shots against Virginia, Syracuse and Wake Forest … Adam Smith hit that shot against Pitt and the Hokies got their one ACC win in overtime.
"Every game is a three-minute game," Boston College coach Jim Christian said early last week. "Even the teams that are supposed to be bad can compete at a high level."
Often the deciding factor is luck.
Take Notre Dame's experience last week. Against Duke, the Irish were up one when Steve Vasturia nailed an open 3-pointer from the corner to give the Irish a four-point margin that Duke couldn't overcome. But Saturday, with Notre Dame down two to Pitt with just seconds left, Vasturia got the exact same shot - a wide open 3-pointer from the corner - but this time he rimmed it out.
And look at the running 3-pointer that Trevor Lacey hit at the buzzer to beat Georgia Tech … he hit almost exactly the same shot in almost exactly the same situation to beat Wofford back in December - only after review, that one was ruled to have been launched a fraction of a second late. One shot is a dramatic game-winner … the other is a haunting what-might-have-been.
Another factor that's added to the ACC drama this season is the lack of homecourt dominance. Every ACC team has lost at least one ACC home game. Overall, home teams are a mere 36-29 - one of the worst home winning percentages in ACC history.
That's what had created one of the best ACC seasons in decades - so far. At the halfway point in the conference race, we have a competitive race for the regular season title with seven teams within two games of first place. The race for the four ACC Tournament byes is ferocious. We have at least two teams still in the running for a No. 1 NCAA seed and maybe as many as 10 ACC teams still clinging to hope of earning an NCAA bid.
Not all those dreams will be realized, but it will be fun to watching them play out.
TRACKING THE BLUE DEVILS
Duke was at the center of the basketball world last week with Coach K picking up his 1,000th win Sunday in New York, followed by two top 10 road matchups over a four-day span.
But the really stunning news to emerge from the Duke camp last week was the abrupt dismissal of junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon from the team.
Obviously, Sulaimon was a key player who started on an Elite Eight team as a freshman. At that point, he looked like a future star, but instead of taking off, his career regressed. His minutes and points have gone down in each of the last two seasons.
I wish I could offer some insight into the reasons behind Sulaimon's decline - and his dismissal. I can't. I simply don't know the inside scoop.
Obviously, nothing else like this has happened under Krzyzewski, so it's hard to suggest a context. The closest thing I can think of is the case of Kris Humphries.
Humphries was a wonderfully talented power forward from Minnesota who signed a letter-of-intent to play basketball at Duke. He should have been in the 2003 recruiting class with Luol Deng.
But before Humphries arrived on campus, he was dismissed from the Duke program. My understanding is that Humphries (and his father) confronted Coach K and demanded a guarantee of playing time. K responded by releasing Humphries from his LOI. The young power forward switched to Minnesota, where he was Big Ten rookie of the year. He then jumped to the NBA where he played 11 seasons with marginal success.
In fact, Humphries found more fame for his brief experience as Mr. Kim Kardashian - as he spend 72 days married to the reality TV personality.
Maybe Rasheed was dating a Kardashian?
Too soon for jokes?
It's also too soon to judge just how much the dismissal of Sulaimon will hurt or maybe help this Duke team. It certainly removes a talented player from the rotation, but K still has a solid seven-man foundation, plus a talented freshman in Grayson Allen to try and win the eight-man role.
Sometimes teams benefit from addition by subtraction. I don't claim to know that will be the case this time - was Rasheed a distraction in practice or in the locker room?
We'll only be able to tell what impact the dismissal had as we watch the season play out., Certainly, the first post-Rasheed test went well at Virginia. But will the Blue Devils be able to sustain that strong showing in the coming weeks?
It's just another of those things that make the 2014-15 ACC season so damn fascinating.
Note: I was trying to recall another Duke player - obviously pre-Krzyzewski - who was dismissed from the team for reasons other than academics.
The only one that popped into my head was in 1954 - the first season of ACC basketball. Reserve forward Charles "Lefty" Driesell (who averaged 5.1 points a game) was kicked off the team in early February for "being a Fancy Dan", according to Coach Harold Bradley.
Apparently, Bradley relented because after missing four games, Driesell did return to the lineup (although I never found a story announcing his return).
BLOWING THE FIRST BUBBLES
When ESPN's College Basketball Final aired after midnight in the wee hours of Sunday morning, commentator Andy Katz noted that the calendar had rolled over from January 31 to February 1.
"Thank goodness, now we can talk about bubble teams," Katz proclaimed.
Apparently, he has the same rule I do - no matter how tempting, no bubble talk until February 1.
Even that is too early as almost a third of the regular season - not to mention the conference tournaments - still have to play out. But the picture is getting clearer. Clear enough to identify what the various teams have to play for in the regular season's last month.
At the moment, the ACC very clearly divides into three five-team divisions as far as the NCAA goes - the top five which are sure of an NCAA bid and are merely playing for seeding; five "bubble teams" that are fighting for the NCAA lives; and five teams that don't have a prayer of making the NCAA Tournament (well, they do have a prayer - they can win the ACC Tournament).
However, allow me to break the ACC down into five unequal divisions:
1. The Elite - Basically, the two teams still in contention for a No. 1 seed.
Virginia (19-1) is obvious, despite the loss Saturday. The Cavs are still No. 3 in the RPI with six top 50 wins and 11 top 100 wins. That's against the eighth best schedule in the country.
Duke (18-3) is a bit less obvious since the Devils are merely tied for fifth in the ACC standings. But the Devils are No. 5 in the RPI with seven top 50 wins. The SOS is sixth best in the country at the moment. Those three road wins against top six ranked teams (No. 2 Wisconsin, No. 6 Louisville and No. 2 Virginia) will be huge on Selection Sunday.
It's unlikely that both teams make it - in fact, the ACC will be lucky to get one No. 1 seed. Kentucky (especially considering the schedule they play) is a virtual lock for one No. 1 seed. And based on last year's committee performance, Gonzaga (21-1) is also a strong candidate (despite a less than imposing schedule). Kansas, Arizona and maybe Wisconsin also remain in the race for a No. 1 seed.
If Virginia or Duke hope to be a No. 1 seed, they must finish the season VERY strong.
2. The Locks - The three teams that are certain of NCAA bids, but aren't likely to be in contention for No. 1 seeds.
UNC (17-5) is No. 10 in the RPI against the nation's No. 4 strength of schedule. But the Heels are just 4-4 against the top 50.
Louisville (18-3) is No. 13 in the RPI, hurt by a No. 52 SOS and a 3-3 record against the top 50.
Notre Dame (20-3) also has a gaudy record, but the Irish are No. 30 in the RPI, thanks to a poor SOS (141) and a horrendous non-conference SOS (330). But Notre Dame is a solid 6-2 against the top 50.
None of those teams have to worry about getting in the field. They're fighting for seeding - probably somewhere between No. 2 and No. 5, depending on February/March performance. It's just that there are a lot of teams from the power conferences in the same boat.
I think the ACC will get more than five bids. But that depends on the league's five bubble teams:
3. The Good Side of the Bubble - two teams that are building strong cases.
N.C. State (14-9) kept itself on the good side of the bubble with Saturday's narrow win at Georgia Tech. It was important to a team that had lost three straight games (and four of five). And it was important to help fill the biggest gap in N.C. State's resume - the preponderance of homecourt wins. N.C. State plays an ACC high 20 home games and had a miserable 1-4 award from home before winning in Atlanta. State is still No. 49 in the RPI and a mere 1-6 against the top 50 (no need to tell a Duke fan where the one top 50 win came). In the end, narrow losses to Notre Dame and/or North Carolina might end up costing the Pack a bid, but in the last three years, Coach Mark Gottfried has shown the unerring knack of getting his team to do just enough to make the field.
Miami (14-7) lost ground with Sunday's narrow loss at Florida State. The 'Canes were No. 50 in the RPI before that game with a 58 SOS and a 2-3 record against the top 50. Miami's resume balances some bad losses (Eastern Kentucky, by 20 points at home to Georgia Tech) with some good wins (at Florida, at Syracuse and by 16 points at Duke). Big week for Miami - home games with Louisville Tuesday and surging Clemson Sunday. The 'Canes probably need to win both to stay on the right side of the bubble.
4. The Wrong Side of the Bubble: Three teams that still have a chance, but have a lot of work to do.
Syracuse (14-7) has been to 17 of the last 21 NCAA Tournaments, but as recently as 2008, Jim Boeheim's team played in the NIT. It could happen again - the 'Cuse is currently No. 62 in the RPI and 0-4 against the top 50. That's got to change if the Orange is going to make a run.
Pitt (13-8 … technically, the Panthers are 14-8, but a non-Division 1 victory over Chaminade doesn't count for the NCAA) may have saved their season Saturday with the overtime victory over Notre Dame. At No. 73 in the RPI, the Panthers were 0-5 against the top 50 before that win.
Clemson (13-8) is No. 80 in the RPI. Probably generous to count the Tigers here, but they have won three straight ACC games (and four of five). They do have a 3-3 record against the top 50, which is better than the ACC's other bubble teams. Their resume balances some terrible losses (Winthrop, Gardner-Webb) with some solid non-ACC wins (Arkansas and LSU). The Tigers also have two impressive road wins over rival bubble teams Pitt and N.C. State.
5. The Spoilers: The five teams at the bottom of the standings have problems that will keep them out of the NCAA, but the have demonstrated the ability to challenge the league's better teams - and even beat some of the bubble teams. So far, none of the bottom five - FSU, Wake Forest, Boston College, Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech-- has beaten one of the five NCAA locks, but there have been some close calls - for example, Georgia Tech's two games with Notre Dame and Virginia Tech's last second loss to Virginia.
There will probably be a big upset or two in the coming month. That will just add more flavor to an already delicious season.
Note: Every time I use the RPI to talk about a team's NCAA chances somebody will object to the RPI as an inaccurate measurement. I don't disagree, but understand that RPI - especially as it determines top 50 and top 100 wins - is still the selection committee's favorite metric.