There are 343 colleges playing Division I basketball. They're spread all over the map -- 24 in California, 13 in Louisiana, at least one in every state save Alaska. And yet, three of the very best hail from the same narrow strip of North Carolina tobacco country. Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest, which are all currently ranked in the nation's top seven, are located in Durham, Chapel Hill and Winston-Salem, respectively. Their campuses are so close together that a determined person could visit them all in a single day -- by bicycle.
According to the author, "There isn't a remotely comparable cluster of excellence anywhere else in American sports." He contends that "what has helped the Carolina schools excel this season is a common culture of innovation -- in this case, a warp-speed style of play."
At a time when most college teams are working the floor at a snail's pace (game speed, measured by total possessions per game, dropped to its lowest level in a decade in 2006 and has stayed flat since then), Tobacco Road looks more like the autobahn. Wake Forest and North Carolina are among the nation's 10 fastest teams in possessions per game. Duke isn't in as big of a hurry but still ranks in the top third nationally. Although Duke looked sloppy in a road loss to Clemson this week, the Blue Devils blew the doors off poor Maryland last month, running up a 40-point lead in 25 minutes.
Wake's Dino Gaudio (pictured above) says he doesn't "believe in walking the ball up the floor." In his words:
"From an offensive perspective, you win championships by pushing the ball up the floor and getting cheap baskets."
Influenced by Mike D'Antoni's success with the Suns, programs like Wake, Duke, and UNC are "part of a gradually increasing group of major-conference teams including Missouri and Washington [that] are winning by running opponents out of the gym."
In an effort to attract attention of NBA scouts, more and more college players are looking for programs with "the right environment for them to showcase their skills right away."
For the Carolina schools, the fast-paced, high-scoring systems they've adopted have helped make them more attractive to recruits who want a chance to stand out. "That's a recruiting advantage," says Jerry Meyer, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "The coaches that can legitimately say 'we're going to be in the top 10 in scoring,' and that 'you're not going to have handcuffs on you,' that's what players want to hear today."