The parallels were unmistakable, evoking a moment that helped to ratify the quality of ACC basketball more than 40 years ago.
In both instances a great ACC men’s basketball game, riveting national attention, was followed by a lopsided Super Bowl that only added luster to the excellence of the college contest that preceded it.
The timing of the games in 1973 was a bit different from 2014, but not much.
Back in ’73, there were few nationally televised college basketball games. It was an era of over-the-air “appointment viewing,” with Billy Packer and Dick Enberg on the broadcasts. The ACC was an eight-team league, and for a few years Maryland, North Carolina, and N.C. State all crowded the Associated Press Top 10.
Meanwhile the Super Bowl was still getting traction as a national event. Memories of the AFL-NFL merger were fresh, the championship game so new you could actually decipher the Roman numerals meant to lend gravitas to the proceedings.
In its seventh (VII) year, the big game pitted the undefeated Miami Dolphins, who’d lost the Super Bowl the previous year, against the 13-3 Washington Redskins. The teams had 11 Hall of Famers between them.
But before the NFL squads faced off for the NFL title at the Los Angeles Coliseum, two superlative squads met on the afternoon of January 14th in College Park, Maryland, in the first nationally televised broadcast of an ACC basketball game.
The action was fast, furious, and for the most part continuous in those days prior to required media timeouts. Both teams played tough defense. Second-ranked Maryland featured two All-ACC players, big men Tom McMillen and Len Elmore. Third-ranked N.C. State featured two all-conference players, David Thompson and Tom Burleson.
All four, plus Terp point guard John Lucas, went on to become first-round NBA draft choices. Thompson (1975) and Lucas (1976) were the top picks in consecutive years.
Burleson had 20 points and 15 rebounds against Maryland, presaging a transcendent performance against the Terps in the 1974 ACC Tournament finals, a contest still regarded as the best game in league history.
McMillen had 29 points and 14 rebounds against the Wolfpack in their first meeting of 1973. Four Terps scored in double figures, and the home team held a considerable edge on the boards.
Th advent of a permanent shot clock in the college game was more than a decade away, allowing undefeated N.C. State to stall for a last shot after rebounding a McMillen misfire with 1:45 remaining and the score tied.
Burleson launched an uncharacteristically long jumper as time ran down, and missed. But here came the 6-4 Thompson, the ACC’s leading scorer, soaring above the rim to tap in the deciding basket in an 87-85 victory. “It seemed like gravity didn’t affect him,” said teammate Phil Spence.
Thompson, a sophomore, finished with 37 points and became a national sensation. Elgin Baylor and Charles Scott had been prototypes for mobile wings who played above the rim, but David “Skywalker” Thompson raised the bar to new heights.
The Wolfpack would go on to the second and last undefeated season in ACC history, their ascent to immortality derailed temporarily by a probation that precluded NCAA tournament participation.
The next year Norman Sloan’s squad won the NCAA title, finishing a 57-1 run over two seasons unduplicated before or since in the ACC.
As for the ’73 Super Bowl, the Dolphins dominated en route to the only undefeated record in NFL history (17-0). Washington avoided a shutout when Miami kicker Garo Yepremian had a field goal blocked, regained control, and saw his weak, ill-advised pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
Now, fast-forward XLI years – 41 for those who don’t speak Super Bowl – to another anticlimactic NFL title game preceded by another benchmark ACC contest.
This time the football rout was engineered by the Seattle Seahawks defense and former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson. Seattle racked up 43 points and Denver avoided complete humiliation with a single touchdown, scored while down by 36 as the third quarter ended.
Meanwhile the weekend’s most arresting game was played in the ACC, defined by one clutch shot that worked and one soaring move to the basket that didn’t.
The first intra-league matchup between Duke and Syracuse was so good, so hotly contested throughout, and capped with such drama, ESPN replayed it the following day. That made it a fitting, and historically evocative, prelude to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Syracuse remains undefeated in its inaugural ACC season, but had to go to overtime on its home court to keep the streak alive. That the first meeting of the Orange and Blue Devils as conference rivals was attended by the largest crowd ever to see a game on a college campus only added to the electric atmosphere.
“You couldn’t script this any better,” declared ESPN’s Dick Vitale in a rare break from sentences that included the word “unbelievable.”
No one player dominated in the manner of Thompson against Maryland, although Syracuse’s C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant were the game’s only 20-point scorers and Tyler Ennis was the controlling presence at point.
On the other side, it was clutch sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon who made the 3-pointer that sent the game to overtime, just as his late three secured a home win over Virginia several weeks earlier.
Also, as in a loss at Notre Dame, it was a mishandled drive by Rodney Hood that sealed the outcome.
Hood’s failed dunk — on which he may or may not have been fouled (if it didn’t get called, it effectively didn’t happen) — left fans, if not participants, feeling that there were no losers. Syracuse got the W and Duke got satisfaction in a job well done, spiced with a burning sense of justice denied.
The juice brought by a Duke-Syracuse rivalry validates the most recent ACC expansion in a way that neither words nor football ever could. Even better, the two play home-and-home in this era of unbalanced league schedules, with the Orange visiting Durham on Feb. 22.
The programs have been shaped overwhelmingly by Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim, history’s two most successful Division I men’s coaches. The friends, in their late sixties, are far closer to the ends of their careers than the beginnings. Krzyzewski, the younger man, turns 67 on Feb. 13, the day after his Devils play at North Carolina.
For now, there is only mutual respect between the programs, bolstered by the afterglow of a game that spoke highly of both teams and of the league they represent.
Just like the two teams that met more than four decades ago…and competitively overshadowed a Super Bowl.