She was a player and he was an assistant coach when basketball first brought them together at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. They became friends, then went their separate ways for almost a decade, until she noticed in USA Today that he’d been hired as head men’s basketball coach at a nearby school.

Four years later they were married. Today Gail Goestenkors commutes from home on the outskirts of Hillsborough to coach the top-ranked Duke women’s basketball team, while Mark Simons journeys north of Burlington to direct the Elon University men. The only couple coaching different major-college programs, their work unites them even as it sends them in separate directions. “It’s just so much a part of who we are,” Goestenkors says. “We’re so passionate about it, it’s such a part of our everyday lives.”

Videotapes that Goestenkors and Simons view together tend to be of their teams in action. They visit each other’s intrasquad scrimmages, then engage in post-game critiques of what they’ve seen. The giving of opinions is, as with most couples, governed by an unspoken language within the words. “We both know when we can say what,” Goestenkors acknowledges. “There are just times when you can let things go, there are times when you know when to back away, when to go forward.”

The demands of their jobs prevent Simons and Goestenkors from spending much time together during basketball season. So they make “dates,” as Goestenkors puts it, and agree to limit mention of basketball, or what she calls “the b-word.”

But the rest of us take little respite from the b-word at this time of year, or want to. We relish it. That’s been true since Indiana’s Everett Case brought fastbreak basketball and a showman’s flair to N.C. State in the late 1940s, back when Cary was a sleepy crossroads and Chapel Hill a village, when there was a major college in Wake Forest and no Research Triangle Park, when the sweet scent of cured tobacco permeated downtown Durham and farmland lapped at Raleigh’s borders.

Case carried the basketball banner into a breakaway league formed by a group of football-oriented schools within the 17-member Southern Conference, among them national powers Duke and Maryland. (Yes, Duke.) But it’s basketball, not football, for which the Atlantic Coast Conference is known as it enters its 50th season.

Fiftieth for the men, that is. League bylaws forbade the awarding of scholarships to women until February 1973. Not until five years later did the women hold their first ACC basketball tournament.

The women quickly enriched the ACC’s basketball heritage, one marked by a wealth of champions, characters, intensity and quirks. This season figures to be among the quirkiest, with no obvious star or dominant team among the men, and even Duke’s powerful women handicapped by a season-ending injury to Monique Currie, most valuable player in the 2002 ACC Tournament.

“There’s more teams that have questions than any year I’ve been here,” says Maryland’s Gary Williams, who returned to coach his alma mater in 1989-90.

The questions extend to whether the youthful ACC men will maintain the league’s remarkable modern prominence in postseason, when reputations and titles are won.

The ACC sent men’s squads to 14 of the past 15 Final Fours (1996 was the exception), far greater regularity than any other conference. Nine ACC men’s teams have won national championships, including five in the past dozen years, most recently Maryland in 2002.

The women haven’t been quite as successful, with only North Carolina capturing an NCAA title in 1994. Still, squads from five different ACC schools have reached the women’s Final Four, an impressive showing that includes Duke’s 2002 visit. And now Goestenkors’ program is top-ranked in the preseason for the first time, counted an equal with Connecticut and Tennessee, perennial dominators of the women’s game.

There seems little doubt that, as the ACC concludes a half-century, balances are shifting dramatically within its basketball universe.

Dean Smith, the most influential coach in ACC history, retired five years ago, leaving Mike Krzyzewski, with three NCAA titles, as the league’s undisputed master. Krzyzewski’s program, with its seemingly endless parade of talent, including this season’s six lushly lauded freshmen, is the accepted standard against which others are measured. The Devils have won an unprecedented four straight ACC Tournaments, and finished first in the national polls the past four years, another record.

Duke men
The current edition of the Blue Devils replace juniors Jason (Jay) Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer, all of whom left early to play in the pros. Krzyzewski militantly avoids dwelling on absent personnel, his response as predictable as a column by George Will. “I truly believe you should concentrate on what you have, not what you don’t have,” the coach says.

Duke does return a pair of starters, Chris Duhon and Dahntay Jones, a proven perimeter threat in Daniel Ewing, and serviceable frontcourt backups in Nick Horvath and Casey Sanders.

Jones is a slashing wing and superior defender. Duhon is the anointed point guard and leader. Duhon, a favorite for 2003 ACC player of the year, sleeps with a basketball each night and seems to prefer an intimately monogamous relationship with the game’s central object, noting “the ball likes to cuddle” in bed.

The Duke freshmen most likely to have immediate impact are powerful 6-9 Sheldon Williams, an instant interior presence; guards J.J. Redick, the squad’s best shooter, and playmaker Sean Dockery; and versatile, 6-10 Shavlik Randolph, a Raleigh native.

UNC men
Freshmen are apt to be even more prominent at North Carolina where the Tar Heel men plummeted to unimaginable depths in 2002. UNC finished 8-20, the most losses in school history. “It was very difficult,” recalls senior Jon Holmes. “To say otherwise would probably be a lie. … You never want to go through something like that.”

More important than the transient damage, what the program lost, perhaps forever, was a sense of almost predestined victory, an expectation built and burnished by Smith’s 36 squads. That tradition was carried forward with increasing difficulty during Bill Guthridge’s three-year tenure and in 2000-01, Matt Doherty’s first season on the job.

Last season’s precipitous fall sparked several transfers and a mild public airing of player grievances. The surviving upperclassmen are marginal reserves Holmes and Will Johnson, meaning the team will depend heavily on three sophomores and six freshmen, including Durham’s 6-5 David Noel, a revelation at wing in the early going.

Raymond Felton is the overwhelming favorite for ACC rookie of the year. The stellar freshman playmaker from a small South Carolina school is “the real deal,” according to UNC women’s coach Sylvia Hatchell, who’s watched him play. Forward Sean May, wings Rashad McCants and Neal join gifted returnees Melvin Scott, Jackie Manuel and Jawad Williams to give the Heels a welcome infusion of athleticism and versatility, if not much depth, interior size or experience.

“I think patience is going to be key for me and my staff,” says Doherty, who had difficulties on that score last season. “We have a young team and a very tough schedule.”

Early tests in the Preseason NIT, at Illinois and at home against Kentucky could set the tone for the year. Victory or simple competitiveness in those games could lend assurance the worst is past for the chastened Tar Heel faithful. Continued struggles might intensify previously quiet questioning of Doherty’s job skills.

Fortunately for the ACC, Maryland quickly and emphatically stepped forward while Carolina faded, becoming the first league member from outside North Carolina to capture an NCAA basketball title. Following on the heels of Duke’s 2001 NCAA title, the Terrapins’ triumph affirmed why Maryland-Duke has supplanted UNC-Duke as the ACC’s hottest, best played and most anticipated rivalry.

Duke and Maryland figure to finish at or near the top again in 2002-03. The Terps are positioned to reach their 10th straight NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils their 19th in 20 years.

Yet the supremacy of the unfriendly duo is anything but certain, as both squads replace the bulk of last season’s starters. “It’s going to be one of the most exciting years since I’ve been here,” Williams says.

Duke women
The excitement among the women revolves around catching Duke, emerging as a second elite program at an increasingly elite school.

The Blue Devil men supplied three of the last four national players of the year (Elton Brand in 1999, Shane Battier in 2001 and Williams in 2002). This season Duke guard Alana Beard, a 5-11 junior All-American, is a favorite for the women’s honor. The ’02 ACC player of the year led the conference in scoring (19.8 points per game), field goal accuracy (57.2 percent) and steals, and was second in assists.

Six of eight players return from last season’s thin but tight Duke squad, most prominently 6-4 center Iciss Tillis, an outside-oriented junior, and senior guard Sheana Mosch.

Goestenkors, like Krzyzewski, brought in a freshman class rated the nation’s best, leaving rivals speculating about the effects of another Duke-dominated season. Mistie Bass and Brooke Smith, both 6-3, should bolster the frontcourt with holdovers Wynter Whitley and Michele Matyasovsky. Mosch is joined on the perimeter by newcomers Jessica Foley, a 6-foot Australian sharpshooter, Lindsey Harding and Caitlin Howe.

The unexpected loss of Currie, last year’s second-best scorer and No. 3 rebounder, stiffens the challenge for a group already scheduled to face formidable Tennessee, UConn, Old Dominion, Arkansas and Iowa State outside the ACC.

“They’ve set a standard that we all hope to achieve someday,” Wake coach Charlene Curtis says of Goestenkors’ program. Adds Clemson’s Jim Davis, “If they can handle success, there’s no reason they can’t compete at the highest level and bring home the national championship.”

Debbie Ryan’s Virginia program was the ACC women’s benchmark until recently, finishing first or second in the league 10 times between 1990 and 2000. The Cavs dropped only five regular season ACC games from 1991 to 1995 and went to consecutive Final Fours from 1990 through 1992.

The balance shifted after Goestenkors took Duke to the 1999 NCAA championship game. The Devils have since won three straight ACC titles and posted consecutive first-place finishes, capped by a 16-0 regular season in 2002. “I think back always to where we’ve come from,” says Goestenkors, whose first Duke team won three ACC games in 1993. “I feel like we’re still in pursuit. I don’t feel like we’ve gotten to any mountaintop.”

The Blue Devils are, however, quite capable of a peak performance. Based on history, the ACC is due.

Forty seasons ago, a squad led by Jeff Mullins and Art Heyman, the 1963 national player of the year, reached the Final Four, the first of 13 trips by Duke’s men. Coach Vic Bubas, a Case disciple, took teams to two more Final Fours during the ’60s and cultivated the frenzied atmosphere now associated with Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Thirty years ago, David Thompson, Tom Burleson and Monte Towe led N.C. State to a 27-0 record. The Wolfpack was on probation (one of four times in school history) and banned from NCAA competition, but in ’74 ousted UCLA to win the national championship. That completed a 57-1 run over two years that remains an ACC record. Thompson was national player of the year from 1973 through 1975, and remains the greatest player in conference history.

Twenty years ago, Dereck Whittenburg’s errant jumper was caught and dunked by Lorenzo Charles as unsung N.C. State beat top-ranked Houston, 54-52. The buzzer-beating basket secured the 1983 national championship in one of the great upsets in college history and catapulted coach Jim Valvano to national prominence.

Ten years ago a North Carolina men’s squad led by Eric Montross, George Lynch and Derrick Phelps captured a second national championship for coach Dean Smith, whose program won with crushing and unparalleled regularity for three decades. Smith retired with 879 wins to his credit, more than any major-college coach in history. (He could add another victory if the NCAA accepts forfeits offered by Michigan for illegal payments to players.)

Smith’s final title came on the heels of two straight by Duke, ratcheting an already-heated neighborhood rivalry to unprecedented intensity and national stature.

How distant those times seemed in 2002, when UNC couldn’t beat Hampton or Davidson, and endured the end of its unmatched streaks of consecutive 20-win seasons (31) and NCAA appearances (27).

NCSU men
Oddly, the hour of Carolina’s collapse coincided with N.C. State’s escape from a decade-long eclipse. The talented Wolfpack finally shed its stodgy offensive approach, and behind a senior backcourt finished 23-11 and an NCAA participant. That ended the longest ongoing NCAA drought among ACC members, a painful burden for a proud program. “There was definitely an NCAA Tournament watch on,” says N.C. State coach Herb Sendek, who firmly quieted critics in 2002. “It was an important threshold for us to cross last year.”

The Pack returns largely intact, with numerous options at every position. (Among five freshmen is 7-foot Adam Simons. The son of Goestenkors’ husband likely will sit out this season.) There’s no proven playmaker, but Sendek worries more about finding someone more adept at adjusting to the game’s “pulse” than “getting the ball from point A to point B.”

Sendek can afford this view because his squad is blessed with ballhandlers, including a pair of unusually large and multi-faceted players in 6-8 Marcus Melvin and 6-6 Julius Hodge. That flexibility makes N.C. State more difficult to defend and predict. Some edge was lost when Ilian Evtimov, a do-everything forward, was sidelined for the season with a knee injury. Given the scheme and circumstances, the stage is set for Hodge, a creator with the ball, to emerge as a premier player.

UNC women
A similar emergence is forecast at Chapel Hill, where “La’Tangela Atkinson’s going to be an unbelievable player in women’s basketball,” according to Sylvia Hatchell. The 17-year UNC coach insists the freshman is potentially as good as Marion Jones, point guard on the ’94 title squad, or Duke’s Beard.

Thus she’s eager to find a place for the skilled 6-foot-1 Atkinson within a veteran unit that returns four sparkling starters led by Coretta Brown, an All-ACC guard. Brown paced the squad in scoring in 2002 and promises more vocal leadership now that playmaker Nikki Teasley is in the pros. Add center Candace Sutton, post player Jennifer Thomas, guard Leah Metcalf and musically named forward Chrystal Baptist, and the Heels pose Duke’s stiffest challenge among the women.

NCSU women
When it comes to basketball names, few can top N.C. State’s 6-3 Kaayla Chones, the daughter of 6-11 center Jim Chones, a 1972 All-American at Marquette and 10-year NBA veteran. Chones, a junior, is among five starters returning for the Wolfpack. Guard Tera James, sidelined by knee injuries each of the past two seasons, also returns. “We’d like a little breather here” from injuries, says coach Kay Yow.

Last year’s Pack finished 14-15, the program’s first losing record since 1994. “I think our whole team is anxious coming off of last year,” says Yow, inducted in October into the college basketball hall of fame. “It is a motivational factor.”

The Wolfpack has sufficient depth, defensive strength and offensive punch to contend for an NCAA berth. They’ll get a quick chance to prove their mettle on Nov. 24 at the first annual women’s “Jimmy V Classic.” The remarkable doubleheader, in which Duke plays Tennessee before N.C. State tackles UConn, the defending national champion, could establish the Triangle as a capital of women’s basketball.

“This was something that I really wanted to happen, and I wanted it to happen at N.C. State,” Yow says.

The rest
Raleigh’s sprawl-inducing RBC Center, the N.C. State home court that opened in 1999, is no longer the ACC’s newest home venue. That distinction belongs to Maryland, which opens the on-campus Comcast Center, replacing 1955-vintage Cole Field House. The ’02 champs return three experienced reserves, bolstered by a strong recruiting class and flashy Steve Blake, one of the ACC’s few proven point guards. “We’re defending the title,” Williams says. “Whatever that means.”

The big news for the Terp women is their new coach, Brenda Frese, the 2002 national coach of the year at Minnesota. She replaces 25-year veteran Chris Weller, who built the program into a national power before sliding to mediocrity over the past decade.

The new coach at Virginia is a men’s assistant hired to bolster the defense. Head coach Pete Gillen’s squad returns a single starter, power forward Travis Watson, the ACC’s leading rebounder in 2002. The Cavaliers have a wealth of talented players, most with experience, and the potential to become a first-rank team.

This profile is virtually duplicated at Wake Forest, where Skip Prosser, Gillen’s former assistant, holds sway. The returning starter, senior Josh Howard, is among the ACC’s best and most exciting players and is surrounded by developing talents.

Virginia’s women are a safer bet to challenge for ACC leadership. They return four starters from last season’s NCAA squad, most prominently forward Brandi Teamer, the ’02 rookie of the year. And they retain Ryan, a tough cancer survivor with 561 career wins.

Clemson’s Davis is another formidable women’s coach, with 15 postseason appearances in 15 years on the job. This season his Tigers return three starters, including All-ACC guard Crissy Floyd and playmaker Kanetra Queen, whom the folksy Davis describes as “quick as a hiccup.”

Davis’ counterpart, Clemson men’s coach Larry Shyatt, must win after three straight losing efforts. His Tigers return three starters, most among ACC men. Of that trio, power forward Chris Hobbs, a Chapel Hill product, hints at stardom and senior Edward Scott is the ACC’s steadiest and least-appreciated ACC point guard. That may be enough to lift Clemson above expectations.

Yet if any men’s team is likely to surprise, it’s Georgia Tech. Coach Paul Hewitt has the league’s only seasoned 7-footer, Australian Luke Schenscher. His teams play hard and smart and with pride. Tech has two promising freshmen, ’02 rookie of the year Ed Nelson, and plenty of experienced perimeter players.

Who knows what to expect from the Yellow Jacket women, who seem an eternal work-in-progress behind boisterously outgoing Agnus Berenato? This year she brought in eight freshmen to mix with three returning starters.

That should be enough to separate the Jackets from Florida State and Wake Forest at the bottom of the women’s standings. FSU hasn’t kept pace in men’s basketball, either. New coach Leonard Hamilton, a native of Gastonia, would do well to avoid the program’s eighth losing season in 10 years and fifth straight. EndBlock