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Year after year this phenomenon repeats itself—the ACC whips itself into a frenzy deciding its champion, then one ACC team after another gets swallowed up in the real world. Only the 1974 North Carolina State team, featuring David Thompson, has won a national championship for the ACC in the last 22 years. North Carolina Coach Dean Smith, whose feet are seldom seen to touch the ground by his many admirers, has never won an NCAA title. The ACC has always publicized itself well, and not without help from the communications industry. "I thought North Carolina was a TV show," said Penn Forward Tony Price before Sunday's game. "We see so much of them on television in Philly."
Still, no ACC school from North Carolina (there are four) had lost an NCAA tournament game played in the state since 1961, and the Tar Heels were not only the top seed in the region, but Nevada oddsmakers had also installed them as the favorites to win the national title. But Penn had one thing working in its favor. "We were joking around all weekend about having a secret," said Penn Guard James Salters. "The secret was that we knew how good North Carolina was but they didn't know how good we were."
If the Tar Heels didn't know, they should have had some idea of what they were in for after watching ninth-seeded Penn use its quickness to get past Iona 73-69 on Friday. Against Carolina, the Quakers neutralized a trapping zone defense by slithering through the slower Tar Heels for layups and short jumpers. North Carolina's Mike O'Koren picked up his third foul with 14 minutes to play while trying to catch up with the mercurial Price, and when Dean Smith tried to protect O'Koren by taking him off the Penn forward, Price went on a tear, scoring 13 of his game-high 25 points in the next eight minutes. Bye-bye, Tar Heels.
Although St. John's had beaten Duke in the consolation game of the Holiday Festival in New York, no one in Carolina appeared to take the Redmen seriously. Carnesecca, though, recognized that Duke was indeed vulnerable, because the Blue Devils were missing two of their five regular starters: Guard Bob Bender was on the bench but unable to play following an appendectomy, and Forward Kenny Dennard was sitting beside him, nursing a sprained ankle.
Still, the Blue Devils came out and hit better than 60% of their field goals in the first half while running up leads of as many as 10 points. But the Redmen inched back, and 6:18 into the second half Duke had squandered its advantage. With the score tied 78-78, St. John's patiently worked the ball to Carter, who moments earlier had missed the front end of a one-and-one that could have iced the game for the Redmen. Swish! R.I.P., ACC.
St. John's now faces Rutgers, which has beaten the Redmen twice this season, and Penn meets Syracuse. What the NCAA ought to do is move the games from the land of the losers—Greensboro—and play them in the Northeast. Rutgers and Syracuse both have formidable centers who should create insurmountable problems for the smaller front lines of the Redmen and the Quakers. Rutgers' James Bailey, a four-year starter, may be the most complete big man in college ball. Opponents used to gang-team the 6'9" Bailey inside, but the emergence of Tom Brown at point guard and Daryl Strickland at forward put a stop to such tactics.
Penn has been foul-prone all season, and Matt White, the Quakers' 6'10" center, has fouled out of 13 games. Quick Syracuse forwards Dale Shackleford and Louis Orr and 6'11" Center Roosevelt Bouie will give the Quakers more than they can handle inside. Syracuse, now the highest scoring team (89.1 points a game) in the tournament, also should be able to neutralize Bailey and beat Rutgers to win the all-Northeastern East Regional.
In the Mideast, Michigan State and Notre Dame, two former No. 1 teams, figure to meet in Sunday's final in Indianapolis, although there is the strange and wonderful possibility that Toledo could be the survivor in this once-imposing field. Toledo's tallest starter is 6'7�", and it must face the Irish of Notre Dame on St. Patrick's Day eve. Still, the Rockets have given up only 61.8 points a game this season, second-best of any team still alive. In the victory over Iowa, Toledo held the Hawkeyes without a field goal for a span of 8:26 in the second half. Toledo puts its head down and plays an aggressive man-to-man defense most of the time, and Coach Bob Nichols believes in a controlled, pattern offense that allows his team to dictate the tempo of the game. Whether this will be enough against Notre Dame, a shaky 73-67 winner over Tennessee last week, depends to a great extent upon the Irish. If they can regain their poise against Toledo's bump-and-stick defense, they'll win. Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps shuttles nine players in and out, whereas Toledo sinks or swims mainly with 6'7�" Jim Swaney and 6'6�" Dick Miller, with the brassy Knuckles providing valuable assistance off the bench.
The Irish are currently 23-5, but apart from an early-season victory at UCLA, they lost most of what could be described as their important games. Sophomore Kelly Tripucka is the leading scorer but averages only 14.2 points, which is an indication of Notre Dame's depth but also points up the fact that the Irish don't have a player they can go to when they need a basket.
Michigan State is playing as well now as it has all season, as the Spartans demonstrated in their 95-64 rout of Lamar on Sunday. Forward Gregory Kelser had 31 points in that game, and 6'8" Earvin (Magic) Johnson did his customary prestidigitation thing with 13 points, 10 assists and 17 rebounds. "We got a team that can kill you from the outside," said Johnson, "and we got a team that can kill you from the inside. If we're on top of our game, ain't nobody in the world can beat Michigan State."