March is always a special month in hoops-crazy North Carolina. The madness might reach a new level in 2009.
The state leads the nation in top-10 basketball teams, with five
holding single-digit rankings in the men's and women's Top 25 - the
most in nearly four years. Missing from the list is Stephen Curry's
Davidson, but last year's tournament darling is lingering just
outside the rankings.
With conference play starting soon and tournament time rolling
around not long after, it's college hoops - and those
always-intense Tobacco Road rivalries - that are sure to dominate
the headlines in the new year.
"It's such a bastion of basketball," second-year Duke women's
coach Joanne P. McCallie said of her first foray into the
phenomenon that is March Madness in North Carolina. "It's almost
Three men's teams from North Carolina - No. 1 North Carolina,
No. 5 Duke and No. 6 Wake Forest - were a combined 33-1 through
Sunday night's games and are ranked in the top 6 for the first time
since the final poll of the 2005 season. They're joined by two
women's teams, the second-ranked Tar Heels and McCallie's
sixth-ranked Blue Devils, who were a combined 23-1 through Sunday.
It's a state where national TV appearances are an everyday
occurrence, and where it's common to see future Hall of Fame
coaches on the sidelines.
Naturally, the draw of taking on highly-ranked instate opponents
with bragging rights on the line has players ready for January.
"It's going to be big-time," North Carolina point guard Ty
Lawson said. "I'm ready to play all these top teams. We've been
playing teams ... Valparaiso, I'm not saying they're bad, but
they're not as highly ranked, so I just can't wait to open the
season in the conference."
The state's unique college-centric dynamic - three schools with
a combined nine men's NCAA titles are located in the 30 mile
Triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, plus a Wake Forest
program that's just an hour or so down the road - makes the
flareups that come with familiarity seemingly inevitable.
The most memorable recent spat came last February, when a radio
station misquoted Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's objecting to an
unnamed school's injury-reporting policies, prompting North
Carolina's Roy Williams to say an unnamed person should "coach
their own damn team."
"It's distinctly different (than anyplace else) because there's
just so much coverage of so many teams all the time," said
McCallie, who left Michigan State for Durham before last season.
"It's intense. It's exciting to see the stories and exciting to do
our part in trying to get women's basketball into the forefront as
well. ... Very, very different than the Big Ten."
Different, indeed. The state features two players - North
Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough, the Tar Heels' all-time leading
scorer, and Davidson's Curry, who is averaging 30 points per game -
who are leading contenders for national player of the year honors.
All of North Carolina's teams are hoping for a home-court
advantage of sorts once their NCAA tournaments begin. The men hope
the selection committee sends them to Greensboro for the first and
second rounds, while the women are after the top seed in the
following weekend's Raleigh Regional.
"That's why I came - for ACC basketball and the traditions,"
McCallie said. "There are challenges within those traditions, but
I wouldn't trade it. It's so neat where basketball is so primary in
what goes on around here."