The war raged on. Armed forces from the South made attacks on enemy bases at two locations, crossing the border by day and infiltrating the Northern camps under cover of darkness. Field reports indicated the invaders were tall, strong and heavily equipped with accents foreign to the region. Scattered bursts of phrases such as "dis is beeooteeful" and "wheah ah dees guys?" emanated from the advancing legions. Reliable sources reported that they were part of the "Manhattanization" of the war—a severely feared process that the commander of the Southern forces had been threatening for years. Now he seemed to have done it. A coalition effort by the two neighbors under attack in the North not only was failing, South was about to demolish North and win the Conflict of the Carolinas.
What probably was the final push of the war began last week as the Gamecocks of South Carolina made their way by light aircraft over the DMZ of Ruby, Lester, Irby and Clio, S.C.; of Morven, Hasty, Pee Dee and Ghio, N.C.; over the red clay and sand hills of their own territory and into the piedmont and pine-scented flatlands of the North. They had negotiated the buffer zone quietly on their journey, but now they would have it out, first against North Carolina State, then against North Carolina—old, bitter rivals hacking it out for pride, prestige, ratings, recruiting glamour and the sheer glory of being on top of college basketball's strongest league.
The combatants, all of the Atlantic Coast Conference, came together high astride the national standings, and there was an edge of hatred, a certain atmosphere of violence surrounding the proceedings. In Raleigh on Wednesday, John Roche, South Carolina's 6'3" leader, insisted this was mostly in the eyes of the beholders. "None of our guys hate any other players," he said. "But now the coaches...that's something different. And the fans, that's even worse. Everybody in North Carolina still thinks their teams are the best. They don't know it's all over. I'm tired of their noise. I want to beat all of their brains out—the players, the coaches and especially those people up in the seats. They're the bad ones."
That evening Roche took command early in the game. He controlled the tempo with his serpentine moves and while scoring 38 points and slipping into the realm of the magnificent, he practically alone held off N.C. State for a 71-69 victory. In Chapel Hill three nights later it was much the same. Roche scored 28 points against the Tar Heels as his team shot 52% for the second game in a row while coasting, 79-62. The successful road trip gave South Carolina a 12-0 record in the conference (21-2 overall) and, with two games to go, an excellent chance at becoming only the third team to go unbeaten in regular-season league play. The Gamecocks will wear the unsteady mantle of favorite into the conference tournament in Charlotte next week where they must prove superiority once more, with feeling.
South Carolina has accomplished all of this against a corps of elite competitors that one would be hard pressed to match anywhere in the land. Ever since the ACC was formed in the early '50s, provincials have claimed that their league played the finest basketball. Nonbelievers could bring their teams down and see. In 1959 Oscar Robertson and Cincinnati took a look and went home with back-to-back losses to N.C. State and North Carolina. In the years since, ACC teams have almost always been among, the top 10. Earlier this season four of them were in the top 20, and until they started playing each other, it looked like they might stay there. Recently N.C. State lost two games in one week and dropped only two places in the coaches' top 10. The coaches know.
On a larger scale, the conference has won seven of the past eight Eastern Regionals—only Bill Bradley's Princeton stemmed the tide—and while the league has largely failed upon reaching the national final four, partisans explain that their representatives are worn out after two weeks of tournaments. Be that as it may, the ACC tournament winner this year could win the national championship without leaving the ACC area (the regionals are at South Carolina, the finals at Maryland).
Coaches from other parts of the country, envious of the conference's large recruiting budgets, resent the stature and reputation of the league. But there are other reasons why the Atlantic Coast schools beat out rivals for prime recruits: warm climates, majestic arenas, high academic standards, miniskirted dixiecups and a young prospect's awareness that, in an area where football is a misery, basketball is far and away No. 1 in tradition, enthusiasm and respect.
In the olden days it was always the "big four" North Carolina schools (UNC, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest) that made the ACC so powerful. No longer. With the arrival of Lefty Driesell at Maryland and the final rerouting of Frank McGuire's underground railroad from New York to Columbia, S.C., the ACC now has six efficient programs. To hear rivals tell it, McGuire, who returned to the league six years ago after building North Carolina into a national power and then leaving under a storm of controversy, has done nothing but reopen old wounds. They say he does not really know coaching, that he cheats on recruiting, that he teaches dirty tactics, that he is up to no good. Seemingly, it is McGuire's presence alone that has made the ACC so alive with fury. Jealousy, of course, breeds such contempt.
"We know when they yell at us, they are yelling at Coach McGuire," says Roche. "Teams don't play South Carolina, they play McGuire."
"I know what they say and I know what they try to do to me," says McGuire. "But I'm too smart for them. No more controversies. I don't want anything to spoil the program we've built here."
Indeed, South Carolina basketball has come a long way from an era when the team's traveling staff consisted of a former mental patient who occasionally coached and a 4'2" dwarf who dispensed pep pills as the team trainer. Three years ago McGuire thought he had the good, big center needed to excel as a national contender, but in a dispute over facts that are still bitterly debated, athletic directors at Duke and North Carolina complained of abnormal admissions practices involving Mike Grosso and got the ACC to declare him ineligible. This year the center is here: 6'10" Tom Riker, a schoolboy legend from Long Island, who is averaging 14 points and nine rebounds in a ball-control offense.
Though the frail, 6'10" Tom Owens has been called "the advance man for a famine," Riker and 6'8" John Ribock give the Gamecocks impressive muscle up front, while Roche and Bobby (Cakes) Cremins are an ideal backcourt. In addition, there are sophomores Bob Carver and Rick Aydlett to come off the bench and shoot against zones—the defensive tactic considered appropriate against South Carolina's height and the abilities of Roche. "You play Roche man to man," says N.C. State Coach Norm Sloan, "and you are at his mercy."
While most of the Gamecocks are nicely groomed, attractively Irish and devotedly Catholic boys from the New York City area, there is a feeling around the league that they are out to get people. Riker, whose temper is on the short side, has been ejected from two games for fighting, and Carver was thrown out of the Temple game, but it is the 238-pound Ribock from Augusta, Ga. who is held in awe, even by his own teammates.
"If there's going to be fighting, I like to get the first punch in," says Riker. "But Ribock, he's smarter. He manhandled three North Carolina guys in our first game, but nobody would touch him. First he clipped Bill Chamberlain good, then he elbowed Dennis Wuycik and finally he cracked Charlie Scott on a loose ball. Charlie came up swinging, but it's lucky he didn't hit Ribock. Nobody ever hits Ribock."
Incidents such as these have made the ACC so zestfully (or tastelessly) insane these last few weeks: spectators at Duke spat on one of McGuire's $300 suits, after which Roche and Riker retaliated by throwing cups of water into the stands. Spectators at N.C. State spat on Scott and Chamberlain, and Coach Dean Smith had to restrain Scott from chasing after them to fight. Spectators at Chapel Hill stormed the court when a fight broke out in the Maryland game, and Driesell ended up on the floor. And in several key games the ugly old racial epithet has been heard from the stands.
The Wolfpack of State has long held the reputation of being the most physical team in the league. Led by (Moving) Vann Williford and sophomore Ed Leftwich, the Pack, now 19-4, has been a pleasant surprise to Coach Sloan and fiercely hostile to the competition. Opponents say that when you come to play against State's 6'6" "Dirty Dan" Wells you come with helmet and armored socks.
But for truly bad blood, South Carolina and North Carolina have a clear edge over the other ACC schools. Relations between the two have been sorely strained since the end of last season when Roche won the league's player of the year award over Scott. Scott publicly intimated that the ballot was racial. It was also pointed out that five writers left Scott off the all-conference first team, arguing that UNC's Bill Bunting was as deserving.
"Either the writers are ignorant, or it's bigotry," said Smith. "There are some writers around here who shouldn't be writing," said Scott. Further talk around the Carolinas has it that Smith and Scott themselves have had some differences this season. Though both deny it, Scott reportedly was unhappy with the way the Tar Heels played slowdown in their first meeting with South Carolina, which they lost 65-52. In a later practice he told Smith he was "embarrassed" to play that way, and the two proceeded to have harsh words about who was coaching the team and who could leave if he didn't like it.
Scott has not been impressed with South Carolina's personnel. "Roche is a good player," he said last week before the return match. "But his team makes him a great player. He's only as good as his picks. It's easy to play when you know you're going to get picks all over the court—here, there, there. Man, that's dreamland. Roche is in dreamland. Take the picks away and where is he? Sometimes I think McGuire doesn't recruit good players so much as he recruits good picks."
It was against this amicable background that South Carolina's battles last week were joined. McGuire himself did not make the game with State in Raleigh. Abed with flu, he talked to his players by phone at halftime and then watched them survive on TV as Wells and Ribock stayed away from each other.
By Saturday night in Chapel Hill, McGuire was back on the bench. Right off South Carolina fell behind UNC 6-0, but for the next 11 minutes, while North Carolina was scoring only one basket, South Carolina raced to a 23-8 margin. Along with four other men who tried guarding the irrepressible Roche, Scott could not contain him, and the home team never got closer than 10 points.
The skirmishing in league play ends this week. Next come settlement negotiations at Charlotte when the ACC gathers to line up for a final shot at South Carolina before ceasefire. North Carolina troops are advised to come out smoking, this time with barbed wire and a six-pack of mace.