Triangle ‘is where the basketball gods are’

Mar. 19, 2014 @ 06:07 PM

College basketball is king on Tobacco Road, and the NCAA Tournament is the pinnacle of the sport. This week, it comes together in unprecedented fashion.

For the first time, all four area Division I basketball programs – Duke, North Carolina, N.C. Central and N.C. State -- made the 68-team NCAA Tournament field, and eight schools will converge on PNC Arena in Raleigh for second- and third-round games this weekend.

“It just shows that Tobacco Road, all the schools are close together but they recruit well,” Duke senior Tyler Thornton said. “This is where everybody wants to be. This is where the basketball gods are. Coach K, North Carolina’s history, N.C. State’s history. N.C. Central, I think this is their third year (of eligibility) in Division I – for them to make it is amazing.”

The four schools from the Triangle equal the representation from any other state in the country (California, Texas and Ohio also have four teams in). Basketball hotbeds like Indiana and Illinois were completely shut out.

“Fear the 919,” said Durham resident Bucky Waters, who played at N.C. State and coached at Duke, referring to the Triangle’s main area code. “If you don’t, you might have to call 911, because we’re loaded.”

While Duke was always highly ranked this season, the NCAA Tournament was no sure thing for the other three area teams.

UNC lost four of its first five games in the ACC for the first time in program history and was in last place in the 15-team conference before it turned its year around with a 12-game winning streak.

N.C. State, which had to replace five of its top six scorers from last season, needed to beat No. 2 seed Syracuse in the ACC Tournament last week to make the NCAAs – and even then was the last team selected.

And N.C. Central comes from the MEAC, which means that no matter how many games the Eagles won, they would need to win their conference tournament to participate in the sport’s biggest stage. NCCU learned that the hard way last year, going 15-1 in the MEAC during the regular season but having its hopes for an NCAA bid end with a loss in the quarterfinals.

Even the Blue Devils started 1-2 in the ACC this year, leading some to question whether the balance of power had moved away from Tobacco Road.

“(NCCU coach LeVelle Moton) has done a great job,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “State made a big run in the tournament and beating Syracuse was a big win for them. And I said earlier in the year, you shouldn’t bury us and Duke just because we lost a game. It says there’s still pretty good basketball here.”

Williams called Moton after the field was announced.

“I jokingly said we ought to just take the same plane and see if the NCAA will give us some money back instead of giving us the expenses for two planes,” Williams said. “I told him I’d flip with him to see who got the exit row.”

No. 12 N.C. State – which started its NCAA run with a 74-59 win over Xavier on Tuesday – will face No. 5 St. Louis today in Orlando (7:20 p.m., TNT), while No. 3 Duke will get the action started at PNC Arena on Friday against No. 14 Mercer (12:15 p.m., CBS). 

ACC champion Virginia, the top seed in the East Region, will also play at PNC Arena this weekend.

Waters said that all the excitement and attention in the Triangle reminded him of the Dixie Classic, when the four in-state ACC  teams (Duke, UNC, NC State, Wake Forest) would invite four other top teams from around the country for a post-Christmas tournament at N.C. State that carried national interest.

At a time when the past three ACC champions have been from out of the state and there will be more newcomers (eight) than original members in the conference (seven) next season, the spotlight will still be on the Triangle teams this week.

“I think right now with the expansion of the league, we go from Boston to Miami and it’s become fragmented in a way. This is a really neat statement,” Waters said. “We’ll never go back to the Dixie Classic or the original eight (ACC members) or whatever, but this is a nice reminder that Tobacco Road is for real, and there’s still a tenacity and a texture here that makes basketball very, very special.”