The Atlantic Coast Conference, a creature of the post-World War II Southeast, has been wedded for most of its history to the automobile. That has certainly been true for its signature event, the ACC men’s basketball tournament, held in North Carolina for all but eight of its first 52 years. This past weekend the tournament was staged at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C., a downtown location in stark contrast to the usual parking-enveloped venue. Plunking a 20,000-seat arena amidst an urban neighborhood was doubtless accompanied by a certain amount of heartache. Still, for a visitor it was refreshing to walk to and from hotels and restaurants, with easy access to mass transit and a sense of connectedness, to something more substantial than oceans of asphalt. This lesson has been embraced by Charlotte, in the process of discarding its current arena, a suburban structure not even 20 years old, in favor of a newer model downtown. (Or uptown, depending upon your pretensions.) The virtues of such a setting apparently helped convince the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) to move its tournament, which predated the ACC version, from Raleigh’s RBC Center to Charlotte.
The D.C. area previously hosted three ACC Tournaments at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., just off the Beltway north of the nation’s traffic-choked capital. That building has been replaced by the MCI Center. Both the Charlotte and D.C. examples stand in distinct contrast with Raleigh, where leaders spent more than $160 million in local and state funds siting N.C. State’s home basketball arena in not-so-splendid, auto-oriented isolation.
The major disadvantage of having the ACC Tournament in D.C. was that the center of federal power is hardly ACC country. The Washington Post was not particularly enamored of the event, there were few signs beyond the Chinatown area that anything special was going on, no U.S. Senators bothered to crash the gate, and spectators at the 10-game tournament were infrequently moved by the action.
Like it or not, the state of North Carolina was and remains the heart of the conference. Counting Duke’s championship victory on Sunday, teams from the state have won 44 of the 52 men’s titles. The tone was set early in ACC history, when only a 1958 Maryland championship interrupted a string of 16 straight titles for Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest. Not until Maryland came through in 2002–after Duke, UNC and State had won eight national championships–did a team from outside the state win the NCAA tournament.
Domination by the so-called Big Four is resented to various degrees by other schools in the conference, which in the new, expanded ACC will outnumber the North Carolina contingent two-to-one when Boston College joins next summer. So the tournament has hit the road, visiting D.C. this year before going to Tampa in 2007 and Atlanta (for the fifth time) in 2009. Next year Greensboro will host the event, where in 2004 it spawned an estimated $15 million in economic benefits.
The dampened crowd enthusiasm in D.C. may be an unintended consequence of playing the ACC Tournament in a down-sized arena. The MCI Center holds 20,301 spectators, about 3,000 fewer people than the Greensboro Coliseum. That, combined with the addition this season of Miami and Virginia Tech, meant fewer tickets for boosters, driving up the size of contributions necessary to secure tournament tickets. The rule of thumb is hardly scientific, but it appears the greater the proportion of fatcats in the seats, the lower the level of unrestrained passion.
This may explain the surprising lack of crowd involvement during a quarterfinal between top-seed North Carolina and lowly Clemson. The Tigers are tough and athletic under head coach Oliver Purnell, but losing basketball is a way of life at the South Carolina school. Clemson achieved its 14th tournament win in more than a half-century of trying when it defeated Maryland, the host school, in the opening round. That gave the Tigers one more win than South Carolina managed in 34 fewer years in the league.
Yet, when Clemson led by 13 points deep in the second half against the mighty Tar Heels, second-ranked in the nation and the team with the best ACC record during the regular season, the MCI crowd barely took notice. Silence reigned even in seating populated by Duke and N.C. State fans, who in other years would have lent avid support to any team threatening to topple the Tar Heels.
The crowd was more engaged when a young man failed miserably in an attempt to hit a half-court shot for $1 million during halftime of one game. The lusty boos he engendered were exceeded only by those that greeted an award for Wake alum Billy Packer, a prominent TV college basketball analyst with a predilection for second-guessing.
The absence of crowd involvement was further proof once-mighty UNC is just another team, the mantel of invincibility woven by Dean Smith now little more than a pleasant, tattered memory.
The home fans rushed the court and players cut down the nets after the Heels rallied to beat Duke in the regular season finale two Sundays ago, an embrace of modest success once unimaginable in Chapel Hill. The happy reaction was understandable, considering that as recently as 2002 the Tar Heels were 8-20. Three years later they finished first in the toughest conference in the country. Unfortunately, for a group of players and fans still re-learning how to take achievement in stride, the celebration may have promoted a premature sense of satisfaction at a juncture in the season when hunger is a carefully cultivated virtue.
Whatever the explanation, the Heels lacked some essential quality in D.C. They displayed an odd lack of emotional involvement, and were fortunate to beat a Clemson team glaringly in need of ballhandlers. The next day, UNC fell to better-balanced Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament semifinals.
Meanwhile, a low blow ensured we’ll never know which was the best team in the ACC this season.
Wake Forest and UNC met once during the regular season, thanks to an unbalanced schedule forced by expansion and coaches’ reticence to play too many conference games. The Demon Deacons won decisively against North Carolina at Winston-Salem in mid-January, but finished a game behind the Heels in the standings.
Come March, Wake’s increasingly testy Chris Paul was caught by television cameras sneaking a punch to the genitals of Julius Hodge, the Wolfpack’s resident provocateur. The Deacons went on to win that game on a last-second shot by Paul. Several N.C. State fans shamed the school with unconscionable comments shouted at the Wake sophomore. Following some prodding, Wake Forest suspended Paul for its next game, which happened to be an ACC Tournament rematch with the Wolfpack. Without their star the Deacons looked quite ordinary and were eliminated, a stumble that probably cost them a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament that begins this week. They never played UNC again, either.
Wake’s loss was N.C. State’s gain. Reaching the semifinals with two ACC Tournament wins ensured not only an NCAA berth but further validation for ever-embattled Herb Sendek. The ninth-year head coach runs a clean program. His teams are competitive and play tough defense. They win more games than they lose, and N.C. State now has the second-longest run of NCAA appearances among ACC schools, with four. (Duke leads with 10.) Sendek’s players also avoid off-court trouble and seem to be in good academic standing.
These characteristics are routinely touted as essential to properly ordered college programs. Yet many State fans wish Sendek gone, chafing as his teams play an unexciting brand of ball that has yet to secure a first-place ACC finish, a league title or a sense the Wolfpack is the equal of its nationally prominent in-state rivals.
The seventh Sendek team to advance at least to the ACC Tournament semifinals met the same ultimate fate as its predecessors. That is, the Pack lost, falling to Duke for the fourth time in the past five tournaments. The annual dismissal was led by J.J. Redick, the junior guard who tied a Duke record with 35 points in their ACC Tournament match-up.
Redick went on to win MVP honors as Mike Krzyzewski’s program defeated Georgia Tech for its sixth title in seven years and ninth overall, to go with three national championships. Given the lack of home-and-home play during the regular season, one might argue the ACC Tournament finally crowned a real champion.
Hate Duke if you must–the MCI crowd reserved its most vocal disapproval for Redick and the Devils. Understand, however, that the presence of a great program to shoot at, to inspire passion, to draw national attention, is a vital component of the ACC’s enduring strength. So it was in its early days when Everett Case was at N.C. State, and for a quarter-century afterward when Smith was ascendant at Chapel Hill. So it is now as Krzyzewski carries the banner.
“I didn’t know the ACC that well when I got here,” says Krzyzewski, a Chicago native who turned in one of his best coaching efforts this season. “After being here for 25 years, it’s an unbelievable honor for me to be a coach in the ACC, the greatest conference in the United States…. This is where college basketball has been at its best over the decades, and it’s important for us to keep that tradition alive, especially at Duke.”
Barry Jacobs is a freelance writer, Orange County commissioner and the author of the forthcoming book Across the Line, stories of the first African-American basketball players in the ACC and SEC.