Many fans arriving at the Greensboro Coliseum for the opening round of the 2013 ACC Tournament were carrying copies of the Greensboro News and Record, which featured - as it always does when the tournament is in the Gate City - a huge special section promoting the event.
This year's special section contained something unusual - a strip ad on the first page calling for the ouster of Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik.
Most of the front page is taken up by a photo of N.C. State freshman T.J. Warren dunking during practice Wednesday. But the bottom three inches of the page was sold to a group known as BuzzOut, which has been advocating the dismissal of the third-year Deacon coach.
The strip ad contains the single statement "In 25 ACC road games, Jeff Bzdelik is 1-24 (.040) â€¦ 20 of those losses have come by 10 or more points."
There is also a link to the website: Firebz.com.
The front page there cites Bzdelik's record against Maryland (the Deacs' first round opponent Thursday) -- 0-7 with an average margin of 17 points - and his overall record - 34-59 (.366).
There's a lot more on the site â€¦ not much of it surprising.
Bzdelik's situation has not been helped by Wake Forest AD Ron Wellman, who botched the press conference when he announced the dismissal of former coach Dino Gaudio, who was an impressive 61-31 (the best winning percentage for a Wake coach since 1925) in his three seasons in Winston-Salem. According to Wellman, the main reason for Gaudio's firing was his lousy postseason record (0-3 ACC Tournament; 1-2 NCAA Tournament).
That was really a smokescreen. The real reason was the school's problems with the quality of some of the kids that Gaudio had recruited - problem children that have led to eight dismissals and transfers in the last two seasons.
Unfortunately, Wellman's statements have come back to haunt Bzdelik. He's had to clean up Gaudio's mess - and many Wake Forest fans have blamed all the turnover on him. In addition, he's given lie to Wellman's misleading claim that Gaudio was dismissed for postseason failure - his own postseason record is worse than Gaudio's. In his three seasons at Wake Forest, he hasn't won a single post season game. He hasn't won one in his career since 2008.
That includes Thursday night's 75-62 loss to Maryland when the Deacons collapsed in the final eight minutes.
Wellman has a convenient excuse to dodge the controversy, at least temporarily. The Wake Forest athletic director is in Indianapolis, sequestered with the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.
Dan Collins, the Wake Forest beat writer for the Winston-Salem Journal (and certainly the best-informed media person about the Wake Forest situation), believes that Bzdelik - who has two more seasons on his contract - will be back next season, despite the fan revolt. But are the prospects for next season any better for the Deacs? Wake loses just one senior, but guard C.J. Harris is clearly their best player. Bzdelik has a solid freshman class (center Devin Thomas made the ACC All-Rookie team), but several of those kids will have to make major jumps next season to get Wake out of the ACC lower echelons. He'll be adding two three-star recruits.
Bzdelik does have a five-star recruit lined up - guard Shelton Mitchell of Waxhaw, N.C. Unfortunately, Mitchell won't arrive until 2014-15.
There could be a lot more BuzzOut ads by then.
LOOKING FOR THE FUTURE
The ACC's eight weakest teams were on the court Thursday for the first round of the ACC Tournament.
Well, it's possible to argue that fifth-seeded N.C. State is better than fourth-seeded Virginia, which had the day off. The Wolfpack has a better overall record and a much better RPI. The Pack is certain of getting an NCAA bid, while the Cavs are still trying to escape the bubble.
But that's the only quibble. Clearly, the league's seven worst teams were on display at the Greensboro Coliseum.
Now here's the interesting part - of the eight teams that played in the first round â€¦ seven of them played in last year's first round. Only Miami, the sixth seed in 2012, earned a bye in 2013 â€¦ their spot in the first round taken by 2012 ACC champion Florida State.
Six schools have been stuck in the first round for the last three seasons: N.C. State, Wake Forest, Boston College, Maryland, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.
That raises the question - are any of this year's eight first-round teams poised - as Miami was a year ago - to improve to contender status?
I would argue that three of the six consistent second-division teams are moving in the right direction â€¦ I'm not so sure about the other three. The best chance to move up next year:
-- Maryland - Even the expected loss of Alex Len to the NBA draft won't slow the progress Mark Turgeon is making. The Terps add a quality point guard in recruit Roddy Peters, plus an accomplished Michigan State transfer Evan Smotrycz. The Terps could make an impact in their last ACC season.
-- Georgia Tech - Brian Gregory has size and a strong freshman class. The biggest problem this year has been the lack of a consistent point guard. That remains a question, but Corey Heyward (the son of ex-NFL star Craig "Iron Head" Heyward) will be back after missing this season with a knee injury and Solomon Poole, who tried (and failed) to join the Jackets at midseason, ought to be better with a full preseason.
-- Boston College - Steve Donahue's kids are growing up. There is not a senior or a scholarship junior on this team. The freshman backcourt of Olivier Hanlan and Joe Rahon ought to be better as sophomores. Forward Ryan Anderson was a third-team All-ACC pick as a soph. If big man Dennis Clifford can shake his knee problems and come back healthy, the Eagles could soar next season.
The three programs I worry about:
-- Wake Forest - we talked about them â€¦ little reason to think next year will be much better than this year.
-- Virginia Tech - This year was all about Erick Green. If they could finish last with the ACC player of the year and the national scoring leader, where will they finish next season without him? James Johnson is bringing in a big, but lightly regarded recruiting class. The Hokies best newcomer next season is probably guard Adam Smith, a transfer from UNC Wilmington.
-- Clemson - It's not promising that the Tigers are losing the two best players off a 5-13 ACC team. Brad Brownell has been a solid game coach in his three seasons at Clemson, but he's been a subpar recruiter. The Tigers do get Devin Coleman (his best 2012 recruit) and Jaron Blossomgame (his best 2013 recruit) back from injuries. But it's hard to see them making up for the loss of Devin Booker and Milt Jennings.
It's hard to project the 2013-14 ACC with three newcomers bringing the league to 15 members. We don't even know what format they'll use in the 2014 ACC Tournament. But it's a pretty safe bet that Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Clemson will be among next year's also-rans - just as they've been the last three years.
THE AFTERNOON SESSION
The crowd was sparse for the tipoff of the tournament's first game - Boston College and Georgia Tech.
Those in their seats for tipoff got to see Georgia Tech deliver a knockout punch - a 15-0 start.
Only one problem - Boston College got off the mat.
Showing remarkable composure, the Eagles shrugged off their nightmare start then proceeded to totally dominate the rest of the game. Olivier Hanlan justified his ACC rookie of the year election with the greatest freshman performance in ACC Tournament history -41 points (on 8-of-10 3-point shooting), five rebounds, two assists and three steals.
Hanlan's shooting was uncanny, but what really made some eyes pop on courtside was his defensive moxie. He made a play in the first half that evoked memories of the late Len Bias. Georgia Tech was still up 14 with just under seven minutes in the half when Patrick Heckmann followed his own miss to cut the lead to 12. Seconds later, Hanlan came out of nowhere to steal the inbounds pass - just as Bias did against UNC in 1986 - and converted a three-point play to cut the margin to nine.
At that moment, I told John Prouty that if Boston College could get to the half within 10 points, they might be in the game.
Well, the Eagles were within 10. In fact, they led 38-33 at the half, ending the first period with a 24-9 blitz. Hanlan scored 17 of those 24 points. He added another defensive gem just before the break - pressuring Mfon Udofia in the backcourt so much that the senior guard made a wild pass to Robert Carter near the sideline. Carter had to dive to save the ball and his desperate fling back toward Udofia was intercepted by Hanlan, who converted it into the go-ahead basket.
Hanlan's late 3-pointer gave him 41 for the game - bettering the 40 points Harrison Barnes scored in the 2011 semifinals to set the ACC freshman record. His eight 3-pointers also tied a freshman record set by Mark Price in 1983 - when the ACC played with the experimental - short - 3-point line.
The crowd - fueled by a large N.C. State turnout - was much, MUCH better for the second game Thursday afternoon. The Coliseum was close to 90 percent filled.
The game itself fizzled as Virginia Tech's Erick Green, the ACC player of the year, endured his worst game of the season - 15 points on 5-of-19 shooting with one assist and four turnovers.
But it wasn't just as case of Green having a bad night. It was a case of Green being smothered by N.C. State guard Lorenzo Brown.
Oh, Green had some shots go in and out and he couldn't get to the foul line to save his life (just two free throws for a guy who averages nine a game, the second highest total in the ACC). But he was also hassled into those four turnovers by Brown, who was in his face all night.
It was a statement from Brown, who was left off the ACC All-Defensive team despite leading the league in steals.
"Lorenzo made up his mind that he was going to do a good job on him and he did," N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said.
With Green sputtering, the Hokies didn't have a chance. They were only close at the half because erratic junior Jarrell Eddie was on target, but in the long run, Wolfpack senior Richard Howell (22 points, 12 rebounds) was almost single-handedly enough to break it open early in the second half.
That sets up the single most important game of the tournament - N.C. State vs. Virginia in Friday's quarterfinals. The Cavs needed N.C. State as a foe - beating Virginia Tech wouldn't have done much for their resume. But beating a top 50 RPI opponent like State should be enough to get them over the hump.
THE EVENING SESSION
Good crowd for the first evening game, but the surprise was that it seemed more pro-Maryland than pro-Wake Forest.
Jim Sumner told me that during the ACC Women's Tournament last week, opposing fans ganged up on the Terps - chanting "ACC â€¦ ACC!" at the soon-to-be Big Ten members. There was nothing like that Thursday night - the crowd seemed 60-40 split in favor of the Terps and there was no pro-ACC sentiment.
It was a sloppy, bizarre game â€¦ but it was deliciously close and competitive â€¦ for 32 minutes. C.J. Harris, unfairly left off the three All-ACC teams (should should have been at least third team) seemed curiously reluctant to shoot after scoring 13 first-half points. He managed just four field goal attempts in the second half (missing all four). Some poor free throw shooting allowed Maryland to get a little separation and with the pro-Terp crowd making a lot of noise, Maryland pulled away for a surprisingly easy win.
The Wake Forest fan base may have been split by the Jeff Bzdelik controversy. Immediately after the game, there was an ugly scene behind the Wake bench. An irate fan ran down the aisle, shouting insults at the embattled coach. Angry words were exchanged and some fans reported that Bzdelik made a rude gesture at his hecklers.
Amazingly, the final game of the night was almost a carbon copy of the Wake-Maryland game. Underdog Clemson - playing its most efficient offensive half of the season (just 3 turnovers and 4 of 6 3-pointers) held the same 35-30 halftime lead that Wake held at the half against Maryland.
And like the Terps, the Seminoles quickly fought their way back into the game. And, like Wake-Maryland - the game see-sawed back and forth until about the eight minute mark, when the favorite - in this case FSU - seized control.
The only difference was that when Maryland took a double-digit lead on Wake, the Deacons rolled over and died. Clemson looked just as dead, trailing by 13 with two minutes left. But Clemson didn't quit like Wake Forest did. The Tigers cut the margin to two points with 13 seconds left, but Michael Snaer - who had a terrible game to that point - went to the foul line with seven seconds left and sealed the game.
That doesn't qualify as another of his game-winning plays, but it was the most dramatic moment of the ACC first day.
It's worth noting that the top four seeds won all four games Thursday - the first time that's happened in the first round since the league went to this format in 2006.
Duke gets a rematch with the Maryland team that handed the Devils a two-point loss in College Park. UNC gets Florida State in a rematch of last year's ACC title game - although neither team is nearly as good as last year's models.