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Three days on Tobacco Road

By Jim O’Connell

Associated Press

To college basketball fans, it’s a small patch of heaven: Three schools with championship banners and fanatic followings.

For three days this week, the ACC-Big Ten Challenge provided an opportunity available in only one place — Tobacco Road.

Michigan at North Carolina State on Monday. Indiana at Duke on Tuesday. Ohio State at North Carolina on Wednesday.

It was a Tobacco Road sweep. But it’s the memories of the flavor of the games — and the chance to savor college basketball history — not the results, that linger.

“I think here we take it for granted, I really believe that,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, a native of North Carolina who was an assistant to Dean Smith for 10 seasons before coaching Kansas for 15 seasons. Williams returned to Chapel Hill in 2003, becoming part of Tobacco Road again.

“The years I was at Kansas I used to sit back and say ‘Wow, it is eight miles away, 20 miles away with the games you have,”‘ Williams said. “If I was a retired coach living in this area I’d suck up to every one of those coaches and make sure I had tickets every night. And then just sit there and watch some of them sweat and some of them get ticked off, and then go back, lay down on the bed and say I get to watch two more of them tomorrow night.

“I think it’s something special that we have that nobody can say they have, and they can’t emulate what we have. It’s pretty special around here.”

North Carolina State

At Raleigh’s RBC Center, the

7-year-old home of the Wolfpack, the school’s two national championship banners hang with one

celebrating the 2005-06 Stanley Cup, courtesy of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes who share the

building.

On game night, pucks are a distant thought.

It’s all about red.

The signature moment that fires up the crowd each game is when the trumpet players, anywhere from 15 to 30 of them wearing red-and-white striped shirts, bolt from their seats behind one basket at the start of a media timeout and head for one side of the crowd.

They play a few quick bars to encourage that section to stand and cheer, then repeat it two more times at other sides. They end their frantic performance by running in front of a section of students and breaking into the school fight song. By the time play is about to resume, the whole building is standing and cheering.

The arena is next to Carter-Finley Stadium, the home of the Wolfpack football team. Both buildings are a couple of miles from campus, but the students attend the basketball games in force.

The Wolfpack played in Reynolds Coliseum for 50 years, leaving the on-campus facility in 1999 having won 75 percent of their games there. School officials made sure to keep the intimacy of Reynolds intact. Just like it was there, the students ring the court in the RBC Center, getting the prime seats that usually go to celebrities in a professional building.

“We want them as close as possible in here, because we know they’re going to support our guys. Hopefully that will be an advantage for us when we come in here,” said first-year coach Sidney Lowe, a starter on the Wolfpack’s 1983 national championship team coached by Jim Valvano.

Lowe admits the RBC Center, which seats 19,722, doesn’t have the homeyness of Reynolds. Close your eyes, though, and the noise level isn’t far off.

“Obviously when you come in here it’s a huge, huge arena so you’re thinking you won’t get that closed-in feeling,” Lowe said. “Our fans get into it and get so loud they get our guys going. This is a beautiful facility. It’s hard not to like it.”

Duke

Cameron Indoor Stadium. The 66-year-old building, shrine to many, is the home of college basketball’s most fervent fans — the Cameron Crazies.

To get the first look at them, walk around the outside of the building and come upon Krzyzewskiville, the tent city set up for big games to decide who gets the right at the first chance for the prime spots — not seats — in the student section.

Each tent represents a group of students, and one of them must be there at all times. (There are people checking to make sure.) They become canvas dorm rooms with people studying, sleeping or just building up a hate for the next opponent, especially if it happens to be North Carolina.

When the weather cooperates, as it has this late November, plenty of time can be spent outside the tents, making Krzyzewskiville look like any other college quad with footballs and frisbees flying. The big thrill is always a visit from the man for whom the “town” is named, and he usually arrives with pizzas and a heartfelt thank you.

When the students, some of whom have been waiting for as long as weeks if it’s the Carolina game, finally get the chance to enter Cameron and sprint for the bleachers at midcourt, it’s a running of the bulls in blue grease paint.

Inside, Cameron has the feel of a hallowed hall with ornate woodwork and spotlights on the three national championship banners.

Then the game starts.

The noise never stops. Well, just for a second — when Duke attempts a free throw.

Students are known for their ability to find a way to get under the opposition’s skin. First-year Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson was cited after an NCAA inquiry into his program at Oklahoma found nearly 600 improper recruiting telephone calls.

During the first TV timeout, the Duke students as one brought out their cell phones, held them toward the Indiana bench and chanted “Call me, Kelvin.” That’s tame compared to some of their past pranks, but their loyalty never has been questioned.

“From my visits here when I was being recruited out of high school I think I noticed it more when I wasn’t playing in the game,” sophomore forward Josh McRoberts said of his fellow students who make up about one-third of the 9,314 in attendance, all in the lower level. “Now I kind of get focused in on the game. It can be loud, and when it’s loud you have to concentrate more on the game. Our crowd definitely gives us a huge lift.”

North Carolina

The Smith Center is named for the man who’s the winningest coach in Division I history — for a few more weeks anyway until Bob Knight passes him.

Former coach Dean Smith is the face of Carolina basketball, and the building that bears his name is one of the most underrated in college basketball.

What makes the “Dean Dome” so special are the banners. The five for the national championships are at one end. Across the way are 44 jerseys, hanging in rows, honoring former players. First-time visitors crane their necks and squint, nearly all looking for one more than any other.

No. 23, also known as Michael Jordan, is second from the right in the first row.

With a capacity of 21,592, the 20-year-old arena with theater seats has received an unfair knock as the home of a “wine and cheese” crowd.

Not anymore.

To help erase the staid image the Tar Heel crowds always have had compared to Duke and N.C. State, rows of those cushioned seats were taken out from behind one basket a few years ago. Now, students stand on risers there the entire game. The grease paint is a different shade of blue than that of their Duke counterparts, but the intensity level isn’t far off.

“I think I’ve never been in a building that was as loud as that building was at times,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.

Staid no. Proper, yes.

When some students began chanting “over-rated” at Ohio State near the end of Wednesday’s game, coach Williams had the public address announcer tell them to stop.

“That’s not the way we cheer here at Carolina,” he said.

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