Good Sport: Greatness and mediocrity in the ACC

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by Jeff Laughlin

I’d rather not join the race to show how many memories I have about Dean Smith or the ACC. I remember it all, no matter who passes away and who lives on. I grew up with the players and coaches, and still get awestruck by the names that continually show up in Tournament Town when that time comes.

That said, Smith’s passing represented a coming together of different fans with the same purpose — to not look like fans for a minute.

As the floodgates opened on social media, the gathering and reflection on a “truly great man” and the “greatest coach of all time” hinted that he changed basketball and that we’d not be watching the game we watch today without him.

Truth can be deceptive, and Smith knew that. College ball still relies on talent that must be culled at all costs and coaches ready to change their whole life’s work to get ahead. If not for him, we’d praise someone else.

That Smith did it for so long, and so well, shows his actual affect — not letters to Michael Jordan or long-winded props from modern coaches. He changed with the game to beckon the best talent, not because he had the best interests of the fan at heart.

The Four Corners bored people to tears, but it worked. So did hiring some of the best assistants in history to educate him on new ways of ball movement that could lure the best players in the country to play for him.

Smith changed as basketball changed.

Smith changed the game, changed his approach, changed the ACC, sure, but he relied on the past like everyone else. He rooted techniques in traditionalism and let the players and coaches change around him. The cast of characters as legendary as the coach himself, UNC became something everyone wanted to talk about.

Simultaneously to Smith’s ascension, the rest of the ACC forged its own history. In this state alone, Duke, NC State and Wake Forest all had to keep playing ball. Wake never won a national championship, but their cast of players still impresses. Their dark ages, after the death of Skip Prosser, continue. Jeff Bzdelik and Dino Gaudio did not live up to the standards of Wake, much less the ACC.

That’s why wins have proved so important this year. Wake doesn’t have that traditional air about them like UNC, so wins against other North Carolina foes have always been held dear. Playing NC State on a Tuesday night, the matchup of two middling ACC teams dubbed with the “they’re getting there” moniker hardly interested a national audience.

Attention or not, these fan bases know the shadow of legendary men: giants who stepped on their hopes and dreams to achieve their greatness.

So when two middle-down conference foes met, this tested pride rather than expectation. Smith did not have to gut out too many of these kinds of victories, but Mark Gottfried and Danny Manning had no choice. They don’t coach legendary players.

When Wake dominated the first half, it was as if they were shooting their way out of the last few years. With each shot, the crowd lurched forward like they were witnessing the climb out of dormancy.

Obviously, the program has a ways to go to reach its desired level of respectability, but that first half proved that they could, when prompted, perform better than admirably.

Wake could hit shots, too.

The unquestioned leaders of their team, Codi Miller-Macintyre and Devin Thomas, didn’t have to do much. The role players drained three after three and the NC State offense handed turnovers to Wake, repeatedly offering transition buckets.

Wake had to make a few tough shots, but they rarely looked challenged. They mixed the paint with good ball movement and the corner three was open for 20 straight minutes.

Wake couldn’t miss. Until seven minutes left in the second half, they looked like a future powerhouse, maximizing the talent they had on the court against a better opponent. NC State getting trounced served as a warning to the ACC. No matter what coach or title a team boasted, Wake will not be stepped on.

Then Ralston Turner and Trevor Lacey hit three consecutive threes. Then Wake’s offense tightened up. The free throws bounced off the rim. The threes no longer fell. Wake’s once-mighty 26-point lead evaporated as quickly as it built. With two minutes left, the lead lingered like perfume, evaporating to the acrid odor that Wake knew too well — loss.

Fortunately, they weren’t playing those Smith-era teams, but a young Wolfpack squad with problems up and down the roster. Wake prevailed despite its collapse, a sign that maybe all is not lost in Winston-Salem.

In the race to memory, Dean Smith and a host of other coaches will win like they always did. In the race to relevancy, Wake’s win means nearly as much. Danny Manning and his squad may not be remembered as giants, but a win always feels right, no matter how many you’ve amassed.