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.
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.