The Big Four — Sans One

Dean Smith could be petty, and he could definitely be persnickety. But like many people who achieve greatness, Smith had many facets to his personality.

In the proper setting, he could be exceedingly polite. He was taught to be polite and he wanted to be polite, whether he achieved his goal or not.

So it was Dean just being Dean when he walked out onto the Greensboro Coliseum court before North Carolina’s game against N.C. State early in the 1974-75 season. He noticed that directly behind the Tar Heel bench sat a fan of Wake Forest, which would play Duke in the second game that evening.

“I want to apologize in advance,’’ Smith told the Wake fan. “My players stand to acknowledge a teammate’s good play, and you may have your view blocked.’’

Hugh Strickland, a fan so devoted to have set some kind of record by attending 339 straight Wake basketball games – home and away – looked up from the newspaper he was perusing.

“Oh that’s OK, coach,’’ Strickland replied. “I’m just going to sit here and read my paper until the varsity game starts.’’

It’s important to remember that there was a time – once upon a time – when one devoted to Wake basketball had not only the temerity, but the well-earned right to rib a fan, player or even coach of a rival ACC school – and get away with it.

“Good one,’’ Smith acknowledged with a grin.

It’s also important to remember that the occasion was an early-season tournament played from the 1970-71 season through the 1980-81 campaign called the Big Four Tournament. The coaches hated it, but the fans loved squaring off against their traditional rivals so early to start establishing bragging rights for the next three months.

The Big Four, at the time, was as select a group as there was in all of college basketball. To be in the Big Four meant that you not only played in the ACC, but were a member in good standing of the inner ring of the ACC.

If you don’t believe it, check out the first 17 seasons of ACC play. Teams from the Big Four – N.C. State, North Carolina, Duke and Wake – won 16 championships.

And while you’re at it, check out the next 13 seasons, when teams from the Big Four won 11 more titles.

To be a member of the Big Four meant you were the crème de la crème of college basketball.

Wake was never the scourge of the Big Four. Of those 16 championships before 1970-71, N.C. State won six, Duke and North Carolina won four each and Wake won two.

But Wake had a way of rising to the occasion against its blood rivals, and teams from N.C. State, Duke and North Carolina knew from experience to expect a game when they played the Deacons. Wake really made its mark in the aforementioned Big Four Tournament, winning the event four times and making the finals twice more.

In short, Wake was never the class of the Big Four, but there was no doubt that the Deacons belonged.

One doesn’t hear the term Big Four very often anymore in basketball, and for good reason. The sobriquet is as antiquated as another term used back then for ACC basketball as played by North Carolina schools, Tobacco Road.

Just how antiquated the term Big Four is happened to be on full display last night on ESPN, with the doubleheader of Duke playing at Wake and North Carolina playing at N.C. State. I watched both games intently, and was impressed by the play of three of those teams.

The Wolfpack didn’t have its best showing, and will struggle to beat anybody of note this season with Markell Johnson making only one of seven attempts from 3-point range. But the team clearly has a new spring in its step under second-year coach Kevin Keatts, enough so to be ranked No. 15 going into ACC play.

And unless I miss my bet, the Wolfpack will enter the final week of the regular season with at least a shot of earning a double bye at the ACC Tournament. I’ll also be surprised if either Duke or North Carolina are playing before Thursday in Charlotte.

All of which make the demise of Wake basketball that much harder to take for those of us old enough to remember who the Deacons once were and realize how far they’ve fallen. What we saw once again last night is that given the downward trajectory of the last eight (going on nine) seasons Wake is lucky to even belong to the ACC, much less an aggregate extolled enough to be called the Big Four.

Les Johns, to my mind, nailed his lede when he wrote in Demon Deacon Digest that “Duke played with its food a bit Tuesday night.’’ Les noted how the Blue Devils, hardly known for their 3-point eye, spent the first half launching 15 3-pointers and turning the ball over nine times.

And still led by eight at halftime.

Mike Krzyzewski hasn’t won 1,040 games and five national championships at Duke by being slow in the uptick, which rendered the adjustments made at halftime so thoroughly predictable. The message was clear: Take the ball to the rack and dare Wake to stop you.

Barely more than a minute into the second half – by which time Duke had scored four point-blank baskets on its first three possessions en route to a 50-36 lead – the game was over and settled. Unfortunately for the Deacons, the carnage continued.

The Blue Devils crossed mid-court with the basketball 36 times in the second half, and scored on 22 of those excursions. But here’s the real indictment against the defense as played by the Deacons.

Sixteen of those 22 successful possessions resulted in points scored from inside two-feet. And many of those were uncontested.

To get shredded by Duke is going to happen from time to time, even to good teams. The Blue Devils are that potent.

The problem at Wake is that it doesn’t take a Duke or North Carolina or N.C. State to eviscerate the Deacons’ defense. On a good night, even a Houston Baptist or Gardner-Webb can do it.

The bigger problem is that the inability to stop the other team from scoring has persisted from the day that Danny Manning became head coach before the 2014-15, infamously belying his boast that his program would be one that would “hang its hat on defense.’’

And as Conor O’Neill astutely noted in his game story for the Winston-Salem Journal, the Deacons’ defense – instead of improving – continues to regress dramatically.

Wake has never been ranked bv KenPom better than No. 125 in defensive efficiency. This season’s team, the fifth with Manning at the helm, was ranked No. 213 even before last night’s blood-letting.

Conor also pointed out how in three games against teams from Power Five conferences, Wake has been torched for 92 by Georgia Tech, 82 by Duke and 81 by Tennessee.

If there’s an explanation for the implosion of a once-proud program I have yet to hear it. Krzyzewski was asked on this week’s ACC teleconference leading into last night’s game why Manning was having such a hard time righting the Deacons’ ship in basketball.

“You should ask Coach Manning that,’’ Krzyzewski replied. “He’s on later.’’

Les Johns, to his credit, did exactly that to conclude last night’s post-game presser.

“What’s it going to take – micro-level – to get the Wake Forest program to where it can compete again with the Dukes of the world?’’

And Manning’s answer?

If you heard one, that makes one of us.

“We don’t have enough time,’’ Manning said, presumably meaning the amount of time it would take to answer the question. “There are a lot of different things that go into it. The bottom line is that when you step out on the court, you have to find a way. You’ve got to find a way.

“You have to be able to compete, and compete every possession. And I thought there were some possessions when we did a good job competing. But it’s got to be the mindset that ‘We’re going to win every possession.’

“And there were too many empty possessions for us tonight.’’

Hugh Strickland died 18 years ago and I still miss him, though I am lucky enough to know his son Gary – the long-time scorekeeper for Wake basketball – and his grandsons David, Michael and Scott. The one solace I have is Hugh didn’t live long enough to see what has become of his beloved Wake basketball, or have to listen to Danny Manning try to explain it away.

13 thoughts on “The Big Four — Sans One

  1. You summed it up very well Dan, especially for us old-timers who truly loved watching Wake routinely upset the likes of UNC and Duke, way back when. The end is near for Coach Manning, make no mistake about that, but will the pain of Wake’s once loyal fan base be alleviated soon enough to matter? One can only hope and pray that it does. It’s well beyond time for the Deacs to ascend back to their rightful place in the top half of the ACC echelon.

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  2. Wonderful story about Dean Smith. It’s why I love the ACC. Even as a die hard Deac fan (class of 71), I can take joy in the ACC’s other schools. Dan, do you remember the Maryland – South Carolina slowdowns?

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    1. Indeed I do Henry, and not too fondly. The shot clock saved basketball by saving coaches from themselves. Remember the early 80s when neither team wanted to shoot because it meant giving up the ball? Everybody remembers the 1982 championship, which was a tragedy to see great players like James Worthy, Ralph Sampson and Sam Perkins holding the ball. But I’ll never forget State and Maryland coming off the court at halftime of the first round, and a spontaneous booing raining down from fans seeing tired, slow-down basketball. State won that one 40-28. Ugh. Again, the shot-clock saved the game.

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  3. I was at the Duke game, and we have what used to be considered premium seats. Years ago, seats a few rows from the court like ours were filled with well-healed contributors to the Deacon Club. On Tuesday night, everyone around us was wearing Duke Blue. But at least the seats were filled. Sadly, that is the first time that has happened this season. I have been going to Wake BB games since 1971. Over the course of those 48 years, never has Wake basketball been this bad.

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  4. Some friends of mine who are dook fans, attended the game. I met them at half-time. I was pleased that we were competitive at the half. I do remember one remark from them and that was they were shocked at how “dead” the Joel was. I had thought the crowd was pretty into it, but then, in reflection, realized that not once had I jumped to my feet or heard a real thunderous roar. That’s what happens when you watch Wake basketball…you sit there waiting for the other shoe to drop, knowing what the inevitable is.

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  5. Well written. My Uncle use to advertise his insurance business with a “big four “calendar which listed by date every game. Growing up was a Big Four lifestyle. It helped make me who I am, Deacon for life.

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  6. Perhaps my observations are wrong here, but it seems as though in the past, when Wake was a fierce member of the ACC and could counted on to be very competitive , it did so with far fewer resources than most of its conference foes. Despite this, the team was almost always in the hunt. Again, I haven’t fact checked this, but my recollection was even seasons with losing conference records were filled with “almost” upsets, where Wake nearly pulled off the improbable, as opposed to getting crushed regularly. (Side note, those games might actually have hurt more, in some ways). Then of course there were the times of great success, be it in ACC tournament, pulling off upsets, Elite 8 appearances, or even Big Four titles. Flash forward to today, and it seems (to my eye, anyway), Wake is keeping up with its competition in the nuclear arms race of facilities and amenities, yet we seem to be falling behind in the standings. Not sure if this is a valid point, but it seems to me that the coaches who had success (McKinney, Tacy, Odom, Prosser), did so despite not having an open checkbook at their disposal.

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  7. Really enjoy reading your blog, Dan. Good writing on bad basketball. I was a freshman at Wake in the fall of 2010 and never remember any type of winning tradition from Wake basketball. Unfortunately that hasn’t stopped me from caring too much about the program. Keep up the good work.

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