As N.C. State wrapped up yet another win over Wake Forest on Saturday, a number of fans started chanting "Not our rival!" - the same chant North Carolina fans had used against the Wolfpack 10 days ago.
At that point, the Chapel Hill chant was a slam on a rival who had lost 11 straight games between the teams. By the time the ACC office got done manicuring the new 14-team, 18-game schedule, playing Edward Scissorhands with 60 years of basketball tradition Friday, it was a statement of ACC policy. The N.C. State fans on Saturday were protesting as much as they were gloating.
Instead of two guaranteed annual meetings with the Tar Heels, N.C. State was permanently linked to Wake Forest, a team that has now lost five straight against the Wolfpack by an average of 21.4 points after Saturday's 87-76 N.C. State win. Afterward, Fayetteville native C.J. Williams mourned the downgraded series with North Carolina.
"I never would have expected that," Williams said. "I would expect to play them twice every year. They're a very good team and we like to play against them and they're a big challenge for us."
Williams understands that nothing compares to the frisson generation by two massive public schools - the flagships, if you will - within the same state. About all Wake Forest and N.C. State can offer is Big Four tradition and Chris Paul's gentle caress of Julius Hodge.
From North Carolina's perspective, the rivalry with N.C. State will always be slightly imbalanced because of the preeminence of the rivalry with Duke. And that's fine, because there are few rivalries in sports that can compare. There are also few within the ACC that can compare to North Carolina and N.C. State, but that rivalry has been cast aside in favor of expediency and a yearly home-and-home with Wake Forest.
"It's disappointing. It is," N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. "I share the same disappointment with our fans. I'm new here, but I'm learning."
The ACC's dominance and success was built on rivalries like N.C. State and North Carolina, not the television markets delivered by ex-Big East schools or the money delivered by ESPN. Dilute those rivalries, and you risk destroying the product for which ESPN has paid so dearly.
This may have been the easiest way for the ACC to handle things, but in pursuit of some nebulous concept of equity, the core values of the league are being abandoned.
While Syracuse and Pittsburgh undoubtedly bring far more to the table in basketball than Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College, and will certainly fill more seats at the ACC tournament than the latter two, at what cost?
"You like to play all the best teams as many times as you can, but at the same time, we're adding two great teams, so if we can't play (North Carolina), so be it," N.C. State forward Scott Wood said. "I feel like anybody in the ACC is a rival for us."
A delicate answer, of the quality one would expect from someone who just went 6-for-10 from 3-point range, extended his free-throw streak to 64 and finished with a game-high 23 points as N.C. State beat Wake Forest yet again.
The ACC may sanction this as a rivalry, but the N.C. State fans are right: The Wolfpack has a bigger in-state rival, even if the conference will refuse to acknowledge that in the future.