By Adam Lucas
RALEIGH—This Carolina-State game went almost exactly as you would have expected.
The team that has recently had the better of the series won the game. The team with the younger talent appeared in disarray, and the team with the experienced rotation—one bound for a certain NCAA Tournament appearance—looked wiser, more mature and more stable.
One team looked comfortable. One never found a rhythm.
Of course, you know by now that Carolina won Wednesday night’s game at NC State, 97-73. What you have probably tried to repress is that the first three paragraphs above could easily have applied to the game in February of 2003, when the Pack polished off an 86-78 win over Carolina in Raleigh, State’s fourth straight win in the series at the time.
The previous year, during the game in Chapel Hill, the Wolfpack won a 77-59 blowout, and cheers of “Wolf!” “Pack!” echoed back and forth across the Smith Center. It was miserable.
Sorry for the painful memories, and don’t let it take away from your enjoyment of Wednesday’s rout—or, more importantly, your preparation for a fun day in Chapel Hill on Saturday, with College GameDay and Virginia coming to town.
But the point is this: in ACC basketball, there is a very fine line between being the dominator and the dominated in any given series. It wasn’t that long ago that NC State felt they couldn’t possibly lose to Carolina. One UNC head coaching change later, the Tar Heels are enjoying their biggest dominance in the history of the series. It seems impossible right this second, but we've been exactly where they were, and it wasn't really that long ago.
This is not to say that you should feel sorry for NC State. They would not want it that way, and they would not have that same empathy—did not have that same empathy—if and when the roles were reversed. But there are actual humans involved. Enjoy every second of a 24-point victory in Raleigh, because those are much more rare than you probably believe right now.
Six years ago, my youngest son was drafted by a baseball team in West Raleigh. One of the assistant coaches—who also later coached Asher in basketball, and is to this day the best basketball coach he has ever had—walked up to me the first time he ever met me and said, “So this is the guy from Carolina! Hopefully he can tell us how to cheat to get those wins like Carolina does!”
That was literally the first thing he ever said to me. The West Raleigh baseball field is a harsh place. He is one of the nicest people I have ever met in my life...and he loathes Carolina. But you have to live here to understand that this is a perfectly normal greeting in this particular area of the Carolina-State cross-section.
If you grew up in North Carolina or know a State fan, you’ve probably had a similar experience. Some of us grew up here at a time when they hadn’t yet invented Duke fans, and there was nothing worse than going to school the day after Jim Valvano’s team had pulled off another improbable win. I promise: no one--OK, maybe Roy Williams, but I'm only saying "maybe"--has more built-in animosity for NCSU than me.
One year after Asher joined that baseball team, the coaches drafted a fast, hard-throwing, line drive-hitting newcomer. “You’re going to love him!” the coaches said.
They forgot to mention the newcomer was the son of Jeff Dunlap, the new director of operations for NC State basketball. Asher and Brady played together for multiple baseball and basketball seasons, and something unexpected happened: we turned out to have a lot in common. Our families send each other Christmas cards. Brady was one of Asher’s favorite teammates. Brady's mom was usually one of the loudest cheerleaders for Asher at the baseball field. Brady was annually one of the hardest workers I ever coached. Alongside Coach Proctor, Jeff spent hours coaching my son on the basketball court, trying to help a player with the size of a point guard but the mindset of a power forward figure out his place.
It turns out, underneath the howling and the Cardiac Pack and the weird finger gesture, they're...this is hard for me to say...some pretty good people over there.
At the UNC-State game in Chapel Hill earlier this year, Asher swished a trio of halfcourt shots during halftime. The video is enjoyable, especially the crowd reaction. And upon a second…and third…and fourth viewing (we watch that video a lot at our house), we noticed a fan in a red sweatshirt and Wolfpack toboggan going crazy, high-fiving his buddy (Gabe Proctor, son of that assistant baseball coach), with a bigger grin than anyone in the Smith Center. It was Brady, with his team down by 30 points, looking like the happiest kid in the gym because his buddy was on an unconscious hot streak.
After Wednesday night’s Tar Heel win, the Wolfpack now sits 14-13. I don’t pretend to know anything about the coaching ability of Mark Gottfried, or his fit at NC State, or any of the decisions that will be made in Raleigh.
But I do know he’s surrounded by some very good people who have tried to do a very good job in a very tough situation. It’s a miserable, helpless, frustrating feeling--and one those of you who were around in 2003 remember very well. The ultimate currency in college sports is victories, and everyone involved fully understands that principle. But there are also kids and wives and mothers involved, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that…until you’re back in that situation yourself. And the reality is that you’re never more than a bad few months away from landing there.
“I feel for them,” Roy Williams said. “They’re going through some tough times right now.”
And then, the moment had passed.
“But my job is to try to win and do what’s best for North Carolina,” he continued. “I’ve got to feel good about that.”