That thud-thud you heard late Sunday afternoon was the supposedly almighty Atlantic Coast Conference falling face-first into a ditch, right there alongside Tobacco Road. On a day that the folks in Carolina will long remember as the Raleigh Massacre, North Carolina, the ACC champion and the No. 3-ranked team in the country, and Duke, the ACC runner-up and the nation's No. 6 team, were booted out of the NCAA tournament in the first week. And that's not the half of it. The ACC teams were ousted not by powerhouses on the order of UCLA, Notre Dame, Michigan State or even Indiana State. No, the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils were rudely eliminated by schools from the geographic region regarded as the laughing stock of college basketball—the East.
North Carolina took it on the chin first, losing to the University of Pennsylvania's Ivy League champions 72-71. That development shook even the Duke fans, many of whom wore a worried look as the Blue Devils warmed up for their game with St. John's, which had been the 40th—and last—team selected for the tournament. "Ah, don't worry," a Duke follower was advised, "those ragamuffins from up North can't do it twice." St. John's then really did it twice, beating Duke for the second time this season, 80-78, on Reggie Carter's short baseline jumper with five seconds to play.
While the East was destroying the reputation of the ACC as the toughest league in the land, the No. 1-ranked Indiana State Sycamores—vastly underrated by just about everyone except their devoted retinue of toilet-paper-packing fans—continued their winning ways. Only three weeks ago, the ISU student body president wrote to Indiana's two U.S. Senators, demanding that they launch a congressional investigation to find out what kind of fatheads were running the college polls, and how come it took almost the entire season for the undefeated Sycamores to be voted No. 1 in both the AP and the UPI rankings.
Last week, as the NCAA tournament roared through the first two rounds, jettisoning 24 of the 40 teams, the distinguished Senators from Indiana were advised to stand down. Larry Bird and the Sycamores may not need a congressional investigation to prove they are No. 1. They should get their chance to do that next week in the finals at Salt Lake City.
Indiana State may be the first team ever to come into the tournament top-ranked in both polls, undefeated in 29 games and still sneaking up on people, the way it did in Sunday's 86-69 victory over Virginia Tech. That's the kind of year it's been in college hoops.
In the Midwest, there was Oklahoma, the surprising but convincing winner of the Big Eight Conference title, thumping favored Texas 90-76, after which Sooner Coach Dave Bliss patiently explained to Oklahoma sportswriters some of the more subtle differences between a wishbone offense and the four corners.
In the Mideast, Big Ten tri-champion Iowa was upset 74-72 on a last-second shot by Stan Joplin of Toledo, a team so mean and tough that its sixth man is named Harvey Knuckles. Also playing in that regional was Louisiana State, winner of the SEC season championship but a semifinal loser in the conference tournament largely because its leading scorer, DeWayne Scales, decided to use the game to show off his dribbling for the assembled pro scouts. Scales, an all-SEC forward, then was suspended by LSU Coach Dale Brown for the remainder of the season because of his involvement with an agent.
But the real show last week was provided by the schools from the urban northeast corridor of the U.S. Syracuse and Rutgers earned spots in the East Regional semifinals, which will be held this week in Greensboro, N.C., by eliminating Connecticut and Georgetown, respectively, on Saturday. Then Penn and St. John's became the only at-large teams to win two games.
The St. John's Redmen are coached by Lou Carnesecca, who talks in a strangulated whisper out of The Godfather and spends a great deal of his courtside time on his knees. When Louie gets very excited, he walks up and down the sidelines on his knees. This week he will see if he can walk on his knees all the way to Salt Lake City for the finals.
St. John's and Penn were both supposed to take their lumps, get their watches and hold their breakup dinners all on the same day. North Carolina had defeated Duke to win the ACC tournament a week earlier, and was labeled the "hottest" team in the country by those overawed by the ACC's reputation.