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The Duke-State Rivalry

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina State at Duke
Jan 23, 2017; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils center Marques Bolden (20) shoots over North Carolina State Wolfpack forward Ted Kapita (23) in the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

When Duke meets N.C. State Saturday in Raleigh, it will be the 247th meeting between the two Big Four rivals.

That will temporarily tie State with Wake Forest as Duke’s most common opponent (245 meetings with UNC for third place). I say “temporarily” because Duke has two games with Wake Forest coming up this season, while this is the last schedules Duke-State meeting.

That’s one of the big problems with one of the ACC’s great rivalries – thanks to the ACC Duke and State are usually scheduled to meet just once a year.. That’s why Wake Forest (twice a year) and UNC (twice a year) will soon surpass N.C. State as Duke’s most common opponents.

That’s a shame. Anywhere else in the country, the rivalry between two such successful program, located just 25 minutes apart, would be regarded as a big deal. In historic terms, Duke-State have combined to have more impact on the basketball world than Kansas-Kansas State, UCLA-USC, Syracuse-Georgetown, UConn-St. John’s or Indiana-Purdue.

Unfortunately, when the ACC got around to making its unbalanced schedule, the powers that be didn’t see that.

Just to sum up for those who might be new to the rivalry. There has always been a strange connection between the two schools.

It dates back to 1929, when Duke (newly named) participated in its first Southern Conference Tournament in Atlanta. Bill Werber and company rolled past Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia to reach the championship game … where the Devils lost to N.C. State. When Duke finally won its first conference title in 1938, the Devils had to beat N.C. State in the semifinals in a game that drew what was reported to be the largest indoor crowd ever to see a sporting event in the South.

Duke’s football success under Wallace Wade spurred N.C. State to pursue basketball greatness – a conscious decision on the part of the Pack’s powers that resulted in the transformation of North Carolina into a basketball-crazy state. Despairing of ever challenging Wade on the gridiron, N.C. State athletic council decided to pursue basketball success. The first step in that plan was to build a carbon copy of Duke Indoor Stadium, the best arena in the South at the time.

World War II delayed that plan (and before the building was completed, it was expanded to a larger version of Duke’s facility), but in 1946-47, the entire dynamic changed with the arrival of Everett Case. The former Indiana high school coach turned N.C. State into a power overnight, After not winning anything since that 1929 Southern Conference title, N.C. State won conference titles in nine of the first 10 seasons under Case (missed the 10th by a one-point loss to Wake Forest in the 1953 Southern Conference title game).

Case’s State teams were a particular nemesis for Duke. The Blue Devils lost Southern Conference title games to State in 1948 and 1950 (both games played at Duke Indoor Stadium) and again in 1951 and 1952 (both games in Reynolds). N.C. State beat Duke in the ACC title game again in 1955, but the Devils got to make their first NCAA trip because the Pack was on probation.

During the 1950s, Duke athletic director Eddie Cameron and N.C. State coach Everett Case were the two most powerful basketball men in the ACC. They fought together – against UNC and Maryland mainly – to protect the ACC Tournament.

And when Cameron went looking for a new coach after the 1959 season, he looked no further than Case’s bench, hiring Wolfpack assistant Vic Bubas to guide the Devils. It was a brilliant move as Case’s disciple guided the first great era in Duke basketball (four ACC titles and three Final Fours in 10 seasons).

A few years later, N.C. State hired Norm Sloan from Florida. Sloan and Bubas had been teammates at State – the freshman Bubas winning the starting guard spot that the sophomore Sloan coveted. In the 1968 ACC Tournament semifinals, Sloan held the ball on the favored Blue Devils … Bubas, with a big, slow team, refused to chase. The result was a 12-10 Wolfpack victory that remains the lowest scoring game in ACC history.

The two programs intersected again in the spring of 1980 when within a few weeks, each school hired a young coach from the Northeast. Jim Valvano struck first, winning a national title in 1983, but by the end of the decade, Mike Krzyzewski appeared to have the stronger program.

Nevertheless, Valvano ended the decade with a 14-9 winning record against his Duke rival. As he visited the Duke Hospital for cancer treatments, a deep friendship developed between Jimmy V and Coach K.

But with the dismissal of Valvano at State, the two programs diverged. Duke took the next step to greatness in the 1990s and the new century (five national titles, nine Final Fours and 12 ACC championships). The once-great Wolfpack program struggled (three Sweet 16s, no ACC titles).

After 25 years in the basketball wilderness, it’s no hard to see why so many people forget that N.C. State was once on a level with Duke and North Carolina.

What happened to the Wolfpack program?

Two things – one imposed on their by the UNC Board of Governors – one that was their own fault.

I’m not going to get into the details of the “scandal” that rocked the State program after the publication of Peter Golenbock’s sloppy and inaccurate book, “Personal Fouls”m in 1989. The book sparked both an NCAA investigation and Board of Governors (which oversees the entire UNC system) investigation into N.C. State academics.

The NCAA found some minor transgressions – players selling shoes and tickets – but when the infractions committee hit State with one year of probation, the head of the NCAA’s investigation publicly objected to the penalty as too harsh.

The committee charged to look at the Pack academics found no specific wrong-doing. The first newspaper headlines proclaimed that State was cleared of academic wrong-doing, although there were suggestions that the school acted to keep its athletes eligible rather than to prepare them for a degree.

As a result, the Board of Governors imposed some of the most draconian academics restrictions on the Wolfpack program that any power five program in the country had to deal with.

As an aside, it’s interesting to compare the Board’s intervention in the N.C. State situation with its non-actionin response to the more recent UNC scandal – a much, MUCH more serious situation. Not a chirp from the Board of Governors, while the only comment from the UNC Board of Trustees was a single question by one member: “How will this affect recruiting?”

It goes without saying that the majority of the Board of Governors and the UNC board of Trustees are UNC graduates.

But new Wolfpack coach Les Robinson, who replaced Valvano never had a chance – not to compete at the level of neighbors Duke and UNC. It’s no surprise that hisb Wolfpack teams played in the ACC Tournament play-in game so often, it came to be known as the Les Robinson Invitational.

Most of the academic destrouctions were gone after the 1996 season, when Robinson was replaced by Herb Sendek. But the State program was at rock bottom and it took Sendek five non-NCAA seasons before he achieved a modicum of success – five straight NCAA bids(and five NCAA Tournament wins). One Sweet 16.

I said that there were two reasons for N.C. State’s long slump. The draconian academic rules put in place after Valvano helped drag N.C. State down to the ACC basement, but the Pack kept itself in the second division with a series of questionable coaching decisions.

As controversial as Sendek became, he looked like Everett Case compared to his successor, Sidney Lowe. Mark Gottfried had his moments (two Sweet 16s in his first four years), but he left the program a shambles before he was fired late last season.

First-year coach Kevin Keatts is N.C. State’s fifth head coach since Balvano was dismissed. He looks like a promising hire with a background in big-time recruiting (formerly head of the powerful Hargrave prep program and a lead recruiter for Louisville) and as a coach (at UNC Wilmington).

It’s too early to judge whether he’ll break the cycle of failure or restore N.C. State to greatness.

It would be better for the rivalry if N.C. State could be competitive again.

I know the Pack won in Durham last season – a stunning upset – but that was N.C. State’s first win in Cameron since 1995 – over 20 years. Duke has won 46 of 56 meetings since 1991.

That’s not a rivalry. Not any more.