Photo courtesy of NC State athletics

Tobacco Road is the name given to the “Big Four” universities in North Carolina.

Duke, North Carolina and NC State are separated by no more than 25 miles. Wake Forest was also located in Wake County prior to 1956, when the school relocated to Winston-Salem. Tobacco Road is home to the most historically prolific concentration of athletic success in American sports. It’s also home to arguably the best rivalry in sports — Duke vs. UNC.

Tobacco Road has produced some of basketball’s greatest players — players like Michael Jordan, David Thompson, Tim Duncan and Christian Laettner. These players combined for four national championships, three Olympic gold medals, and 11 NBA Championships. The universities have also been led by some all-time great coaches such as Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith, Jim Valvano, Roy Williams and Everett Case.

As a basketball program, UNC is No. 3 on the all-time wins list; Duke is currently No. 4; NC State is No. 25. Wake Forest is not currently inside the top 50.

March Madness

Every year since 1974, at least one team from Tobacco Road has qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

Duke owns the NCAA Tournament’s largest comeback. In 2001, the Blue Devils defeated Maryland after trailing by 22 points. Duke’s Christian Laettner is the tournament’s all-time leading scorer with 407 career tournament points. UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough is the tournament’s fourth all-time leading scorer with 325 points.

Duke’s Coach K is the NCAA Tournament’s winningest coach with 97 victories. North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Dean Smith are the second and third most winningest coaches in tournament history with 79 wins and 65 wins, respectively. UNC has the second-most tournament appearances all-time with 50. Duke has 43 appearances and is currently fifth on the all-time list.

UNC and Duke are also second and third in tournament wins, with 126 for the Tar Heels and 114 for Duke. UNC has the third-most national championships with six, Duke is right behind with five. NC State is tied for seventh all-time with multiple teams, winning two titles. The three schools have combined for 13 national championships.

Dixie Classic

The Dixie Classic was the creation of NC State head coach Everett Case. It was an annual basketball tournament consisting of the Big Four teams and four additional teams invited from around the country. The tournament ran from 1949 to 1961, each year ending with one of the Big Four winning the title.

NC State won the first four Dixie Classics, and a total of seven. UNC won the tournament three times, including the final year it was played. Duke and Wake Forest won the tournament once, each.

The tournament was held every year at Reynolds Coliseum on the campus of NC State.

Big Four Tournament 

The Big Four Tournament was played annually from 1971 to 1981 in Greensboro, North Carolina. It consisted only of the four Research Triangle Universities.

Wake Forest won the tournament four times with a record of 10-12. NC State won the tournament three times with a record of 13-9. UNC and Duke each won it twice, with records of 12-10 and 9-13, respectively.

Conference Play

The Big Four have combined to win 71 ACC and Southern Conference tournaments. UNC has won 26 conference tournaments, Duke has 24. NC State has 17 and Wake Forest has five.

While in the SoCon, the four schools won or shared 17 regular season titles. The four schools have also won or shared 52 regular-season ACC titles. Since the 1980-81 season, one of the four teams have won or shared all but seven regular-season titles.

A Way of Life

In North Carolina, college basketball is a way of life. As a baby, you’re dressed in your parents’ team’s apparel. As a student, you watch the ACC Tournament during class with your classmates and teachers.

When you come to be an adult, you listen to the broadcast at work if you weren’t lucky enough to be granted time off to watch it. The luckiest of us attend the tournament and get to watch up to three games a day of pure college basketball bliss, only to come back the next day for more.

Tobacco Road heroes of days gone by fill up story-time from fathers at your bedside. History lessons run the length of commercial breaks and TV timeouts. Colorful words fly around the room like flies on crap in the weening moments of close games. The memories along the way will fill the minds of the someday elderly North Carolinians when they begin to pass down their Tobacco Road passion to the littlest of their last name.

To everyone else, college basketball is the sport that occupies the colder months on the calendar. In North Carolina, college basketball is the sport that’s elevated to its identity.