NC States win over North Carolina last night and Duke two weeks ago is a good sign for ACC basketball. Notice I did not say it was a good sign for Tar Heel fans. If you think Mark Gottfried is just a flash in the pants and the Wolfpack will have short term success you may be underestimating the job he is doing in Raleigh. NC State hauled in a top notch recruiting class just months after his hiring and has a solid group coming in next year. The rise of NC State does not mean the Tar Heels or Blue Devils will fall from the graces of college basketball, but it does mean the excitement I grew up with following ACC basketball in the triangle is back which the way things should be.
Heading into the eighties Dean Smith had supplanted himself as the best coach in the ACC winning seven ACC championships and making dramatic runs in the NCAA tournament, but the Tar Heel coach had yet to win that elusive national title. NC State hired Jim Valvano and Duke hired Mike Krzyzeski. The ACC would see the teas from the triangle win seven of the next nine ACC tournaments and North Carolina (1982) and NC State (1983) would both claim national championships as well.
The eighties showed basketball fans that the big three could all be successful at the same time. The rivalries flourished and the passion between the fan bases was clear. We love our team and hate yours. Players disliked each other on and off the court and Coach Smith and Coach K two of the best minds in basketball would not even share a meal together. Then you had Jimmy V who you could not help but like was brought down not because he was bad person, but because he won too quickly. I had the good fortune to sit and talk with one of Valvano’s assistants who was on the staff in 1983 and his perception was that after Jimmy had won in 1983 and cut the nets down his enthusiasm for the day to day grind disappeared however you could never tell that by watching games. Valvano went on to win 209 games at NC State reaching the elite eight twice more and finishing with a loss in the sweet sixteen versus Georgetown. When Valvano left NC State the Wolfpack spiraled into a land of humiliation where they finished last or next to last from 1991-1998. Valvano’s legacy lives on from his scene of running around to find someone to hug after beating Houston for the NCAA title or his message to never give up.
Will the next ten years give us as much drama as the 1980’s gave us in the ACC. The land has changed with NBA defections, but Duke isn’t going anywhere, UNC will always have talent and the Wolfpack look to be holding their own. It’s about time we have been waiting for you since 1989.