Commentary

N.C. State-UNC regional final possibility rekindles fire of old

Kansas City StarMarch 22, 2012 

This is how it worked: Mr. Andruzzi and his son Mike picked me up in their Karmann Ghia and gears would grind for a couple of miles to N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum.

As a red-blazer Wolfpack Club member, Mr. Andruzzi was assigned to one of the many doors and took his position before the gates opened for basketball games. Knowing where his dad was stationed, Mike and I would knock, in code. Mr. Andruzzi told us to do that, but I think he was having fun.

He cracked the door wide enough for us to slip in, and Mike and I knew our place, Section 11, top of the aisle, our concrete bleachers. From there, a couple of junior high kids during the early ’70s watched the best college basketball in the land.

David Thompson, Tommy Burleson, Monte Towe, Tim Stoddard, Mo Rivers and Phil Spence off the bench. I remember the lineup, the bench, the recruiting class, the fight songs, coach Norm Sloan’s fashion statements, and North Carolina coming to town for the most intense games of the season.

Memories of those days shortened an early-morning ride home from Omaha, Neb., after watching Kansas somehow defeat Purdue last weekend to complete the Midwest Region bracket that puts Kansas, N.C. State and North Carolina under one roof in St. Louis tonight.

For more than two decades at the Kansas City Star, I’ve had the fortune of working for a newspaper that values college sports coverage, as the newspapers in North Carolina do. That I can recite lead paragraphs to stories in The (Raleigh) News and Observer and The Raleigh Times during the Thompson era probably was clue that my vocation was unavoidable.

During that time, this notion also was unavoidable: N.C. State-North Carolina was the best rivalry going.

There might be two sets of people who take issue with North Carolina-Duke as the game’s all-time hate-fest: those who know anything about Kansas-Missouri, a rivalry called Border War with its origin in bloodshed and hostilities predating the Civil War, and those who were around N.C. State-North Carolina during the 1970s.

I can speak to both. So can North Carolina coach Roy Williams.

We used to talk about this when I covered Williams’ Kansas teams during the 1990s, that people in the Midwest didn’t appreciate the passion of ACC basketball and ACC folks were indifferent toward college basketball’s historical roots in Kansas. After all, the buildings that house North Carolina’s and Kentucky’s programs were named for a couple of Jayhawks - Dean Smith and Phog Allen.

The weekday afternoon games of March, I was delighted to find, brought the same disruption in work and school in Kansas City, Mo., as Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro.

As for N.C. State-North Carolina in the day, you had to be there. I was, thanks to Mr. Andruzzi. And for a few years, the Wolfpack dominated. From the final meeting in 1972, through N.C. State’s ACC title seasons into Thompson’s senior season in 1975, N.C. State owned the series and I didn’t miss a game against North Carolina, Maryland, Appalachian State or anybody at Reynolds.

On N.C. State-North Carolina game days, you showed up at school in red or Carolina blue and argued Burleson, Towe, Bobby Jones and George Karl. But Thompson, as he did in most games, ended the discussion. The Tar Heels had no answer. Nobody did.

Maryland posed the bigger threat to N.C. State for a while, and for drama and excellence I’ll see you Duke-Kentucky in the 1992 regional final and raise you N.C. State-Maryland in the 1974 ACC title game. Unless you want to go N.C. State-UCLA two weeks later in the national semifinal in Greensboro. I’ll buy that argument as well.

A freshman flipped the fortunes in N.C. State-North Carolina with Phil Ford’s remarkable performance in the 1975 ACC tournament. After that, the best rivalry going seemed to be North Carolina against ACC flavor of the moment, until coach Mike Krzyzewski arrived at Duke in 1980. This was about the time the NCAA bracket and coverage swelled, and Duke-North Carolina grew with it.

Kansas fans are burning plenty of nervous energy over this weekend. Confronting their Jayhawks tonight is an athletic N.C. State team assigned the same No. 11 seed as the fearless Virginia Commonwealth squad that denied them the Final Four last year. If seeds hold, there’s old Roy and the entire former Kansas staff against his old school, as it was in the 2008 national semifinal, in a winner-cut-the-nets.

Television would love that matchup. But judging from the messages I’ve received from Raleigh friends this weekend, an N.C. State-North Carolina regional final would be huge, maybe the biggest thing to hit the rivalry since the days of the Karmann Ghia.

Blair Kerkhoff covers Kansas and writes columns for the Kansas City Star. He grew up in Raleigh and is a 1981 graduate of Appalachian State. Reach him at bkerkhoff@kcstar.com

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