Future Shock: Tobacco Road becomes one way street

Matt takes a look into his crystal ball and sees what Atlantic Coast Conference basketball might look like down the road. That is if the "Big Four" were split up due to expansion. ...

RALEIGH, N.C. - Two old foes will meet for the first - and perhaps last - time this season tonight when Herb Sendek's NC State Wolfpack (22-5 overall, 13-2, ACC, 9-1 ACC South) hosts Roy Williams' North Carolina Tar Heels (24-4, 12-3 ACC, 8-2 ACC North) at a sure-to-be raucous RBC Center. Bragging rights are the only things at stake in what has become one of the best college basketball rivalries in the nation. But that's just fine with the players and fans of these two schools.

Most experts expect the Pack and the Heels, easily the best two teams in their respective divisions of the Atlantic Coast Conference, to eventually meet in next week's 2011 ACC Tournament final at Boston's Fleet Center; however, that won't diminish the excitement and energy that the Pack's home court is sure to possess tonight.

After all, it's hard to forget last year's lone meeting between State and Carolina at the Smith Center. UNC stormed from 9 points down in the closing three minutes to stun Sendek's team and leave Pack fans with an excruciatingly bitter taste in their mouth - that lasted the entire year. (State missed an opportunity to get revenge on the Heels at the ACC Tournament in Greensboro when Syracuse stunned the Pack in the semifinals, 87-84. Carolina knocked off the pesky Orangemen in the finals.)

"We know what's at stake," said State sophomore guard Reynolds Smith. "If we don't win this game, we'll hear about it for the rest of the year. Last year's loss hurt, and hurt bad. We want them to know how it feels."

Smith and his teammates ran away from the rest of the South with relative ease this season - with the exception of a 65-56 loss at Wake Forest back in January. The Tar Heels lost just two times in the very competitive North Division - Maryland tripped UNC up in College Park, 81-80; and Virginia bested UNC in Charlottesville by three.

Both teams have their seeds secure for the ACC Tournament (and most likely the NCAA Tournament). They also have already wrapped up regular-season division championships. But the always-important bragging rights are at stake tonight.

"Listen, I've been a State fan for as long as I can remember," said Smith, whose father named him after Reynolds Coliseum. "But only getting one shot a year at Carolina and Duke is amazing ... I can't correctly put into words how emotional and electric those games are.

"I can remember, as a kid, watching that first State-Carolina game of the year and thinking, 'Well, if we lose this one we always get one more shot at them.' We don't have that luxury anymore. And I think it's incredible. It's added so much to this rivalry."

Incredible indeed. The splitting up of the "Big Four" - State, Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest - was one of the main sticking points when the ACC expanded back in 2003. The four schools wanted to stay in the same division, but then-Commissioner John Swofford had to figure out a way to keep everyone happy. Seven years later, it appears he did.

While the ACC's two divisions were supposed to be split on a primarily geographic border, the four North Carolina schools were not. Duke and Carolina lobbied hard to remain in the same division, citing the necessity of keeping basketball's best rivalry (at the time) intact. Ultimately they won out and Wake and State were sent to the South along with Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Miami. The saving grace for Wake and State was that they would get their other "Big Four" rivals as the last regular-season games - after playing its 10 divisional games. (State knocked off Duke on Saturday; UNC topped Wake on Sunday.)

Seven years later, the State-Carolina regular-season match-up is the ACC's most-anticipated game, while Carolina-Duke has become an also-ran due primarily to Mike Krzyzewski's retirement three years ago. Coach K's departure sent Duke into a tailspin from which it has not been able to recover.

Though the Duke-Carolina game is still an exciting rivalry, it has been surpassed by State-Carolina mainly because of the infrequency of the Pack-Heels' match-up.

"You can tell that the fans really want this one badly," said UNC center Sam E. Worthy. "Don't get me wrong: they still want us to beat Duke, but this is the one shot we get at those guys [State].

"We don't want to blow this one."

UNC fans have been using what connections they have to land a seat at the RBC Center, but with little luck. All 19,000-plus seats have been sold out for months. State students camped out for three weeks to get prime seats, but in the end around 10,000 students were turned away.

"It's always a big deal when we play Carolina," said State alum Dave Evans of Emerald Isle. "But I just can't fathom going to work tomorrow and facing my Tar Heel co-workers. I'll have to hear about it for a whole year."

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