N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe remembers the days when Triangle bragging rights were as important as any in the league. As top-ranked Duke, No. 8 North Carolina, and the Wolfpack (who received 10 votes in the preseason Associated Press poll) prepare to open the regular season this week, he's hoping those days are back.
"While we certainly have a lot of good teams in our conference, it's just something different about the Triangle, and those three schools," said Lowe, a starter on the Wolfpack's 1983 national championship team. "A lot of people talk about the rivalry with Duke and Carolina. But there's also State-UNC, and Duke-N.C. State - it's there. It's always going to be there; I don't care what the record is.
"But to have all three teams back up there means a lot, because that's the way it's been in the past, and we want to get it back to that point."
This could be the season.
For the second time in four years, Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State were picked to finish in the top four of the preseason ACC standings - but unlike 2007-08, when the Pack was predicted to finish third, State hopes to exceed expectations instead of finishing last.
UNC coach Roy Williams, whose team will try to play its way back to the NCAA tournament after last year's runner-up NIT performance, says the season is "more fun" when all three Triangle teams are good. But he cautions that no one in the country reaches the Blue Devils' level right now.
"How many times have you seen the guy who wins the MVP at the Final Four [Kyle Singler] come back?" Williams said. "You have a guy who led the nation in freshman scoring [Seth Curry], who sat out and is ready to play for them. You got arguably the best point guard [Kyrie Irving] in high school basketball. You got two 6-10, 6-11 guys [the Plumlee brothers] that can do some great things inside. You got a 6-9 guy from Raleigh [sophomore Ryan Kelly] that I tried to recruit like crazy that got no playing time.
"To me Duke is at a completely different level than North Carolina and North Carolina State."
Even so, all three teams - including the Blue Devils - insist they have something to prove this season, in and out of the Triangle rivalry:
Although Duke returns as the reigning national champion, the Blue Devils want to show they can win back-to-back titles while changing the way they run their system. With the addition of the speedy Irving, Duke is shifting last season's slow-paced half-court style to a high-pressure, high-octane attack.
"We're a team that wants to run and score points," senior Nolan Smith said. "It's going to start with our defense. You can't score off of made baskets, [because] the other team is going to be back and set up. So we're going to want to pressure other teams, create steals, create bad shots. If we don't do that, we're going to end up being a half-court team, and that's not how this team is supposed to play."
Coach Mike Krzyzewski cautions that his team lost plenty of experience with the graduation of seniors Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek, and the Blue Devils will still have to improve throughout the season.
"It's definitely a challenge," Smith said. "It's a new year. We have to learn. It's new players and a new style."
In Chapel Hill, Williams is still trying to figure out how his team ended up in the top 10 of the AP preseason poll after last season's 17-loss letdown. The Tar Heels failed to consistently work hard, defend or take care of the ball.
Williams tried to give his team's toughness a boost by increasing the intensity of the preseason conditioning program. But the most important improvement for this team will be whether it can rack up points.
"For me, I think we have a chance to be better, and we're working at it each and every day," Williams said. "But it does help to be able to score - that's the bottom line. Coaches love to talk about guys who dive on the floor and draw charges, but that thing that drops down from the ceiling and hangs on the wall is the scoreboard. And you better be able to put the ball in the basket."
The Tar Heels' usual light-'em-up attack averaged only 74.5 points last season, and the team failed to score 80 points in any ACC game. The hope is that the incoming freshmen - led by wing Harrison Barnes, who last week became the first rookie to make The Associated Press Preseason All-America first team - can help that endeavor.
"He can take the ball to the basket, he can shoot from the outside, he can get an offensive rebound and turn all those into baskets," Williams said. "... But his strongest suit right now is his discipline, his focus, his desire, his willingness to make sacrifices. It's a strange routine; [former UNC All-America] Tyler Hansbrough did all those things over a four-year period and got it stronger each and every year. I think Harrison, at this stage, is even more driven, more focused and more disciplined than Tyler was. It remains to be seen if he's going to increase it every year like Tyler did. But you know, it's pretty impressive."
Meanwhile, Lowe has talked over the past four seasons about rebuilding State's program. Now seems the best time to prove he's done it - or possibly risk losing his job.
"I can't predict what's going to happen," Lowe said. "But I'm not coaching this team any different because I think it's an NCAA team. I coach the team we have. I'm certainly hoping that's something we'll deal with; our goal to get there."
Lowe said he's not thinking about his job security - only about how to get the best out of his team.
The Pack returns three starters and two others who played significant minutes from last year's squad, which made a strong season-ending run by advancing to the ACC tournament semifinals, then losing in the second round of the NIT. Adding freshmen C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown and Ryan Harrow means Lowe has to adjust his lineup - but he also hopes that lineup will be faster paced.
State hasn't made the NCAA tournament since Herb Sendek's final season in 2006. Doing so in March would go a long way toward proving the Pack is back - both on the national scene and in the three-team Triangle rivalry.
"It's a great feeling as a player, when you have bragging rights around here, so to speak," Lowe said. "...You might see them in the mall sometimes, the guys from Duke and Carolina, and get to say, 'We got you guys this time.' And I think our guys, now that people are talking about N.C. State coming back, once they experience those wins a little bit, they'll really understand."
Staff writer Ken Tysiac contributed to this report.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-8944