ACC basketball’s February brings food for thought

The line is almost as ubiquitous in cop dramas as “You’ve got 24 hours” or “Keep me posted.” Confronted by an unlikely convergence of events, the seasoned detective turns to a ready foil and sagely declares, “I don’t believe in coincidences.”

Sure enough, in fiction coincidences eventually betray hidden truths to the intrepid investigator. When paths oddly cross in real life the background music doesn’t swell to indicate the importance of the moment. Instead we’re left to search for meaning that may or may not be there.

This month brings more than the usual harvest of basketball coincidences worth contemplating, all involving Hall of Fame ACC coaches.

To be sure, some convergences are more revealing than others. Unless you’re a devotee of astrology it’s difficult to know what, if anything, to make of the fact that four Hall of Fame basketball coaches who’ve worked the sidelines at Duke and North Carolina in the last two decades were born in February.

Former Blue Devil coach Gail Goestenkors, born on Feb. 26, 1963, was inducted last year into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Current UNC women’s coach Sylvia Hatchell was inducted in 2004 and will celebrate her 64th birthday on Feb. 28.

Hatchell shares the same birthdate as the late Dean Smith, her colleague at Chapel Hill for 11 years. He was born in 1931. Then there’s Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who celebrated his 69th birthday this past Saturday, Feb. 13, when his Blue Devils faced Virginia.

Krzyzewski and Duke played host on Feb. 8 to Rick Pitino, another Hall of Famer, and his top-20 team. The Cardinals came to Cameron Indoor Stadium and lost a hard-fought game just days after their school announced a self-imposed penalty that precluded postseason participation by the basketball program. That made Louisville the third ACC member added since 2005 that appears headed for NCAA probation.

Sitting out tournaments

Coincidentally Louisville announced it would peremptorily sit out both the ACC and NCAA tournament almost exactly a year to the February day that Syracuse, another new member with another Hall of Fame coach, Jim Boeheim, announced the same thing. (Miami was punished for lack of institutional control in 2013.)

Over the ACC’s first 60 seasons only two teams sat out the league tournament: North Carolina under Hall of Famer Frank McGuire in 1961 and Maryland in 1991 under Hall of Famer Gary Williams, who unlike McGuire inherited the mess that earned NCAA penalties. Now, in a two-year span the instances of self-exile have doubled.

As a result, for the second straight year the ACC tournament will include one fewer game, and one fewer ACC team will be eligible for the NCAA tournament. Reducing the pool of quality teams certainly doesn’t bolster the ACC’s case for greater representation in the NCAAs.

Embarrassing, if not unethical, missteps are not the best way to win over new fans, either, or to fit within a league with pretensions of adherence to high standards on and off the court. Boeheim received a “scathing admonition” from the NCAA for how he ran his program, according to USA Today. Part of Syracuse’s punishment was having the coach sit out nine games this season, a consequence mostly covered by the media for its impact on his team’s playing fortunes. Apparently many of us remain more interested in celebrating success than in how it’s achieved – unless we suspect foul play by a rival.

Boeheim denied knowledge of wrongdoing, the same defense used by Pitino to deflect blame for the recruiting/sex scandal involving his program. Clearly Louisville administrators thought something was amiss if they were willing to slap their own basketball team with penalties before the NCAA lowered the boom.

Responsible for program

Worse for Pitino, school officials may not be persuaded by the coach’s professions of ignorance regarding the actions of a former assistant who allegedly orchestrated bringing escorts to athletic facilities to entertain recruits. Some are surely aware of NCAA Division I Bylaw, in effect since August 2013 to address the sort of “plausible deniability” Richard Nixon and his crew made famous during the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s.

The rule states that “a head coach is presumed to be responsible for the actions of all staff members who report, directly or indirectly, to the head coach. The head coach will be held accountable for violations in the program unless he or she can rebut the presumption of responsibility.” The NCAA is rightly criticized for the thinking behind, and enforcement of, many of its regulations. But it’s difficult to argue against holding the captain responsible for the navigation of the ship.

With controversy swirling in the background, the Cardinals hosted yet another troubled program coached by yet another Hall of Famer a week before visiting Durham. On Feb. 1 Louisville faced Roy Williams’ powerful North Carolina squad, and handed the Tar Heels – still awaiting an NCAA verdict on bogus classes that affected eligibility at the school – their first ACC loss of the season.

Which brings us to a third point of February coincidence.

Krzyzewski had a bout of ill-health that sent him to the hospital for tests and observation the same day the Tar Heels faced Louisville. Assistant Jeff Capel, formerly a head coach at VCU and Oklahoma, took the helm, made key in-game adjustments, and rallied his alma mater from a halftime deficit to defeat Georgia Tech at Atlanta the following night.

Physical difficulties

Then, the day after the Devils beat Louisville, the Tar Heels took the court at Conti Forum against Boston College, winless in the ACC. Carolina struggled to seize a 69-65 victory, players shaken when Williams collapsed early in the second half due to vertigo, a chronic concern. A woozy Williams was escorted off the court and assistant Steve Robinson, formerly a head coach at Tulsa and Florida State, took over and piloted UNC to the win.

That both Williams, 65, and Krzyzewski experienced physical difficulties within days of one another surely was coincidental. That their bodies succumbed to stress, particularly as the pressures mounted to shape their teams for the season’s home stretch, was no coincidence at all.

“It’s a hard profession, it’s a really, really hard profession,” says Capel. “Every person in this profession works their butt off. They spend long hours in preparation, but especially the great ones and obviously Coach K and Coach Williams fall in that category. It’s draining.”

The associate head coach, who turned 41 on Feb. 12, said he was more enervated after being in charge against Georgia Tech than at any time during the five years since his return to Duke.

“When you look at guys that have accomplished what Coach K has, what Coach Williams has, (look) at their age, and they still have the fire and the passion, it’s not difficult to see how it could happen,” Capel says of the recent health scares. “You spend these long hours, you don’t get much sleep…

“You’re traveling so you’re not eating great, you’re not eating as healthy as you can. With things like that, it’s a lot. It’s a lot, and it wears on you. It’s draining. Especially when you get to this level. Especially when you get to February.”

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