Just when it looked as though the ACC tournament was on the verge of becoming some sort of cerebral parlor game in which the players were mere pieces manipulated by self-proclaimed grandmasters—read that coaches—Dean Smith came along to prove again that he's the only one in the bunch who merits the honorific. The ACC has become known as a coaches' league, one in which the guys in the three-piece velvet suits are considered by fans and themselves to be as important as football coaches and governors are in other parts of the country, and last week the whole brain trust was in Greensboro, N.C., using an assortment of delay games, pause offenses and outright stalls to turn Tobacco Road into the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
There was Lefty Driesell of Maryland, who won one game, lost another and then conceded, "I'm so confused I don't know what's going on." Also on hand was Carl Tacy of Wake Forest, whose first pronouncement upon losing 58-56 to Duke in the opening round on Thursday was, "I'm sure there are better coaches in the league than I am, but I don't think there are any braver." Clemson's Bill Foster—who is known around the conference as Clemson's Bill Foster—and Duke's Bill Foster—who is known simply as Bill Foster, which must mean something—spent the week being both brave and confused. When the tournament was over and North Carolina had ripped Duke 71-63 for the championship, both the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils were headed for the NCAA playoffs, and almost everybody else seemed ready to thrash it out again in the NIT. Is this any way to run a coaches' conference?
Duke and North Carolina had played three times during the regular season, splitting the first two games. Then, two weeks ago, Duke won a bizarre 47-40 decision at home in which the Tar Heels, freezing the ball, did not score a point in the first half. They trailed 7-0 at the intermission. When North Carolina played the Blue Devils to a 40-40 standoff in the second half, Smith looked like a prize idiot for his first-half tactics. For someone who was long ago canonized in North Carolina, and this season accomplished perhaps the best coaching job of his notable career, Smith received a tremendous amount of criticism for this ploy, and he seemed stung by it as the tournament began. He often found himself on the defensive during interviews, and the position plainly irritated him. At one point, while reciting the virtues of his four-corner offense, Smith sarcastically suggested that college basketball ought to use a 24-second clock and outlaw zone defenses. Then, he added, if people wanted to see a lot of running up and down the floor, "They ought to go watch the pros play."
It should be remembered, however, that this is a coaching genius at work, and there is a theory that Smith stage-managed the whole thing to take pressure off his players. Since it would have been psychologically disadvantageous to let North Carolina lose two of three regular-season games to Duke, and since Smith could hardly be certain of a victory at Durham, he made sure that the blame for a loss would fall on him. By blowing the game himself, it would not be nearly so difficult to convince his team that it was as good as Duke when it met the Blue Devils on the tournament's neutral floor.
March 12, 1979
If all of this sounds awfully Machiavellian, well, welcome to the ACC. Whatever Smith's strategy at Durham had been—and perhaps there was no strategy at all; what a strategy that would have been!—it seemed to have the Tar Heels cranked up for the Blue Devils last Saturday night. Smith had been intent on drawing Duke's 6'11" center, Mike Gminski, out from under the Tar Heel basket; that was the stated reason for the stall against the Blue Devils' zone a week earlier. It was no accident, then, that in the tournament finale Carolina Center Rich Yonakor got the ball early and often.
And the strategy paid off as Yonakor hit four of six shots in the first half, mostly from 15 feet or farther out, to give the Tar Heels a 31-25 halftime lead. With Carolina ahead from the outset, Duke went into a man-to-man defense, which meant that Gminski, the league's most intimidating player when he is allowed to set up in the middle of a zone defense, had to wander at least a little way outside in halfhearted pursuit of Yonakor. That gave Dudley Bradley all the operating room he needed.
Bradley, a 6'6" forward, is known in Chapel Hill as the Secretary of Defense, so quick are his hands and so remarkable is his sense of anticipation when it comes to making steals. At North Carolina he has obligingly filled the defensive role that Smith has given him, though he was a considerable scoring threat when he was named Baltimore's high school player of the year four seasons ago. The willingness of Bradley and his teammates to perform the well-defined tasks that Smith assigned them was one of the big reasons for the success of this year's Tar Heels, who enter the playoffs with a 23-5 record.
Over the past two seasons Carolina has seen such notables as Walter Davis, John Kuester and Phil Ford move on to the pros, and Smith, who has lost an untypically large number of recruiting battles for top high-schoolers of late, has been unable to come up with replacements of similar all-round ability. He faced this season with only one truly outstanding performer, versatile Forward Mike O'Koren, but nonetheless resisted the temptation of junking his balanced offense to let O'Koren hog the ball and try to score 30 a game. It would have been a desperate move, yet it is one a lot of his counterparts at other schools would have made.
Instead, Smith decided to lean even more heavily on the system of specialization that worked so well with his more talented teams of the past. Bradley became the designated defender. Slender Al Wood took most of the outside shots. Guard Dave Colescott did most of the dribbling and passing. The ungainly Yonakor bumped folks around under the hoop and fired up an occasional jumper. And O'Koren did a bit of all these things while keeping his scoring at a modest 14.8 points per game. Smith also deployed his reserves—which even included a 6'1" walk-on named Ged Doughton—with consummate deftness.
As a result, the Tar Heels, who figured to finish third in the ACC at best, became the league's most consistent team, even though they had two opportunities to cave in. One of those occasions occurred in late January when North Carolina had a road game at Maryland. Colescott was out with a shattered left eye socket, the result of catching a Gminski "judo chop" during a game with Duke, and O'Koren was hospitalized with a sprained right ankle. Then, on the day before departing for College Park, Wood, who minutes before had been visiting O'Koren at the hospital, slipped on the doorstep of a dormitory and crashed through a glass door, tearing open his right hand. Within the hour he was back at the hospital, lying on the bed next to O'Koren's. But the Tar Heels still beat Maryland 54-53, with Doughton playing masterfully in Colescott's stead and Wood and his 12 stitches coming off the bench to score 16 crucial points down the stretch.
A week or so later, after a loss to Clemson, Smith began to feel his team slipping. He hired a retired college head coach, whom he refuses to name, to scout his team and give him suggestions on how to improve it. What the mystery man, who watched the Tar Heels narrowly beat Virgina Tech and get upset by Furman, told Smith also remains a secret, but it obviously helped. Since then, Carolina has lost only once—on that strange night in Durham.
All those victories helped North Carolina earn a bye in the first round of the tournament. The Tar Heels tied Duke for first place in the conference race with a 9-3 record and then won a drawing for the bye the day after the final game of the regular season. As coach of the top-seeded team, Smith had his choice of which basket, bench and uniform color Carolina would use in its games. Figuring that his first outing would be against Maryland, Smith deferred his decision, which normally would have been made before the tournament began, until he saw which bench, which basket and which uniform—home or road—Driesell would select in the Terrapins' opening game with Clemson. Maryland defeated Clemson 75-67, and when the Terps came out for Friday night's game with North Carolina, Smith had taken Lefty's lucky bench, lucky basket and lucky uniform for the Tar Heels.
Driesell is superstitious enough that those totems meant something to him, and Smith knew it. When Maryland loses an away game, for example, Driesell often crosses off the hotel where the Terps stayed on that trip from his list of acceptable accommodations. This sort of business reached its extreme in January when Driesell began playing musical dressing rooms in his own arena in College Park in a vain attempt to find a visitors' locker room that would bring some nameless calamity down upon the Tar Heels, who had defeated Maryland eight straight times going into last week's ACC tournament.
Maryland had finished the season 17-9, with victories over Notre Dame and Duke, but was regarded as merely a dark horse in the tournament because nobody thought Driesell could successfully coach a team through three big games in as many nights. "Individually, they have the best talent," said Clemson Forward Chubby Wells, "but you don't know if they're going to come and play or leave their brains locked up at home." Maryland played surprisingly well in the first half with Clemson and built up a 13-point lead, but in the second half the Terps began to run their offense far away from the basket and wound up allowing the Tigers to close to within a point with about 2½ minutes to play. Driesell was asked why he had elected to go to a perimeter offense, and he said, "I didn't notice that. You say we were all spread out, huh? Well, if we were, it wasn't by design."
In his 10 years at Maryland, Driesell has never won an ACC tournament, despite having had the likes of John Lucas, Tom McMillen, Len Elmore, Mo Howard, Larry Gibson and Albert King on his roster. But as someone said last week, "Lefty's such a great recruiter, it's just not fair to expect the guy to be able to coach, too."
Even Driesell's capacious recruiting net lets an occasional big fish get away, and one was Maryland native Bradley, whom the Terps ignored so that they could sign a guy named Turk Tillman, who has since made tracks to Eastern Kentucky. Some Bradley steals and amazing shooting by the Tar Heels, who finished the game with a .625 percentage, were at least as important as the color of the uniforms in Carolina's 102-79 wipeout of Maryland in the semifinals. The game was over almost before it began, with the Tar Heels leading by 16 points after only 9:54 had elapsed.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, Duke was barely scraping by. After the Blue Devils edged Wake Forest, behind Jim Spanarkel's 20 points, they met North Carolina State, a team they had beaten three times. Victory No. 4 was a tense battle throughout the second half, with Duke relying on the outside shooting of Guard Bob Bender, who scored a career-high 16 points, to keep the Wolfpack at bay.
Still, the Blue Devils needed a daring play to cinch the 62-59 win. With the score tied at 53 and 1:01 remaining to be played. Gene Banks threw a length-of-the-court inbounds pass to Spanarkel, who had barely sneaked behind the State defense. Spanarkel caught the ball even while the Wolfpack's onrushing Tony Warren was planting a finger in his right eye; he wheeled to the hoop and scored a layup while being fouled (again?) by Warren. Spanarkel, his vision blurred, retired in favor of Steve Gray, whose free throw finished off the three-point play. Banks' pass had been the basketball equivalent of one of those perfect Bradshaw-to-Swann bombs, and he could scarcely get the lump out of his throat long enough to recount his moment of heroism. "It was just a gutty play," Banks said. "I knew I had to do it. I'll do anything to win."
And showing guts and winning were what the Blue Devils were supposed to be doing all season. Instead, Duke had too many games in which its rash maneuvers backfired and, inexplicably, a number of others in which it turned too conservative, even lethargic after moving out to big leads. Instead of ending up No. 1 in the country, the Blue Devils, with a 22-7 record that included a number of narrow escapes, finished No. 2 in their conference.
They were relegated to the second spot—and Carolina won its seventh ACC tournament championship in the last 13 years—largely because of Bradley's performance. His two jumpers at the outset of the second half gave the Tar Heels a 10-point lead, and when Duke narrowed the score to 46-43, Bradley countered by intercepting a pass while furiously backpedaling against the Blue Devils' fast break. He then passed to Wood for a layup, completing what the official play-byplay describes as: BRADLEY STEALS, PEELS AND DEALS TO WOOD.
When Smith called for his four-corner offense with 7:25 remaining, again it was Bradley who was the key man. He dunked once to put Carolina up 52-46. slid past Banks from the corner for a three-point play to keep the Heels ahead by six and, finally, provided la facial de rèsistance by dribbling past the befuddled Gminski and throwing down a thunderdunk that nearly rearranged the big Duke center's physiognomy.
Bradley finished the game with 16 points, four assists and seven steals, some of which might have been attributable to the absence of Duke's best ball handler, Bender, who was stricken with appendicitis 3½ hours before the game and had to take the night off. Bradley also ended up with the tournament's Most Valuable Player award, but he may not have been its most significant figure. Though the folks in the ACC may go on calling their conference a coaches' league, it is, in fact, a coach's league. His name is Smith.