How the ACC Basketball Tournament Changed The (College Basketball)
We normally just let Al speak for himself - he needs no introduction
- but this is a stunningly good piece of writing by a pro at the top of
his game. Don't miss it.
By AL FEATHERSTON
There was a time when the rest of the college basketball world thought
the ACC was crazy to use a postseason tournament to choose its
After all, the eight-team league played a perfectly balanced
home-and-home round robin schedule _ a grueling 14-game test to
determine the ACC's best team. Why throw that away in favor of three
mad days in March? Why force the ACC's best team to risk its chance for
postseason in a weekend game of Russian roulette?
It was even more indefensible in the early days of the conference.
Under the NCAA format then in use, the ACC champion would celebrate its
title on a Friday night in Raleigh, then be forced to travel to
Philadelphia or New York City for a Tuesday night game against one of
the best teams in the East. If the ACC's representative survived that
test, it had to beat two more top Eastern teams Friday and Saturday
nights at another site to reach the Final Four.
That's six tournament games in 10 days. Is it any wonder that between
1954 and 1962 just one ACC team - UNC's unbeaten 1957 national
champions - survived that death march?
And is it any wonder that everybody else in college basketball at the
time thought the ACC was nuts to subject its champion to that
But there was method to the ACC's madness.
I found that out in March of 1960, when I attended my first ACC
Basketball Tournament in the Year of the Big Snow. The back-to-back
storms that dumped more than 20 inches of snow on Tobacco Road
prevented my family from making the trip up from C***te in time to
see Thursday's first round.
We did arrive in time for Friday's all Big Four semifinals. The first
game - the first ACC game I ever saw - matched Frank McGuire's
top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels - 18-5 and ranked No. 16 nationally
- against fourth-seeded Duke, which was a very mediocre 13-10 under
first-year coach Vic Bubas. The nightcap would match second-seeded Wake
Forest, 20-6 and ranked No. 18 nationally, against sixth-seeded N.C.
State. The defending ACC champs were just 11-14 in a rebuilding year,
but coming off a lopsided upset of No. 3 seeded Maryland in the opening
I can remember my e***ment as we walked across the parking lot,
dodging the piles of plowed snow to reach Reynolds Coliseum. This was
my introduction to ACC basketball as a wide-eyed 11-year-old. I may
have seen or heard a game on TV earlier, I really don't remember ...
but I have a vivid memory of walking into Reynolds Coliseum that night,
smelling the stale peanut shells on the floor and seeing the cloud of
blue-gray cigarette smoke collecting in the rafters.
I recall my youthful e***ment, although it was tempered by my
father's warning that that Duke didn't have much of a chance against
the Tar Heels. I've since learned that UNC had already beaten the Blue
Devils three times that season - each by more than 20 points. But to
everybody's surprise, Duke grabbed an early lead and held it
tenaciously. A junior forward named Carroll Youngkin had a career night
for the Devils, scoring 30 points to offset 25 by future pro York
Larese and 21 from ACC player of the Year Lee Shaffer as Bubas' Devils
held on for a 71-69 victory.
We had to drive all the way back to my grandmother's house in Durham
that night, so we left before the end of the Wake Forest-N.C. State
game. I do remember my first look at Wake Forest coach Bones McKinney,
one of the most colorful characters in ACC history. His sideline
antics, so common today, were in stark contrast to the majestical
behavior of ACC patriarch Everett Case. But it wasn't McKinney that
pushed Wake past State ... it was sophomore big man Len Chappell, the
greatest player ever forgotten by ACC fans (just a note: look it up
some time ... Chappell's career is far more impressive in many ways
than Tim Duncan's or Ralph Sampson's).
I saw enough to be dazzled by Chappell, but because of our early exit,
I missed the ugly brawl between Wake Forest's Dave Budd and N.C.
State's Anton Muelbauer. ACC commissioner Bob James suspended Budd -
who had already brawled his way around the league - from the title
game, but just before tipoff Saturday night, James was overruled by a
committee of faculty representatives. We were just settling into our
seats as Budd was introduced in the starting lineup, sending an audible
buzz around the sold-out Coliseum.
It didn't matter. Duke's unheralded junior center Doug Kistler - who
would later coach my Durham Jordan High School team to a state
championship (before dying tragically young at the hands of a drunk
driver) - outplayed Chappell in the title game, while Deacon star Billy
Packer missed 9 of 11 shots from the floor. A little guard named Johnny
Frye made four clutch free throws for Duke in the final minutes,
leading the Blue Devils to an improbable 63-59 victory and the school's
first ACC title. By the time Kistler, Youngkin and company cut down the
nets, I was a passionate ACC basketball fan.
And, that, I realized later, was the genius behind the ACC Tournament.
It provided a showcase for the league's basketball - a sport that was
still secondary in most of the country. You can talk about the Dixie
Classic or the Duke-Carolina rivalry or C.D.Chesley's regional
television network or Case's salesmanship - all contributed to the
popularity of basketball on Tobacco Road - but nothing was more
important to that end than the ACC Tournament.
Every March, all eight ACC teams would gather in one location to play
out their dreams. It was an entire season distilled into seven games in
three days. It promoted basketball and it promoted the ACC. But did
anybody see that?
Not John Wooden, who in his midst of his heyday at UCLA, sneered at the
"The ACC hasn't helped itself in the postseason tournament play," he
told the Greensboro Daily News. "The schools have been engrossed in
building up their own conference from within and self-publicizing
themselves. It hasn't made them the best in the competition that counts
- the NCAA."
It's funny ... Wooden had the answer. It was so close that it could
have smacked in the face like the rolled-up program he always used to
shout epithets at officials. He just didn't see it.
OF COURSE, the ACC was "engrossed in building up their own conference
from within." They were laying the foundation that would make the ACC -
not the Pac 10 - the pre*** conference in college basketball.
Wooden was focused on winning those titles - it was his job after all -
but did he ever give a thought to promoting college basketball on the
West Coast or in helping the Pac 8 (only later would it become the Pac
10) building a lasting legacy?
Look at the success rate of the ACC and the Pac 10 over the last
quarter century. The NCAA Tournament records aren't close (and didn't
Wooden say this is "the competition that counts"). But it's more than
NCAA ***. How often does a Pac 10 team can come east and steal a
top prospect these days ... compared with how often the ACC raids the
West Coast? Which conference gets all the national exposure? In which
conference does the league's active Hall of Fame coach whine that his
best player is overlooked by the national media?
Since Wooden's retirement, the ACC has left the Pac 10 - and the Big
Ten, SEC and everybody else - in the dust.
Was sacrificing a little postseason success in the '50s and '60s too
much of a price to pay for that accomplishment?
In hindsight, the ACC didn't really give up that much. When Wake Forest
fought its way to the NCAA Final Four in 1962, the Deacons won an
important victory for the league by beating UCLA in the consolation
game. That win earned the ACC a bye out of that inconvenient Tuesday
night NCAA first round game and straight into the East Regional
That laid the groundwork for Duke and UNC to make six Final Four trips
in the next seven years, despite the drawbacks on the ACC Tournament.
And when you examine the 21 years when only the tournament champion was
allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament, you'll find that the top-seeded
team in the tournament won 15 of 21 titles. And of the six upsets, just
two legitimate national contenders were denied a chance to compete in
the NCAA playoffs.
One was Duke's 1965 regular season champs. The Blue Devils, coming off
back-to-back Final Fours, led the nation in scoring and were ranked No.
8 nationally entering the ACC Tournament. Bubas' lineup boasted
All-Americans Jack Marin and Bob Verga, plus gritty point guard Steve
Vacendak and talented big man Hack Tison.
Unfortunately, they had to cope with one of the most emotional scenes
in ACC history. Case, the father of the ACC Tournament and the man who
almost singlehandedly made the ACC a basketball league, was in bad
health. He started the season on the N.C. State bench, but after two
games, he was forced to turn the job over to assistant Press Maravich.
Case was too ill to attend the first two rounds of the tournament, but
he dragged his ailing body to courtside for the championship game and
watched as Larry Worsley came off the bench to score 30 points in a
91-85 Wolfpack victory.
Afterwards, the sick old man was hoisted on the shoulders of the
players he recruited so he could cut down the nets - a tradition the
former Indiana high school coach (think Gene Hackman in Hoosiers)
brought to the ACC.
"I've never been happier," Case told reporters. "The last taste is
always the best."
Worsley became the first and only non-starter to win the tourney MVP
award, which by coincidence, had just been renamed the Everett Case
Award. He is also the only player to ever receive the trophy from the
man it was named for ...
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