The ACC basketball tournament turned out to be a puff of tobacco. Dean Smith was the difference. He had to be, in the championship game, in order to get North Carolina past Virginia without Walter Davis and Tommy LaGarde and, in the closing minutes, without Phil Ford and Mike O'Koren.
That victory was a tribute to a coach's system in which every player, even the guy farthest down the bench, has been throughly drilled as to what to do under pressure in an emergency. Terry Holland again did a masterful job with Virginia but the Cavaliers had to play three tough games in as many days and Carolina finally wore them down - near the buzzer.
The Tar Heels, however, pose a special problem this week for Joey Boston, the king of the Stardust Ballroom in Las Vegas. Following finger surgery, Davis is reportedly out of Saturday's game against Purdue. LaGarde is questionable, coming off a knee injury.
Carolina's basketball team leads the nation in nondissemination of information on injuries. Remember Ford last year against Alabama? No one knew he had hurt his knee until game time. Likewise, Davis' busted pinkie was a well-kept secret until shortly before the Virginia game.
The only thing Carolina disguses better than its multiple defenses is the physical condition of its key players. Our "Nevada Naismith" thus refuses to offer an early line on them this week. "It would be five points, with Carolina favored, if both were to play," he says. "If both are out, they would be only 1 1/2 over Purdue."
The point spread on all the other first-round games in the NCAA tournament have been posted on the big blackboard.
East: VMI 3 1/2 over Duquesne, Kentucky eight over Princeton, Notre Dame 5 1/2 over Hofstra.
West: UCLA 5 1/2 over Louisville, Idaho State 5 1/2 over Long Beach State, Utah 1 1/2 over St. John's San Francisco 3 1/2 over Nevada-Las Vegas.
Mideast: Michigan 11 over Holy Cross, Detroit five over middle tennessee, North Carolina-Charlotte 7 1/2 over Central Michigan, Tennessee 1 1/2 over Syracuse.
Midwest: Marquette 5 1/2 over Cincinnati, Providence one over Kansas State, Arkansas 1 1/2 over Wake Forest, Southern Illinois 1 1/2 over Arizona.
At least one of the East's better teams was shabbily treated by the tournament committee. Either Holy Cross (23-5), Providence (24-4) or Syracuse (25-3) deserved to stay in its home region. Instead, all three were shuffled off to Mid-America, where they will be sadly out of touch with their fans.
Beating the spread becomes a little mor difficult this week. I have not seen several of the better teams more than once or twice, and a glimpse can be deceiving.
I will back off North Carolina because of the injury situation, passing the game and hoping both Davis and LaGarde will help me cash a bet at the Eastern Regionals, March 17-19.
VMI, giving 3 1/2, is my only pick in the East this week. The Keydets showed last year that they are better than many observers will admit. Duquesne has Norm Nixon and little else.
Opening-round prices indicate the Vegas line-maker leans toward UCLA and Michigan for the title game. He could be right about that, but I believe the 11 points the Wolverines are asked to give Holy Cross is a little high, especially if Ronnie Perry can get back into action for the Crusaders.
I will avoid UCLA-Louisville although the spread there, too, seems a touch too much.
Unfortunately, San Francisco and Nevada-Las Vegas are paired in the first round. Both are over-rated. Their concept of defense is to prevent the three-point play. I had hoped to do well betting against them. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to do that against the winner later if they meet UCLA.
Wake Forest, Providence and Syracuse are this week's other selections. The first two teams are beautifully coached, the coaching going a long way toward covering a lack of bench strength on both squads. I will pay to find out if Arkansas' 26-1 record is as formidable as it appears. Kansas State was 22-7 playing in a conference still hell-bent on football.
Syracuse could beat Tennessee. The "Bernie and Ernie Show" has become a one-man act, with Bernard King. If only this game was being played in Philadelphia, instead of Baton, Rouge, everything would be lovely. Still, there is going to be orange all over the floor, in terms of school colors.
One final warning: Do not be shocked by anything that happens in this year's tournament. The talent is spread around more than ever. Utah (21-6), Idaho State (23-4) and North Carolina-Charlotte (23-3) might all be heard from before the shooting's over.