When the ACC expanded to 11 and then 12 schools a few years ago, the new members were worried about UNC and Duke running away from the pack in basketball. So they asked to be treated equally in every tangible way, and from that came the cockamamie schedule in which some old Tobacco Road rivals don’t play each other twice a year like in the past.
Well, with the regular season now rendered meaningless beyond what kind of ranking and RPI teams can achieve in order to get into the NCAA Tournament, their worst fears have come home to roost. More than ever, the ACC has become the BIG TWO and little ten in basketball. What are the only two games that mean anything before March Madness? Duke at Carolina and Carolina at Duke.
There has been no truer indication of that dichotomy over this four-day span in which UNC played in the unique and most unusual college basketball opener of all time, which with all of its pomp and circumstance still gave ESPN plenty of time to promote Duke’s game Tuesday night when Mike Krzyzewski will try to break the all-time record for coaching victories.
The unfortunate foil in that game is also Michigan State, a decorated program on its own that just happens to be in a rebuilding year under Coach Tom Izzo.
Those lucky enough to be on the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego Bay Friday night experienced what TV could not truly capture. From the Sports Center build-up more than an hour before tip-off, through the pageantry and Presidential procession on the deck of a naval aircraft carrier, it looked like the coolest thing ever on a cool, clear night in Southern California.
Many of us had seen the time-lapse video of how the Carl Vinson was converted from a flight deck that can hold more than 40 fighter planes to a basketball arena surrounded by stands accommodating 7,000 fans – in a mere 10-day span. But seeing the vessel filled to capacity, mostly with fully festooned military men and women, was a sight that might have made Carolina coach Roy Williams woozy with a relapse of his vertigo-like condition.  
Williams was pinching himself all week – that a poor kid from a broken home in Asheville, North Carolina, had risen to a place where he walked with the President and helped celebrate the armed forces on this once-a-century Veteran’s Day 11/11/11. When you saw him looking a little puffy and teary-eyed, it’s a good bet that Williams was wishing his deceased parents and sister could see him now and be there with him on, truly, a night to remember.
Yes, it was a college basketball game between two traditional powers to tip off the 2011-12 season, but it seemed so much more than that. The brain child of Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis, who has close ties to the Navy, it took five or six years to go from an idea conceived on a paper tablecloth in a Maryland restaurant to reality. When the promoters and ESPN signed on, Izzo called Williams as his first choice to be the unprecedented opponent.
Once he grasped the concept, Williams said Carolina was “all in” no matter where the carrier would be at the time of the game – in the Pacific Ocean, docked in some faraway port, or moored off the coast of California. Everything else with regard to scheduling the new season revolved around the Tar Heels being there for this momentous moment in time. His players will have to get their sea legs back and come down to Earth to toil in regular old roof-covered gyms, arenas, coliseums and domes!  
Likely to be Carolina’s first and last time in the Carrier Classic, it magnified the Tar Heel basketball program and in turn helped recruiting. Don’t you know the other 10 teams in the ACC, plus even Duke, were envious over all the attention being bestowed on this special night. More than one coach around the country must have mumbled to himself, “How the hell are we going to compete with that!”
For obvious reasons, the Navy and U.S. government had no expense in this endeavor. All the money passed through the promoter (Morale Entertainment), World Wide Leader (ESPN) and major sponsors (Quicken Loans and State Farm), thus costing each school a ton to take its traveling party across the country. But, even in times of budget cuts and athletic scrutiny, this was one bill worth paying.
Once the game began, it seemed a bit anticlimactic. Shots and free throws were clanging, and most of Michigan State’s success was lunch pail stuff on the offensive glass. After Carolina ramped up its defense, the talent differential in the two teams became apparent. The Tar Heels are loaded and deep off the bench, and when they get back to just playing basketball  will be one tough out in any game.
Despite the backdrop and emotion, the Carrier Classic was not without its commercialism. At halftime, State Farm sponsored a shooting contest involving super model Brooklyn Decker, a Charlotte native and Carolina fan who is married to yet another A-Rod (tennis star And Roddick; with Yankees star Alex Rodriguez and Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, the nickname is suddenly not so special).
Honorary team captains were Magic Johnson, the multimillionaire Michigan State alum, and James Worthy, stepping in at the last minute for Michael Jordan who had an “unspecified commitment” (a late tee time in Cabo, perhaps, now that the NBA remains in lockout?). Tyler Hansbrough also made an appearance along with a litany of other stars from the sports and entertainment world. There was even a concert for the troops after the game ended and the stands were cleared.
ESPN reminded us they would be back at 7 p.m. Tuesday night from Madison Square Garden, where Michigan State would be playing Duke in what could be Krzyzewski’s 903rd career win, surpassing his mentor Bobby Knight, who surpassed our mentor Dean Smith five years ago. The assumption was that Coach K would win Nos. 901 ad 902 over the weekend, which he accomplished after barely surviving unknown and underrated Belmont University later Friday evening.
So now the scene shifts to New York and the media frenzy that will surround the new “winningest” coach in college basketball history – unless Izzo’s front line can handle Duke’s. Not much downside there since Duke returns home to play Davidson Friday and K can break the record before the Cameron Crazies.
Within a four day span, the two monster programs eight miles apart will get more isolated coverage than during March Madness, and whether it happens early this week or late Krzyzewski will own the most wins among major college coaches – something Smith accomplished when he passed Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp 15 seasons ago at the 1997 NCAA Tournament in Winston-Salem.
For those Tar Heels who are sad the massive spotlight that began the weekend shining on your heroes has shifted to the team and coach you love to hate, here are a few things to consider.
Roy Williams could very well win his third national championship on April 2 in New Orleans, which would put him only one behind Krzyzewski’s four, and with ol’ Roy still bringing in the recruiting hauls through at least the 2017-18 season, two or three more titles is not out of the question.
As for the coaching record, Williams started too late to catch Krzyzewski, who is likely to work the refs five more years until he’s 70 and won more than 1,000 games. But there is one thing we can say about Roy’s guru that you cannot say about both Coach Ks (Knight and Krzyzewski).
When the Dean broke the record, he had coached fewer seasons than either of them – and won all his games at the same school. So there.