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."