There will be another baseball post today but right now, my thoughts are 100 percent on basketball.
Last night was a reminder of why we invest so much in sports. My team, the North Carolina State Wolfpack was playing the Evil Empire, also known as the University of North Carolina. In recent years, the rivalry was extremely one-sided, with the good guys on the short end of the stick. On top of that, most of these were of the blowout variety. And for the final kick in the pants, the few that were close seemed to sway on questionable calls that always went the ways of the baby blue, none worse so than a few years back in the ACC Tournament.
The past two games were close, with UNC claiming one and two-point wins. It had been a roller coaster ride for both teams this season, but both schools came into the game on an up note. State was coming off back-to-back conference wins, including an upset road win over ranked Louisville. Carolina had played that epic game in Durham, falling in overtime to Duke, and then blew out Georgia Tech.
There was a lot riding on the game, with Carolina looking for an ACC Tournament double-bye, given to the top four teams in the conference and State looking to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume with another win over a ranked opponent. Plus, UNC coach Roy Williams has never been shy about his feelings about the Wolfpack, famously claiming that he’d rather beat State than eat.
State had never beaten a Roy Williams coached team in Chapel Hill, with their last road win in the series coming back in 2003 when Matt Doherty was on the bench. And Williams came in with a 23-2 record against State while leading UNC. Essentially, the Wolfpack was his unwanted redheaded step child that he beat at will.
Tuesday night, UNC scored first and had a 2-0 lead. It was the only time all game they were ahead. Neither team played particularly well offensively but with State taking away Carolina’s vaunted fast break offense, it took an 11-point lead into halftime. Early in the second half, the lead expanded to 16 and it looked like not only would a long-awaited win in this series materialize, but it would be a rout, too.
Of course, things are never easy for State. On the offensive end it became one and out and buoyed by getting stops, UNC got out and ran the floor for easy buckets. At the 7:58 mark, a three by Carolina cut the State lead to four. Each team missed three shots in the next six possessions before State’s 3-point specialist Raulston Turner buried one from downtown. Carolina would get no closer than five points the rest of the game.
Despite missing several free throws down the stretch, State emerged with a 58-46 win. If before the game started you had told any Wolfpack fan that their team would shoot 35% from the floor and win, they wouldn’t have believed it.
OK, now you must be thinking that it’s all well and good that the underdog won a rivalry game but what makes posting a basketball story on a baseball blog worthwhile?
Unless you are around the area, it’s impossible to know the arrogance that UNC and its fans exude. However, it’s something you should be able to relate to, assuming you’ve ever spent time talking to a Yankees fan. Yet, the UNC arrogance/entitlement takes on an even more heinous air with things that have gone on outside the court.
My guess is that most of you are aware of charismatic former State basketball coach Jim Valvano, who led the team to the NCAA Tournament championship back in 1983. That didn’t sit very well with the powers that be at UNC and they took their revenge in two distinct ways – one that was painfully obvious when it happened and the other that the public at large is just starting now to understand some 25-plus years later.
Shortly after the ’83 season, Valvano became the school’s AD in addition to the basketball coach – a promotion that would prove to be disastrous. There was a lack of institutional control, rules were broken and the school ended up in trouble with the NCAA. After an exhaustive search, the NCAA concluded that players sold complimentary game tickets and basketball shoes. The more serious charge of grade changes was not found to be true.
Trouble with the NCAA was bad enough. But the local paper made it job one to “get” Valvano and essentially drove him out of town. That was a kick in the pants that the school would have recovered from in a couple of years. But State is part of the UNC system and the UNC Board of Governors put in restrictions and personnel that effectively neutered the entire athletics department – but most notably the basketball team – for two decades. Only with the hiring of Debbie Yow as AD has the athletics department at N.C. State had independent leadership and the turnaround in the past five years, in all sports, has been amazing.
People now talk about UNC and Duke as being the premier college basketball rivalry. That one only came to the forefront once Valvano was disgraced and the program was thrown into disarray. Before that it was three schools that were rivals and even that was only once Mike Krzyzewski had built the Duke program back up. When State won the national championship, Coach K and Duke were 11-17 overall and 3-11 in the conference.
Somewhere in this time span – no one knows exactly when – UNC, which always boasted about doing things the right way (The Carolina Way) and how they were a “Public Ivy,” devised a systematic way of cheating that would make SEC schools blush. There have always been easy classes – each school in the nation has “Rocks for Jocks” or some such similar course – but UNC developed an entire major which had independent study courses that did not require attendance of any sort and grades were given on papers that weren’t written by the athletes.
Rashad McCants went from being on academic probation to making the Dean’s List thanks to these no-show classes. And he was far from the only one. News of this began to leak out a few years ago in regards to the football team. The UNC reaction was to deny that it happened. When that lie was no longer working, they started to say that it wasn’t an issue because non student-athletes were in the classes, too.
Let that one sink in for a minute.
At the same time, they tried to shield the storied basketball program – saying it was just a football thing. That, too, was proven to be a lie. Then they started in with the idea that no one knew about this – that it was the result of a couple of “rogue” administrators. Evidence is coming out to refute that one, too. Coach Williams has done the “aw shucks” thing and has been under a lot of scrutiny but so far there have been few (read: none/no) repercussions other than some bad local press.
Right now the big thing for UNC is to shield the sainted Dean Smith from any involvement in this scandal. It would have been valuable to have Smith shed some light on the history of athletics and academics when he was coach but he recently passed away after a bout with Alzheimer’s, which he had been battling since at least 2011.
Incredibly, the NCAA investigated and instituted no sanctions against the university despite its blatant academic fraud. Only the tireless efforts of Dan Kane – click here for one of his detailed stories on the cheating – has kept the scandal from being buried by those who profit handsomely from UNC’s basketball factory.
It’s an extremely difficult thing for N.C. State fans to accept that selling complimentary shoes and tickets is a bigger infraction than receiving credit for non-existent classes, which gave Carolina a serious competitive advantage for decades.
Meanwhile, the company line among UNC fans has gone from how they’re different (The Carolina Way, Public Ivy) to how everyone does it and they just got caught. Somehow, the idea that getting “caught” usually means some kind of penalty being invoked has been completely lost on these people.
If it was a just world, all of the victories by the basketball team while this program was in place would be vacated and the NCAA championship banners, won with athletes who had no business being academically eligible, would be taken down. Me, I’d settle for a public admission of responsibility and guilt from both UNC and the NCAA.
It’s hard not to notice that UNC is now 1-3 since coach Smith passed. It’s almost like his deal with the devil has expired and karma is finally coming home to roost, even if the NCAA and the ACC pretend that nothing wrong happened.
Oh, somehow it hasn’t been mentioned yet that the head of the ACC, John Swofford, is a former AD at Carolina. The league office has no interest in seeing UNC disciplined, even though they brought the hammer down on Florida State for far less serious issues.
So, this wasn’t just a rivalry win. It was a win for a program that received a punishment far greater than what was merited, over a program that commits academic fraud and controls people in high places to avoid punishment. The ultimate conquest of good over evil.
Yow has made it a priority to bring in the best possible people and to demand accountability. She’s cut ties with the coaches in the two main revenue sports, who achieved little or no success. The football team has made a gigantic turnaround. Its five-win improvement this past season was the second-biggest increase among Power Five schools. This past season ended with a bowl win and State just signed four of the top 10 in-state football prospects for the first time ever.
The basketball team seems headed for its fourth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance, is peaking at the right time and this season secured wins over its two biggest rivals (UNC, Duke) including a double-digit road win over the hated Tar Heels, a squad with six former McDonald’s All-Americans. Now, State, Duke and Carolina now are all fighting over highly-regarded forward Brandon Ingram, who saw the State-Duke game in person.
Ingram hails from Kinston, N.C. – which in recent years has been a prime recruiting area for UNC, yielding players like Jerry Stackhouse and Reggie Bullock, among others. Stackhouse is Ingram’s AAU coach. For him to go elsewhere besides UNC would be a major upset. Yet there’s a belief that Ingram is concerned about the academic scandal and is no lock to pick Chapel Hill. Five years ago, there’s no way that Ingram would pick State. Now, anything is possible.
The accumulation of prospects is completely different in college sports and professional baseball. But it’s exciting to see the progress that State has made in recruiting the top local players once Yow took over as the AD. Just like it’s exciting to see top prospects for the Mets finally starting to make an impact.
The Mets and N.C. State basketball both enjoyed tremendous years in the 1980s, each winning a championship. After years of depressing play from both teams, fans are ready for what’s coming next. The Mets won’t be able to match the joy of State’s big win Tuesday night. But they can come out and compete against the Nationals and show they’re ready for the beatings to cease.
Go Pack! Let’s Go Mets!