Posted: 12:52 a.m. Friday, Oct. 18, 2013
When I attended my first ACC Operation Basketball almost 40 years ago, I got to talk to seven ACC head coaches and no players.
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Over the last four decades, the format has changed. Now, the coaches are joined by two players from each team for the one-day affair. The number of coaches has grown from seven to eight to nine to 11 to 12 to the current 15. The location has changed many times – from a Richmond hotel to the concourse of the Greensboro Coliseum to the meeting rooms at the Grandover Resort.
I can remember waiting in an airport hotel in Atlanta on the Saturday night of Oct. 26, 1991 when it looked like the last-to-first Braves were going to beat the Minnesota Twins in Game 6 of the World Series. A bunch of us were going to take the Metro into town if the Braves won to sample the city-wide celebration. Instead, Kirby Puckett parked one off Charlie Leibrandt to lead off the bottom of the 11th and give the Twins the 4-3 win. The next day, Jack Morris and John Smoltz dueled for nine scoreless innings before reliever Alejandro Pena gave up a run in the bottom of the 10th and the Twins celebrated the title.
I didn’t get to see that game as I spent the afternoon interviewing the likes of Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith, Dave Odom, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Eric Montross, Rodney Rogers, Walt Williams and Bryant Stith. Bobby Cremins was still a big man in Atlanta at that point and we were all introduced to the coach of the ACC’s newest team – Pat Kennedy of FSU. I think he brought Sam Cassell with him, but I can’t be sure my memory is right on that score.
For the last few years, ACC Operation Basketball has been held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Charlotte. I’m sure it’s a nice hotel (it ought to be at $599 a night room rental), but it’s a terrible location for the ACC’s basketball kickoff – the cramped meeting rooms are awkward, but it’s a nightmare getting downtown in time for the first player interviews at 9 a.m., then hitting the road for the drive back to Durham during in the 5 p.m. rush hour traffic.
Still, it was worth the cost (not $599, but I did have to stay in a cheaper hotel on the outskirts of town) and inconvenience to spend almost eight hours listening to the 15 coaches who now belong to the ACC and the 30 players they brought with them. I also got to hear John Swofford’s “State of ACC Basketball” speech as the commissioner made the case for the greatness of the new league.
“This is the strongest collection of basketball program ever assembled in one conference. Swofford boasted. The league’s formal theme for the gathering at a ritzy Charlotte, N.C., hotel was, “the best has gotten better.”
That’s not an entirely accurate statement. The ACC has not been the best for the last 8-9 years. But it’s not an entirely false claim either – for almost a quarter century, the ACC was the best basketball conference in America … and during that period was better than any other conference has ever been.
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who has been attending Operation Basketball since 1980, made that point as he reflected on the changes he’s seen in the ACC during his tenure. He arrived just as the ACC was expanding to eight teams with the addition of Georgia Tech. For the next decade, the eight-team ACC achieved amazing heights as young coaches such as Krzyzewski, N.C. State’s Jim Valvano and Georgia Tech’s Bobby Cremins built their programs to national prominence in the shadow of well-established powerhouses such as UNC under Dean Smith, Maryland under Lefty Driesell and Virginia under Terry Holland.
Between 1980 and 1985, seven of the eight ACC teams reached at least the NCAA Elite Eight … and Maryland, the only one that failed to go that far, was in the Sweet 16 three times in that span. The Big East would later boast of putting 11 of 16 members into the NCAA field, but in the 1980s, the ACC pit six of eight – three-fourths of the league – in the field four times.
“That eight-team league, I think, set the standard,” Krzyzewski said. “I think the Big East, for as short time, matched it. Our league could not live up to that standard after expansion.”
Krzyzewski is, of course, the winningest coach in men’s Division 1 history. But the number two man on the list is also an ACC coach now – Jim Boeheim of Syracuse. At the moment, the two old friends have combined for 1,877 wins (Krzyzewski 957; Boeheim 920). When they meet Feb. 1, 2014 in the Carrier Dome, they’ll have in excess of 1,900 wins between them.
That game may also feature the largest crowd ever to see a regular season basketball game on campus. Syracuse, which sold a school-record 20,000 season tickets, sold out the Duke game within minutes of putting individual-game tickets on sale. And while school officials elected not to locate the basketball court in the middle of the football field (which would have allowed a crowd of close to 50,000), the school is cramming in a few more seats to the normal alignment and expects to exceed the previous record of 35,012 set last season against Georgetown.
There are many old Big East fans whining about the end of the Syracuse-Georgetown and Syracuse-UConn rivalries. But the explosion of interest in Duke’s visit and for UNC’s January visit to the Dome (which is nearly a sellout) suggests that Krzyzewski was on the right track when he said, “you’ll see new rivalries develop very quickly.”
Duke-Syracuse is an obvious candidate for instant rivalry status – not only because both Krzyzewski and Boeheim are Hall of Fame coaches, but because the two Hall of Fame coaches are close friends.
“My two best friends in coaching are Mike and P.J. Carlesimo,” Boeheim said. “P.J. and I played each other twice a year for a long time [when Carlesimo was at Seton Hall]. He never beat me and we were still good friends.”
But what happens, Boeheim was asked, if the rivalry with Coach K goes the other way?
“We still be good friends … I’ll just quit quicker,” he said.
The ACC has to be concerned about the longevity of its best coaches. The ACC is boasting that it has three of the five active Naismith Hall of Fame coaches and will have four of the five a year from now when Louisville’s Rick Pitino joins the ACC. And that doesn’t count such accomplished coaches as Leonard Hamilton and Jim Larranaga.
All are in their 60s. Krzyzewski, who will turn 67 in February this season, insists that it is
not a problem.
“Sixty is the new 40 … or the new 30,” he said,
As a writer in his mid-60s, I’d like to think Coach K is right. I’d like to think I had another 20 to 30 ACC Operation Basketballs ahead of me – even in such an inconvenient place as downtown Charlotte.
Just a few more odd observations from ACC Operation Basketball:
– The three newcomers all have some interesting ties to the old ACC.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is, of course, a former Krzyzewski assistant. And his two top aides – Anthony Solomon and Rod Balanis – played at Virginia and Georgia Tech, respectively. In addition, Irish star Jerian Grant, picked to the preseason All-ACC first team, is the son of Harvey Grant, who stated his college career at Clemson. And his uncle is Horace Grant, who was the ACC player of the year at Clemson.
Pitt doesn’t have a strong ACC connection, but Duke great Dick Groat – the first consensus national player of the year from an ACC school – is Pitt’s longtime radio color commentator.
The best connection at Syracuse is head coach Jim Boeheim. No, Boeheim never played or coached in the ACC, but he did finish his playing career on Tobacco Road in the 1966 East Regional title game at Raleigh’s Reynolds Coliseum.
“I remember it well,” Boeheim said. “We played Davidson in the semis – Lefty [Driesell] was there. We had a great game, then we were playing Duke and they had a great team. It was a pretty even game. We had a six-point lead with about eight minutes to go and [Duke All-American Bob] Verga hit three or four monster shots and we end up losing in the finals.”
Duke defeated Syracuse that night 91-81 as Boeheim scored 14 points for the Orange. Duke got 22 points from Jack Marin, 21 from Bob Verga and 19 from Steve Vacendak.
“The rest of the story is that Verga got sick and couldn’t play against Kentucky,” Boeheim recalled. “I think they would have beaten Kentucky. I thought they were better. I think they would have beaten Texas Western and changed basketball history.”
There was another interesting aspect of that 1966 Duke-Syracuse game. Duke assistant coach Chuck Daley, the future coach of the original Dream Team, suggested that a 1-3-1 zone would help control Syracuse All-American Dave Bing. The tactic seemed to work as Bing finished with just 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting from the floor. But it did allow Boeheim several open shots from the baseline.
“I made a couple,” he remembered. But he disputed the idea that Daley’s zone stifled Bing. “Nobody stopped Dave Bing Just one of those games that was close and they played just a little better than us.”
A reporter wondered if that game was a Eureka moment in the sense that it’s when Boeheim fell in love with zone defenses.
“No, we were a zone team too,” he said.
However, Boeheim said that game did impact his coaching tenure.
“We didn’t get out on Verga,” he said. “I learned then that if you’re going to play zone we’re not going to let them shoot out there. I learned it a little then and a little bit later that because you play zone doesn’t mean you can’t guard shooters – that’s a myth. A complete myth! Who led the Big East in 3-point percentage defense the last 10 years? You should know the answer. We did, because we guard that line.”
– I was astonished Wednesday at the number of teams that will be counting on transfers to play key positions.
It starts with Rodney Hood of Duke, who made the preseason All-ACC first team. But I also counted many more. Just to go down the projected standings:
1. Duke – Rodney Hood from Mississippi State
2. Syracuse – The Orange project Duke transfer Michael Gbinije as a starter.
3. UNC – none
4. Virginia – South Carolina transfers Anthony Gill is a likely starter
5. Notre Dame – no new ones, but fifth-year senior center Garrick Sherman played his first two years at Michigan State before transferring to Notre Dame and playing there last season.
6. Pitt – The Panthers (who lost two key returnees to transfer) will add 6-11 juco Joseph Uchebo and 6-9 Rutgers transfer Derrick Randall in the post. Randall won a waiver and is eligible immediately. Pitt will also add guard Sheldon Jeter, who had a nice freshman season at Vanderbilt. Jeter is actually enrolled at Polk CC in Florida this fall, but will not play basketball. He’ll enroll at Pitt in January and will be eligible next season.
7. Maryland – How important is Michigan transfer Evan Smotrycz to the Terps this season? Well, Maryland brought the 6-10 inside/outside forward as one of two players to represent the school at Operation Basketball. He’s going to start.
8. Boston College – Notre Dame transfer Alex Dragicevich will be in the Eagle rotation as either a starter or as top reserve. The 6-8 swing man is a good 3-point shooter.
9. Florida State – none (although freshman Brandon Allen is kind of a transfer; the 22-year-old played minor league baseball in the San Francisco Giants’ organization).
10. N.C. State – LSU transfers Ralston Turner is likely to start on the wing. And juco transfer Desmond Lee will be a key player, either as a starter or a top sub.
11. Georgia Tech – Perhaps the single most important transfer in the ACC is Tennessee point guard Trae Golden, a senior who will fill a huge need in Atlanta.
12. Miami – Jim Larranaga’s two best transfers won’t be eligible this season, but ex-Kansas State point guard Angel Rodriquez and ex-Texas wing guard Sheldeon McClellan are already penciled in as next year’s starting backcourt. This year’s team will be helped by 6-10 Donnavan Kirk, a slender big man who started at Miami, transferred to DePaul, and is now transferring back to Miami for his final season. Juco transfer James Kelly also has a chance to start in the post.
13. Wake Forest – No ACC team has lost more to transfers in recent years than the Deacons (most recently Chase Fisher), but this time Wake adds a transfer. Although he might not start, the Wake players in Charlotte were raving about Robert Morris transfer Coron Williams, who is likely to be the team’s best 3-point shooter.
14. Clemson – The Tigers already have BYU transfer Damarcus Harrison, who played last year. This year, they add 6-10 juco Ibrahim Djambo
15. Virginia Tech – There’s a reason that Virginia Tech was picked last in the ACC and the recent transfers of such players Dorien Finney-Smith, Montrezl Harrell and Robert Brown is a big part of the reason. The Hokies do add 6-3 transfer sophomore guard Adam Smith, who started (and averaged 13.7 ppg) at UNC Wilmington two years ago.
Transfers have always been a part of ACC basketball (transfer Grady Wallace was the first ACC player to lead the nation in scoring in 1957). Krzyzewski has had three major transfers at Duke before Hood – interesting that all three (Roshown McLeod, Dahntay Jones and Seth Curry) have all won first-team All-ACC honors at Duke.
But the league has never seen anything like this.
And not everybody is happy about it.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried has both won (Alex Johnson, Ralston Turner) and lost (DeShawn Painter, Rodney Purvis) on the transfer trail, would like to see the NCAA change its transfer policy.
“If I were President for a day, I’d make every transfer sit out a year,” Gottfried said. “I’d apply that to postgraduate transfers too. I think it’s wrong to have a committee in Indianapolis decide how sick a relative is or how close a family member he is to the player who wants a waiver.
“If you do have a close family member who is sick, use that first year to spend more time with them and not to play basketball.”
The erratic waiver policy has other ACC coaches in a dither. As of Wednesday, the most anxious was Georgia Tech’s Brian Gregory, who was still sweating out Trae Golden’s application for a transfer waiver (based on a sick father, living in Powder Springs, Ga.).
“I hope he gets to play with us,” Georgia Tech senior Daniel Miller said. “He’s practicing with us like he’s ready to go. If he can play, it will help a lot.”
The good news came Thursday night – the NCAA approved Golden’s waiver. As a result, the Jackets will have a real point guard for the first time in the Gregory era.
– I voted Duke No. 1 on my preseason ballot, but I almost took a flier on Notre Dame.
My thinking was that the last two ACC champions – Florida State and Miami – were the most senior dominated teams in the league. Both FSU and the ‘Canes had been good, but not too good in the years leading up to their titles.
Notre Dame is easily the ACC’s most veteran team in 2014. The Irish ought to start four seniors (one a fifth-year guy) along with a junior who has started the last two years. The Irish won 25 games a year ago, including a five-overtime victory over future NCAA champ Louisville.
The team has nice balance – two guards who both averaged 5.5 assists a game – decent 3-point shooting and maybe the best size in the league with at least four solid bangers inside.
It was a tempting pick, but I didn’t have the guts to pull the trigger.
– There was a lot of talk about the difference in officiating styles in the ACC and the Big East.
“It’s going to be different,” Pitt’s 6-9, 230-pound Talib Zanna said. “In the Big East, they didn’t call no fouls. They let us play through fouls. I watch a lot of ACC games and they call a lot of fouls.”
That was Jerian Grant’s impression too.
“When I watch ACC games, I think, ‘Wow, there are a lot of fouls called’.”
But Grant’s coach, Mike Brey, said he welcomes the change.
“It will be refreshing if we can have a guard bring the ball up and not have a forearm in his back or drive the lane without being close-lined,” the Notre Dame coach said.
Brey also suggested that the NCAA’s new emphasis on eliminating rough play could have more impact than the switch in leagues.
“It’s a point of emphasis,” he said. “Use two hands on defense, or a forearm bar or even one hand if you keep it there, they are all supposed to be automatic calls. I talked to another coach who brought in refs for a scrimmage and they have seven fouls called in the first two minutes.
“The players are going to have to adjust.”