Brownlow: The State of Things
Roy Williams has said he’d rather beat State than eat, and certainly his results have proven that (19-1 against them over his nine seasons at UNC), but it’s not a concept some of the younger UNC fans out there can really wrap their heads around. If you’re 30 or younger, you likely don’t remember an era when NC State was consistently good at basketball.
Under Jim Valvano, they were always good, but he left in 1990. If you’re 30, you might have some vague memory of that, but not much else. Up until I was 15 or 16 years old, I thought the 8-seed versus 9-seed game on Thursday of the ACC Tournament was actually called the Les Robinson Invitational (it isn’t, but his teams played in it almost every year in the 90s).
Herb Sendek went 64-34 over his last three years at NC State, making the NCAA Tournament all three times, but 14 of his 34 losses were to Big 4 teams. In his final two years, 11 of his 24 losses were to the Big 4.
NC State has actually had a better record than Carolina in two of the years that Roy has been at UNC (21-10 compared to Carolina’s 19-11 in 2004; 20-16 compared to 20-17 by Carolina in 2010). But even in Carolina’s “down” years under Williams, the Tar Heels still beat NC State, much to the chagrin of its fans. In fact, in 2010 - the year NC State has had its best shot to beat Carolina - the Tar Heels won by an average of 13.5 points.
It’s not as if NC State hasn’t been projected to have good teams before now. There was a lot of optimism surrounding Sidney Lowe’s 2008 team, which had a great ending to the 2007 season. For a variety of reasons, that team collapsed. And now, the Wolfpack has been picked to win the ACC this year by the coaches and the media, a fact that seems equal parts exhilarating and nauseating to NC State fans who are used to seeing everything fall apart.
For this Tobacco Road dweller, though, it’s just nice to see that all three schools are good. Or at least, somewhat good. NC State is rising up again, but Duke and North Carolina have fallen some, too. Last year ended a streak of eight straight years that either Duke or Carolina had finished in the top five of statistician Ken Pomeroy’s final rankings (UNC finished 7th and Duke was 20th). NC State was right there at 35, its best final since 2005 when the Wolfpack nearly got to play North Carolina in the Elite 8 before falling to Wisconsin.
Since Williams got to Carolina in the 2003-04 season, NC State has been to two Sweet 16s and just four NCAA Tournaments. Carolina won the national title twice, been to three Final Fours and made six Elite 8s. That’s probably why when Carolina’s Dexter Strickland essentially said NC State has to prove they can beat UNC before they can be "thrown into the mix," most NC State fans kind of shrugged, sighed and agreed.
One thing Duke and UNC fans can likely agree on, though: as NC State fans agonize over the pressure of their unproven squad being the preseason favorite, Duke and UNC get the rare opportunity to play the underdog role and they are going to enjoy the heck out of a year with little to no expectations.