North Carolina’s ‘Big 4’ dealing with early struggles

Wake Forest beat North Carolina 73-67 on January 5 in the only meeting between Big 4 schools so far this season.

The "Big 4" might not be a concept well-known outside of North Carolina. But in ACC country, it used to be home to half the conference: North Carolina, Duke, NC State and Wake Forest. 

And along Tobacco Road — which, yes, includes all four schools — basketball has always thrived to varying degrees.

The programs have all had their ups and downs — Wake is down, but Duke, UNC and NC State all went to the NCAA Tournament for the last two seasons — but make no mistake, the fans hear it from their rivals when their team isn’t doing well.

Right now, the three teams are a combined 4-9 in ACC play (Duke has half of those wins after an escape against Virginia at home Monday). 

Fortunately for those fans, though, there aren’t really many bragging rights to be had right now. Unless Wake Forest (11-5, 1-2 ACC) wants to brag about beating North Carolina, that is. Although the Deacons aren’t feeling too good about themselves right now, losers of two straight road games by big margins and with a head coach in Jeff Bzdelik on the hot seat.

UNC fans aren’t feeling great, obviously. The Tar Heels (10-6) are losers of three straight and are 0-3 in the ACC for the first time since 1996-97. That 1997 team, Dean Smith’s last, went on to reach the Final Four. But Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter aren’t walking through that door, and as UNC fans watch the Tar Heels struggle on offense, they still pine for P.J. Hairston.

NC State and Duke fans are perhaps a bit lower on the Misery Index. Or higher. The NC State (11-5, 1-2) faithful are weathering the ups and downs of a young team, which can be alternately fun and maddening. Duke (13-4, 2-2) is still ranked (barely), and the Blue Devils certainly have more talent than any of the other three. 

The tradition among the Big 4 means that it’s unusual when at least one of the four isn’t an elite team, and usually more than one. 

That still might be true this season. It’s still early. But last weekend’s Black Saturday made the outlook for all the teams seem pretty bleak. 

The first weekend of 2014, three of the Big 4 teams lost, but not on the same day (North Carolina lost at Wake Forest on Sunday after both Duke and NC State fell to the old Big East teams).

On the second weekend, things got worse.

North Carolina traveled to No. 2 Syracuse and lost by 12. Not a bad loss, but it was the Tar Heels’ third in a row, and they set all kinds of school records for offensive futility in the shot-clock era. That kicked off the day at noon.

If ACC fans wanted to flip back and forth between that and Wake Forest’s battle at Pittsburgh, well, there was no need. Wake fell by 15 in a game that wasn’t that close. That outcome, too, was expected. 

Then at 2 p.m., Duke found itself going scoreless in the final six minutes or so and losing by 13 points at Clemson. The Tigers are scrappy this year, but not on Duke’s level, and it was Duke’s second straight ACC loss. 

At 5 p.m., NC State was the last hope of the in-state schools. It wasn’t necessarily expected to win, but it had a chance. Virginia eliminated that chance very early by getting out to a 21-4 lead and cruising from there. 

It’s not often that all three teams that are closest in proximity to one another — NC State, UNC and Duke — all lose. The last time it’s happened was 1996, so it’s been nearly 18 years. 

But there’s been no recorded instance of all four in-state ACC teams losing. Using every available date, longtime ACC journalists pored over the record books for hours after the NC State game went final and could find nothing.

(Wake Forest doesn’t start dating their games in the media guide until 1951-52, and NC State doesn’t start until 1950-51. North Carolina has dates back to 1910-11, its first season, and Duke has a few dates as early as its first season, 1905-06, but not all of them until the 1930’s or so.)

Not only did all four lose, mind you, but they all lost by double digits. 

Since we can’t know the last time all four teams lost on the same day,  let’s put this in perspective another way. Ever since NC State’s Everett Case brought basketball to the area and enlivened the ACC in the 1950’s, the other programs in the area stepped their respective games up to compete. 

And so from 1952-53 until 1983-84 — before Mike Krzyzewski had his Duke program off the ground and while Jim Valvano was still at NC State — the Big 4 lost a total of 1,207 games combined over that 31-year span and 542 of those (44.9 percent) were to each other. 

Wake has won 45 games in the last three-and-a-half seasons combined, and just two have been against Big 4 teams (NC State last year, North Carolina this year). Wake Forest is 2-13 against the Big 4 since 2011, while Duke has the best record at 14-3. 

Taking out UNC’s six losses this year (and its loss to Wake this year in its first Big 4 game), six of UNC’s 25 losses from 2011-13 came against the Big 4 (five to Duke). Three of Duke’s 18 losses in that same span have been against the Big 4, and 10 of NC State’s 40. Wake just lost a lot of games — 60 — so it’s kind of irrelevant how many were to the Big 4 (13, though).

The point is that this year, the Big 4 aren’t losing to each other. Well, they are, but someone has to win, so. They’re losing to other teams, too. And as the new-look ACC tries to retain some of its old identity, there’s perhaps no better indicator of what isn’t working than the struggles of the North Carolina teams.

Duke is the most likely candidate to turn things around — maybe it’s that Hall of Fame head coach that inspires confidence — but UNC has a Hall of Fame head coach of its own. NC State gets more or less a free pass for this season, while Bzdelik had probably better start winning some road games.

Free pass or no, make no mistake — NC State fans don’t want to lose to the Big 4. And the Wolfpack has two such games this week, at Wake Forest on Wednesday and at Duke on Saturday.

Good news is? One of the Big 4 teams has to win, thus improving their collective ACC record!