It’s Saturday morning in March in North Carolina. Bradford pears are blooming, young people are in love and the ACC tournament in Atlanta is shaping up to be the most interesting and consequential it’s been in years.

It was an inauspicious beginning on Thursday. The referees got taken to task for their forlorn effort to express solidarity with the charming Karl Hess. If it hadn’t been for the vigilance of bored, resentful reporters courtside, their act of defiance would have gone completely unnoticed by history.

And yes, the Philips Arena was pretty much empty beyond a few family members and sleepy reporters, but the suits of the ACC assured the media (for no one else was watching) that their eyes were deceiving them, that in fact Thursday’s games were capacity-plus SELL-OUTS!

Luke DeCock reported the evidence in front of him early during the game:


But something must have changed in the time it took Maryland to defrock the Demon Deacons, 82-60. The ACC discovered that 19,520 souls had somehow watched the game in Philips Arena.


As Chico Marx said in Duck Soup, “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

Of course, the ACC’s barkers technically managed to distribute 19,520 tickets, whether by putting them under people’s windshield wipers or stuffing them in schoolchildren’s backpacks or hiring homeless people to give them out at highway off-ramps. Or something like that, according to the AJC.

Fortunately, college basketball resumes printing money this afternoon for the aforementioned doubleheader of shining moments and more utterings of “tobacco road” than Scarlett O’Hara’s descendants will be able to bear.

Tip-off for UNC-N.C. State is 1 p.m., while Duke and Florida State have a re-re-match at approximately 3 p.m. Triangle Offense will be tweeting like mad with our nacho-cheese covered fingers. Follow us @IndyweekSports. And we expect today’s events to be so exciting that we’ll write about it before tomorrow’s grand showdown between UNC-N.C. State winner and the Duke-Florida State winner.

Before we yield the floor to Mike Potter’s explanation of why some blue-tinted china may get broken Monday night, let us deliver the first of the 73 advance plugs we’ll make for the following event:

  • Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Joe Nocera, the New York Times columnist formerly known as a quiet business columnist who kept to himself and didn’t talk to the neighbors, had been going postal on the NCAA for the last several months in his columns. For example, he’s written about the shabby treatment of UNC football player Devon Ramsey at the hands of the NCAA and the school.

In the Jan. 1, 2012 issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Nocera puts his green eyeshades on and proposed a system by which college football and (male) basketball players might be paid. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a must-read.

Also a must-read is Taylor Branch’s The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA. Branch presently has a teaching appointment at UNC, and he made a few ripples at an event two weeks ago in which he charged that UNC’s coaches have forbidden their players from talking to him.

On Wednesday, March 14, we expect the C-word* to be bandied about a bit as Nocera comes to Chapel Hill looking to rumble on the eve of the three-week event that is expected to deliver $771 million to the NCAA coffers each spring. He’ll address such topics as, and we quote:

Is it time to kill the N.C.A.A.?

Should college athletes collect salaries?

Should universities sponsor semi-pro teams?

Does corporate money threaten the University’s mission?

It’ll go down at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center, beginning at 5:30 p.m. We suggest getting there early. We’ll be there. Taylor Branch might be there, too.

Selection drama starts Sunday, but it may not get really good until Monday.
Of course there’s going to be plenty of drama on Selection Sunday when the NCAA Men’s Tournament Field of 68 is announced so everyone can begin filling out those brackets.

And apparently there’s going to be some on Monday night at 7 when the Women’s Selection Show airs.
ESPN Bracketology’s latest report on Friday afternoon has UNC, with its 20-11 record, absent from the bracket as the ostensible 65th team in the field of 64.

And if the Tar Heels get left out—especially since the school is hosting games in Chapel Hill—excuse me, but that’s just ridiculous.

There’s a difference between an embarrassing loss and a bad loss.

And although the Tar Heels were on the wrong end of road blowouts at Duke and Connecticut—each of which is among the top six teams in the country—and a neutral-court blowout by South Carolina, the Tar Heels had only one “bad loss” and that was their inexplicable 52-47 defeat by visiting Clemson back on Jan. 12.

What nobody should forget is that the Tar Heels annihilated the Tigers the next chance they got, winning 90-51 in the first round of the ACC Tournament in Greensboro.

UNC beat now No. 8 Miami, swept two games with apparent NCAA lock Virginia and WNIT-bound N.C. State, and beat a nice Wake Forest team on the road. A team that doesn’t belong in the tournament field just cannot do that.

Flip those results against the Deacons and the Wolfpack and they’re probably both in the NCAA field. Eight of UNC’s 11 losses are against teams in the Top 15, for heaven’s sake, and all but one was to a team rated No. 32 or better in the RPI.

Duke (24-5) is of course locked into the field, while it’s safe to bet the house N.C. State (18-15) will be headed for the WNIT.

By all rights Duke should get the top No. 2 seed in the tournament, having beaten Maryland more convincingly than the Terps beat the Blue Devils as they split head-to-head matches. All of Duke’s losses except the 75-73 shocker to the Wolfpack in the ACC quarterfinals were to teams ranked in the nation’s Top 12, and only the one to Connecticut was at home.

Duke will be watching the Selection Show on Monday night at the University Club, and selected local media will get to see the Blue Devils’ reaction as they find out their fate.

If all is going to be right with the world that night Duke will be assigned to Norfolk for the first two rounds and paired up with Notre Dame in the Raleigh Regional, and UNC will be playing in the first round in Chapel Hill.
The ESPN bracket has Duke going to Chapel Hill and then to Kingston, R.I., for another ostensible matchup with Connecticut. Hint: a very good source said that if Duke appears on the board first and is not opening in Chapel Hill, that means UNC is in the field.

In the “All hell done broke loose now” scenario, Duke won’t be assigned to the Raleigh Regional, UNC won’t be in the tournament and then the Tar Heels will turn down a WNIT bid.

But let’s just hope folks are smarter than that. —Mike Potter