Oakes’ Outlook: Final Four ‘Breakfast Club’

We’re at the ultimate destination of the college hoops season. The Final Four. With all its mystique, tradition, unforgettable moments and hype, it rarely disappoints.

I don’t think we need to worry about a letdown in 2015 either. Out of the vast array of possible permutations and calculations, the bracketology gods have delivered us a shining gem.

You say it’s the stars on these rosters – Jahlil Okafor at Duke. The freshman sensation plays a brand of offense rarely seen in the history of the sport. He gets two feet in the paint and it’s lights out – basket. It’s as automatic as the rising sun.

Not to mention, we’ve got the National Player of the Year frontrunner – Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. The guy plays with a versatility that has opposing coaches scratching their heads. In Kaminsky, you have a physical seven-footer who can even pop threes. Not to mention, he’s as tough as nails and cool under pressure. The higher the stakes, the better he plays. Now that’s the total package.

Oh yeah, but we haven’t even mentioned the brightest star of all. The Kentucky Wildcats, collectively, have eight of the best players in all of college basketball on one roster. The platoon system hasn’t got as much play as we thought at the beginning of the year, but man, the Wildcats could make a run to the Final Four with two separate teams. No joke. It’s an embarrassment of riches led by Willie Cauley-Stein. Length, athleticism, poise, speed. Yikes!

And we’re not even scratching the surface to the immeasurable talent that will be on display at the Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday.

But whoa! Hold your horses. Who’s holding the reigns to these thoroughbred athletes? You got it.

Good coaches get good players and in turn, coach those good players to big wins. This game’s not a mystery, folks.

And so, it should come as no huge surprise we’ve got four coaching legends ready to wage battle this weekend in Indianapolis on the game’s grandest stage.

It’s what has me most intrigued about this Final Four – the coaching matchups. The common thread is success at the highest level. But there’s no one set prototype for the man it takes to achieve that success. You need look no further than this year’s quartet to validate that claim. It’s “Breakfast Club: Pt. II”:

Bo Ryan (WISC) AKA ‘The Teacher’ – This isn’t Bo’s first rodeo. The guy’s been around the block. But frankly, I’ve always thought he’s never got the credit he deserved. He’s been racking up significant victories since 2001 at Wisconsin. But back-to-back Final Fours last year and now this season have him in the national spotlight. But Bo isn’t in this business for the spotlight like some of his peers. Bo’s more of a throwback. He merely likes to coach, or should I say ‘teach’, his kids. The basketball court becomes a classroom for Bo. And wow, his students are ALWAYS prepared for their exams. He’s always had air-tight, disciplined teams who A) don’t turn the ball over and B) take intelligent, high-percentage shots. That’s a good combo. And now that he’s secured the offensive firepower to go along with his trademark teachings, the sky’s the limit for Bo’s Badgers.

John Calipari (UK) AKA ‘The Recruiter’ – We all know about this guy. Love him or hate him, get used to him. Now that he’s at Kentucky – the nation’s premier job – he’s not going anywhere? And why should he? Even before he got the name brand to go along with it, Calipari has always stockpiled talent like he’s preparing for the apocalypse. He took Memphis to the Final Four for crying out loud. Anybody heard of Memphis lately? Calipari has single-handedly transformed the landscape of college basketball. It’s like an arms race now, except UK is the USA – that’s trouble for everybody else. Each year, Calipari promises young high school kids an irresistible deal – come to one of the best college basketball programs in the land, play for the best fan base in the country, win a national championship and then ink your multi-million dollar deal in the NBA. Who would be dumb enough to turn that down? Not to mention, Coach Cal is a charismatic closer who connects with kids in this business – he knows what makes them tick…pop culture, fame, winning and money.

Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) AKA ‘The General’ – Coach K needs no introduction. He’s built a program into national prominence, so much so, that Duke basketball has become synonymous with college hoops excellence. They are the standard. Year in. Year out. Coach K is the reason why. Schooled by Bob Knight in his time at Army, Coach K learned how to run a tight ship. He’s demanding. He controls Cameron Indoor – his players, his staff, his fans and some would say, even the officials, with a strategic whip. Each game, he enters the arena with a brisk, methodical march that indicates he’s ready for battle. But in the process, he has earned the respect of his peers and players. He accepts only one thing – winning. Losing is not an option. You do as he says. His players have no problem following his orders. Why? They want to win too. They know K prepares his troops for battle better than anybody. Yes, K has changed a bit – he’s started to adopt Coach Cal’s ‘one-and-done’ model. He’s even been using a lot more zone defense. I know these things must have pained him. But if the rules change to the game, you have to adapt to win. K loves to win.

Tom Izzo (MSU) AKA ‘The Boxer’ – Izzo’s like Rocky. Everybody seems to love the guy for his big heart and his relentless fighting spirit. He doesn’t have the talent like most of his competitors, but yet he finds a way to squeeze the most out of what he’s got. That’s admirable. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always pulled for Izzo. The true underdog that really shouldn’t ever be an underdog in the first place. Izzo sports a remarkable 13-9 record in the NCAA Tournament with the lower seeded team – that’s a record. It’s hard to quantify the intangibles. Izzo’s teams always have plenty of that – heart, pride and toughness in spades. Sometimes, I feel like Izzo could coach anybody, and I mean anybody to the Final Four. He makes young men believe. Truly believe. That’s half the battle right there. I had a coach who told me competition is 80% mental and just 20% talent. Izzo no doubt prescribes to that doctrine. Backed into the corner with his kids? No problem. That’s where they like it. Izzo and company will come out swinging, and you can bet they’ll get their money’s worth this weekend.

So this year, the Final Four has gone to the coaches starring in a stirring sequel to “The Breakfast Club”. I’m not complaining. I can hear the iconic ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ running through my head now. Enjoy it. In an age of college basketball dominated by ‘one-and-dones’ and NBA talk, it’s refreshing to see it’s the coaches – a teacher, a recruiter, a boxer and a general – who’ll take center stage again.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattdoakes


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Oakes’ Outlook: March Madness Dreaming

March. In like a lion out like a lamb. So they say, at least. And with the ushering in of spring, there’s rebirth, new life.

Much the same can be said for the the NCAA Tournament that’s become synonymous with the month of March. The parallels are eerie.

Everybody likes their chances right now. From mighty Kentucky to driven Davidson, all harbor hope. All have life.

Whether we fully comprehend it or not, maybe this optimism comes from the melting snow, the sun’s radiance kissing a frozen landscape? Fresh shoots, young blooms. Ah, we rejoice in the rejuvenating nature of spring that accompanies Selection Sunday each year.

In essence, a la March, within the confines of these brackets, everybody’s a lion, stalking prey. Kings of the jungle, soaking up the regal position on the sport’s ultimate pedestal. Eyes still firmly on the prize.

After all, the hearts and minds of the nation will be wrapped up in a frenzy of hoops action. Did you really go with all four No. 1 seeds? Doesn’t Gonzaga always lose early? You mean you picked WHO to the Elite Eight!!??!? Robert Morris? These questions become commonplace within the walls of office buildings, locker rooms of country clubs and around family dinner tables.

Live it up, Dukies! Party on, Wahoos! Bottoms up, Wolfpack! Cheers, Carolina! March Madness – there’s nothing like it in sports.

But alas, ‘nothing gold can stay’, right, Robert Frost? These lions are about to be dethroned. Remember, out like a lamb? And yessir, one-by-one, we’ll add another lamb unwillingly to the herd. In this kingdom, there’s room for only one to truly roar come April.


ACC OUTLOOK – No. 1 Duke (Final Four) / No. 2 Virginia (Elite Eight) / No. 3 Notre Dame (Elite Eight) / No. 4 North Carolina (Sweet Sixteen) / No. 4 Louisville (Sweet Sixteen) / No. 8 NC State (Rd. of 32)

FINAL FOUR – Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke, Villanova

CHAMPION – Kentucky

For every school lucky enough to dance this time of year, the dream lives on. For most, it’s a fleeting visage. For others, it’s a captivating all-nighter. The goal? To make that dream a reality.

Sadly for most, the ‘cutting down the nets’ scene never comes to pass. But that’s secondary. It’s the dream-maker who’s most appreciated. The fact that we are even inspired to dream at all is worth the price of admission.

So thank you, March, for allowing these rapturous thoughts to race through our minds that for a select few, transform into indelible, tangible memories.

Follow me on Twitter @mattdoakes


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Oakes’ Outlook: Heating Up In Greensboro

Oakes’ Outlook: Heating Up In Greensboro

By Matt Oakes

It was quarterfinal Thursday. All the big boys (top 4 seeds) were in action with a spot in the primetime semifinals Friday night on the line. Would any of the top dogs be knocked off their pedestal? Plenty of intrigue always awaits. We’re heating up at the ACC Tourney! Who survived the pressure cooker?

TEAM OF THE DAY: Duke. Complete and utter dominance. The Blue Devils took the Wolfpack to the woodshed and are clearly the team to beat. Enough said.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Look over your shoulder the rest of the friggin’ night, okay. Let’s understand that. So if we shoot a poor percentage tomorrow your butt better not come in here.” – Roy Williams sounding off at a reporter’s attempt to jinx his team’s good shooting


The Cavaliers stamped their authority early, jumping out to a 7-0 lead and forcing Leonard Hamilton’s hand with a quick timeout. The Coliseum was more than speckled with a little orange – it was littered with Wahoo fans armed with rested lungs.

But the real story of this game was the anticipated return of Justin Anderson from injury. He didn’t start, but when he finally got into the game, he was met with a standing ovation from the Virginia faithful. Although I didn’t stand with them, boy, it’s nice to see Anderson back playing basketball.

We also quickly discovered why Tony Bennett was named ACC Coach of the Year. He figured out missing shots was no good. And therefore, his Cavaliers promptly knocked down their first six shots. The Seminoles weren’t on the same page, however, struggling to find the basket and what’s more, couldn’t buy and offensive rebound. That hurts.

At the half, FSU was doubled up by UVA, 34-17.

Virginia’s Darion Atkins went down with some sort of leg injury early in the second half. It was a scare for sure, but after a quick respite in the locker room, Atkins was back on the UVA bench.

Meanwhile, the pace of play was grinding to a near standstill. So many timeouts. So many stoppages of play. But on a positive note, some good music was pumping through the Coliseum sound system.

FSU parted the waters so bad on a Cavalier drive to the basket that I almost lost my lunch. Thankfully, I didn’t. But it was a close call. That kind of Ole! defense isn’t in Virginia’s DNA though.

The referees grew some moans of disapproval from the UVA fans. I must say, a couple no-calls on Seminole players seemed to be questionable at best. And I’m not sure official Jamie Luckie knows a travel is not an offensive foul. But nevertheless, FSU cut the deficit down to five points at 39-34 with 9:455 to play. It was a new ballgame, folks!

And nobody knew that better than Leonard Hamilton. So much for his trademark composure. He came out of his shell down the stretch, barking out orders and giving an earful to officials and players alike.

Back and forth down the stretch they came. Both squads were suddenly coming up with enormous shots, trading blows. And would you believe it? With just under six minutes to play, Leonard Hamilton took it too far. The pinstripes got back at him with a technical foul. Can you say game changer?

But ultimately, with the help of a couple clutch makes by Malcolm Brogdon and steady free throw shooting to boot, the Cavaliers put away the Seminoles and booked their spot in Friday’s semifinals.

QUARTERFINAL 2: No. 5 UNC vs. No. 4 Louisville

The offenses wasted no time getting going. Just five minutes in, it was a 9-all tie. Marcus Paige opened proceedings with a three-pointer. Montrezl Harrell was doing his thing inside. JP Tokoto was out of control, settling for jumpers. Not his game.

WAY more toughness was being displayed by the Cardinals. Getting second, third and fourth chance opportunities helps out.

The Louisville dance team threw the gauntlet down as well. They went ALL OUT. No joke. They left the Greensboro Coliseum stunned and may have just created a blossoming rivalry in the ACC – the FSU Golden Girls vs. the Louisville Dance Team. Stay tuned.

Pitino faced off with Roy in an outstanding coaching matchup (Todd Melet)

Pitino faced off with Roy in an outstanding coaching matchup (Todd Melet)

As for UNC, they went stone cold. A six-minute long drought. Ouch. But a Joel Berry three certainly helped make things feel a little better – for the crowd, too, who was mostly wearing Carolina blue.

But it wasn’t enough for Roy. The jacket was off at the 7:34 mark with his Tar Heels down six.

The Tar Heels had clouded vision of offense. Doubt. Meanwhile, the Cardinals were operating with 20/20 vision – drive to the basket. Confidence.

A nasty ‘shake and bake’ cooked up by Louisville’s Terry Rozier helped earn the Cardinals the 37-32 halftime lead.

Out of the locker room. UNC three. Carolina steal. Brice Johnson dunk. Roar. Rick Pitino timeout. Game tied at 37-all.

The highlight came when Harrell nearly jumped out of the gym to jam one home. Man, that dude can elevate. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels continued to plug away. Paige hit a nasty three right in front of me.

Nothing was separating these two teams for the third game this season. Brice Johnson was putting together a productive half of basketball for UNC, keeping his team in touch with the anticipation and intensity building in the Coliseum.

Harrell continued to fly, and I mean FLY, around the floor down the stretch. He’s a freak of nature. He makes the Cards go. Emotional intensity and physical prowess. Deadly combo.

QUARTERFINAL 3: No. 8 NC State vs. No. 2 Duke

Something big was coming. There was a buzz in the air. Like a prize fight. The build-up is half the fun. There was no doubt Duke vs. N.C. State was the main event Thursday in the Coliseum.

But sometimes, the show doesn’t live up to the hype. This one was a prime example. It was a dud. A stinker. A good memory if you’re a Duke fan. An awful nightmare if you’re a State fan.

Duke shot out of the gates in a hurry, using smart defense and overwhelmingly sharp offense to claim a 26-11 lead with 9:48 to play in the opening half.

Jahlil Okafor was able to rest comfortably on the bench for long stretches. That was scary. Justice Winslow joined him as well. Their services weren’t necessary as Grayson Allen, Quinn Cook and company were doing the deed themselves.

The ‘amoeba zone’ of Duke was frustrating the Wolfpack. In particular, it seemed Cat Barber was completely befuddled. Coach K had not forgotten the loss put on the Devils by NC State earlier in January. I don’t think he forgot about the butt slap either. This was war.

Heck, we even witnessed the ‘Plumlee Air Show’. It was a surprising addition to the night’s events, but it was that kind of night for the men in dark blue.

Mercifully, the halftime buzzer did finally come. The damage, and it was catastrophic, was done. In a dominating performance that took your breath away at times, Duke amassed a 49-22 lead.

I won’t bore you with the second half details. I’ll be honest. I zoned out. Game over. Duke moves on and oh by the way, looks like a legitimate national title contender.

Follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

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Oakes’ Outlook: Greensboro Games

It’s that time of the year. A return to Tournament Town. My drive down I-40 was met with springtime sunshine filtering through a thin layer of wispy clouds. I pumped out some country songs on the local radio station.

Driving past Stamey’s BBQ and the Natty Greene’s beer garden across the street, I knew I was in the right place.

I pulled into the Coliseum parking lot and was greeted with a live golden oldies concert in full swing on the Fan Fest stage. Fans decked out in red, garnet, orange and Carolina blue bustled about. This was 11 a.m. mind you. Anticipation was in the air. Everything felt right.

Perhaps its the purist in me, but it’s too bad the Tournament will depart for its northern tour next year. Sweet tea. Hospitality. Warm weather. This is ACC country. The Barclays Center in New York? Eh. Not so much.

So I’ll try to savor my time down south even more this year. We won’t get another southern swing until 2019 in Charlotte and 2020 back here in Greensboro.

But the spotlight should be on the hoops. That’s why we’re all here after all. Four big-time contests in the nation’s premier college basketball conference are on tap. For four teams, their stay in Greensboro ends. But for four lucky ones, the journey continues.

TEAM OF THE DAY: North Carolina. Paige seems healthy. Tokoto is dialed in on defense. The Heels look formidable. Of course, that could all change in a hurry tomorrow.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Sometimes that’s just the way it goes.” – FSU Coach Leonard Hamilton. Well said, Coach. Well said.

GAME ONE: No. 9 FSU vs. No. 8 Clemson (12 p.m. tip)

First of all, let’s get this straight FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton is the definition of cool. You can’t outcool the King of Cool. He stands on the sidelines, expressionless, one hand in pocket. Sometimes, I wonder what he’s thinking. ‘What am I going to have for dinner? How did we turn the ball over there? I swear, if I have to say something to one of my guys…’

We may never know…but the action on the hardwood was heating up to keep me distracted any way. Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who scored like 30 points in four minutes a few weeks back, was back to his usual tricks, bursting out of the gate for nine points in the first nine minutes.

Another storied ACC tradition continued with a strange twist. The world-famous FSU Golden Girls returned to the Coliseum floor…WITH PANTS. Many folks in attendance were severely disappointed.

Clemson, meanwhile, struggled to find any semblance of an offense for large stretches of the fist half, but as it turned it, only trailed by a mere seven points at the half.

Out of the locker room, it was the FSU perimeter shooting that came to life, giving the Noles some separation from the Tigers at 44-33 with 15:28 to play.

In a touching timeout tribute, a military veteran and his family were recognized at midcourt. He received a standing ovation and then received keys to a new home. Pretty cool stuff!

Back to hoops. The game dragged on for well over two hours and twenty minutes. The last five minutes seemed to last for an eternity. No joke. Timeouts were pulled out of their holsters. The Seminoles, though, despite a serious effort down the stretch to do otherwise, were able to hang on and take the matinee opener, 76-73. XRM finished with 30 points.

GAME TWO: No. 5 UNC vs. No. 12 BC (2 p.m. tip…yeah, about that.)

A Marcus Paige three gave UNC its first lead. The crowd erupted.

The Tar Heels, getting offensive production early and often from a smorgasbord of players, set a quick tempo early on. That’s always to Carolina’s liking.

The Eagles were no doubt motivated to prove a point. They were riding a four-game winning streak into this one after all.

The all-important ‘points in the paint’ stat was dominated by UNC in the first half with a 20-8 edge.

In a surprising move, Stilman White was even thrown into the fray by Roy Williams, receiving his first meaningful minutes since…well…the Elite Eight a few years back.

Carolina got out in transition. That helped. The Tar Heels also fought relentlessly for second chance opportunities. They converted on a ton of them and were rewarded with a 43-30 halftime lead.

Out of the second half gates, Carolina continued to coast. Nate Britt showed comfort with his shot. Jackson Simmons contributed a beautiful ball screen. Roy continued to toy with his lineup.

The biggest surprise of the game was the relative silence of BC star Olivier Hanlan, at least for the majority of it. After dropping 25 points in the first round, the junior misfired a bit Wednesday, especially from behind the arc. A lot f that had to do with J.P. Tokoto’s fine defense.

Roy Williams called Tokoto the ‘riverboat gambler’ in his postgame press conference. Well, the gamble paid off on this day.

Follow me on Twitter @moakes3


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Oakes’ Outlook: Coming Alive Again

I like to write outside. It’s where I always think most clearly.

That’s one of the reasons this harsh N.C. winter has been so hard for me. I’ve been cooped up indoors. We all have. That may be “A-OK” for some, but not for me. I get stir crazy.

And that’s precisely why I jumped at the opportunity to soak up the sun in the outfield seating of Boshamer Stadium Wednesday afternoon. 72 degrees. Carolina blue skies. I’m all in.

I couldn’t make a beeline past the press box fast enough. A place in the grandstand seating was calling me.

I settled into a seat halfway up the bleachers just past the third base line, stretched out my legs and basked in all the day’s glory. It’s the simple things, right?

I guess you can call me a “sun worshipper.” Yes, I believe in God and all that, but few things make me feel more alive than a summer evening cookout, a Sunday morning jog on the beach, a stroll around the golf course, or a fall college football tailgate. Pretty much anything done outside on a gorgeous day is an irresistible proposition.


But that goes for my work as well. When I was in school, you could often find me perched atop our fraternity’s front bench at 207 West Cameron, flipping through notes, sending out emails or typing up my latest opinion piece for The Daily Tar Heel.

Some days, some of my brothers would leave, go to class, and return hours later only to find me still manning my post outside.

They’d say, “Oakes, you’re still out here?” I’d reply with a smile, “Of course, no place I’d rather be. What a beautiful day.” Really, inside, I was thinking, “Why aren’t you out here? You’re blowing it!”

Don’t get me wrong, I was getting stuff done. Checks on the checklist. Somehow, even the most dense, mundane reading or burdensome assignment becomes enjoyable on a sun-soaked April day.

I still carry on that affinity for the outdoors. Whenever the chance presents itself, I’ll hold team meetings outside our WCHL/Chapelboro studio. Out at the picnic tables. It’s more relaxing. I think my staff enjoys it too. I hope so. Some people, I suppose, could say they get distracted. But I get more creative. That’s good for the majority of my work.

I come up with some of my most cohesive ideas and full-proof plans along the American Tobacco Trail. Those jogs clear my mind and fuel it at the same time (if that’s even possible). But they do. Peaceful and productive – I like that combo.

Feeling the refreshing breeze while gazing up at the puffy white clouds? My oh my. That’s my kind of office.

I know: I’m fortunate to have a job that allows me to indulge in my “sun worshipping.” A good chunk of the sports world revolves around the sun. I’m thankful. In fact, when I get a little more advanced in age, I may just move to the Caribbean and open up a snorkeling business. How does that sound? It’s not off the table, folks!

Photo courtesy of tarheelathletichospitality.com

Photo courtesy of tarheelathletichospitality.com

Oh, what a glorious afternoon it was at the Bosh. Rich, green grass. Country songs blaring. Sunflower seeds scattering in the wind. The crack (well, technically, the ping) of an occasional bat. Families with popcorn and hot dogs. Kiddos scampering for foul balls. Light, warm applause.

By the way, the Tar Heels beat the VCU Rams 6-5 in a riveting midweek contest that went right down to the ninth inning.

But the baseball comes secondary. It’s about the experience. Coming alive again. Springtime, long-lost friend, it’s good to see you.

Follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

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Oakes’ Outlook: Dean Smith, Priceless Gem

I never had the chance to meet Dean Smith. But somehow, I always felt like I knew him. We all did.

I’ll never forget standing in the Smith Center as a UNC student, chills tingling down my spine. In his last public appearance in the house aptly named after him, Coach Smith took his final bow in February of 2010.

The roof could have popped off the Dean Dome that day for the “Celebration of a Century” event. An uncomfortable Coach Smith, never one to like the spotlight – always pointing the credit elsewhere, couldn’t hide from it this time. He received a showering of love and admiration from former players, assistant coaches and the entire Tar Heel nation. The affection was palpable. The radiant warmth was immense.

Coach Smith was overwhelmed. Teary-eyed, he gazed up at the rafters containing the national championship banners and retired players’ jerseys – legendary figures of the sport, so many of whom he sculpted and molded into better men. Coach Smith slowly lifted up his arm, sheepishly acknowledging the thunderous applause. It seemed like it lasted for hours.

But then, just as suddenly, he was gone. Walking off through the tunnel and disappearing behind the black curtains, out of view. Coach, I’ll never forget that experience. On that day, the giver finally got to receive. But it was like saying goodbye to an old friend.

There’s just so much you’ve given to all of us, Coach. Thank you.

Your innovative techniques and relentless emphasis on teamwork (‘we’ before ‘me’) transformed the game of basketball forever. And of course, your teams experienced wild success, so much so that Carolina is now synonymous for college basketball – the Tar Heel jersey, world-renowned.

But your national titles and Final Four appearances don’t begin to explain the deep sadness your void has left in all our hearts. We mourn for the impactful man that touched our lives. A friend. A father. A teacher.

He taught us we could achieve greatness at the highest level while still doing it the right way, ‘the Carolina Way’ – with a class, dignity and humility unwavering. You

Yes, we lost a leading pillar of Chapel Hill, North Carolina and the entire college sports nation over the weekend. Dean Smith, your lasting legacy is hard to put into words. And now that you’re gone, it’s even harder.

I can’t wait to get back in your Smith Center soon and hear the emotional cheers for your humble video introduction,”Hello, I’m Dean Smith, and I’m a Tar Heel.” Yes, you are. But you’re so much more than that. Coach, I know you’re in a much better place up there in that beautiful Carolina blue sky. Heaven just gained a ‘priceless gem.’

Follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3IMG_2785.PNG

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Oakes’ Outlook: The ACC Stakes

And they’re off! It’s a quick pace and a fast track we have here today, folks. And as they round the far turn in The Atlantic Coast Conference Stakes, it’s last year’s title-holding thoroughbred, Cavalier, who’s managed to stick his nose in front. But Lucky Irish and Sweet Caroline are dueling neck and neck just behind. Oh, and here comes Devil Duke! He’s found an inside position along the rail.

Cavalier’s got one of the rising trainers in the game in Tony Bennett. Bennett consistently gets the best out of his horses and knows what it takes to topple the sport’s finest.

Lucky Irish is a sight to behold. This beautiful, high-octane animal can fly with the best of them, but some wonder…can he maintain his poise through the home stretch?

Sweet Caroline hasn’t lived up to perennial lofty expectation in recent years, but now surrounded by a deep and talented team, this filly might be equipped for a return to the top spot.

Devil Duke certainly has the athleticism and power to blow past all the competition, but can he avoid the potential pitfalls in a tightly packed crowd?

Rick’s Cards is a wild card threatening to trump all of our competitors. Ruthless, muscular fighter, he is, but as for the speed? He may want a slower pace.

Don’t look now, but there’s a tropical Miami Hurricane rumbling this way that could flatten everything its path. Supreme physicality and aggression abound. Can it be harnessed?

But back to the live action! They’re storming round the corner and into the back stretch. We’re on track for a record time with blistering speed. But who’s in danger of falling off the pace?

Some, I’m afraid, have already succumbed, dropping off the back end.

OUT OF CONTENTION – let’s hope you didn’t bet on any of these nags

Yellow Jacket, Hokie High, Demon Deacon, Tiger Orange, Seminole, Boston Eagle

DANGER ZONE – the whip might come in handy right about now

Panther Paw, Orange Dream, State’s Wolfpack

IN THE HUNT – all the eyes are still firmly on the prize, for good reason

Hurricane Miami, Rick’s Cards, Lucky Irish, Sweet Caroline, Devil Duke, Cavalier

Matt’s Picks: Cavalier – Sweet Caroline – Lucky Irish

As this stacked field makes its way down the back stretch, it’s anybody’s guess who will have the stamina, speed and tenacity to claim this historic prize and go into The NCAA Derby as a hot favorite.

Will Cavalier reassert his dominance? Will upstart Lucky Irish sprint his way past the competition? The late money really liked Sweet Caroline – do they know something we don’t? Any aces up Rick’s Cards sleeves? And who would bet against jockey K using all of his guile and experience on board Devil Duke to cross the finish line first yet again?

The battle is fierce. The energy is electric. The nerves are suffocating. History awaits. The buzzing sell-out crowd, clad in classic ACC regalia, rises to its feet in anxious anticipation.

Follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

Photo courtesy of business-opportunities.biz

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