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Al Featherston from Tampa!

TAMPA -- Don’t be fooled by the name of the arena.

Even though the 2007 ACC Tournament is being played in what is officially known as the St. Pete Times Forum, the facility is in downtown Tampa -- nowhere near the concrete monstrosity in St. Petersburg where the Devil Rays play and great Duke teams go to die.

The Blue Devils have never played in this arena, originally known as the Ice Palace. No need to bring up the nightmarish collapse against Kentucky in the 1998 regional finals or the frustrating 1999 national title loss to UConn. Both painful moments happened on the other side of the bay.

Tampa has been fairly neutral territory for Duke basketball over the years. As near as I can figure, Duke has played just one game here before -- the second game of Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching tenure. He brought his 1980-81 team to Tampa to meet South Florida in the dedication game of the Sun Dome (and just to avoid confusion, that’s USF’s on-campus arena, not the lopsided dump in St. Pete once known as the Sun Coast Dome -- now Tropicana Field).

By the way, the Blue Devils won that game 83-72 for the second of Coach K’s 702 victories at Duke.

The St. Pete Times Forum is a modern, multi-purpose indoor arena. Inside, it looks very much like the MCI Center in Washington, where Duke won the 2005 ACC title. The court is surrounded by a large, lower bowl of seats. A row of luxury boxes separates the lower section from a small midsection of seats. A second row of luxury boxes pushes the upper seats into the stratosphere.

There were no fans in the middle or upper sections Wednesday as 10 of the 12 ACC teams worked out for an hour each. The sessions were open to the public free of charge, but few Tampa natives took advantage of the opportunity. When N.C. State worked out from 2-3 p.m,, there were exactly 111 fans in the stands. When the Pack left the court and Georgia Tech took their place, about a third of the audience got up and left. By the time Wake Forest took the court an hour later, their were exactly 54 spectators left.

That’s not to say that Tampa is ignoring the 54th ACC Tournament. Signs greet visitors at the airport and large, temporary electric signs are set up on I-4 -- probably the most consistently traffic-clogged stretch of interstate in the country -- to direct ACC visitors to the arena. Both the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune played the tournament up -- the Times even had a special section, just like most North Carolina newspapers, while the Tribune is promoting its special section in Thursday’s paper.

Moving the tournament out of the ACC’s normal geographic footprint has done nothing to diminish the media’s interest in the tournament. Brian Morrison, the ACC’s director of media relations, issued his normal number of credentials for the event. And there were times Wednesday when the writers and broadcasters outnumbered the fans.

Most of the media members were wondering, where was Duke?

The Blue Devils were one of two teams to skip Wednesday’s practice opportunity. North Carolina was the other absentee.

UNC’s absence was not unexpected. Dean Smith always hated the NCAA’s mandatory pre-game practice appearances. Naturally, the NCAA did it to promote the tournament, but Smith argued that the rule forced his kids to miss an extra day of class. Not only does the NCAA require teams on site a day early to practice, but it makes the coach and three players meet with the media for half a hour.

During the 1985 NCAA Tournament, at a regional in Birmingham, Ala., Smith slyly struck back at the NCAA by showing up for his press conference with three substitutes. When only a couple of questions were directed at the trio of little-used players, Smith smugly launched a tirade against the NCAA for forcing his players to miss class for nothing!

The NCAA responded by changing its rules. It didn’t cancel the mandatory pre-game appearances, but now, in addition to the players who join the coach on the podium, the locker rooms are open and all players are available.

But the ACC’s practice sessions have always been voluntary and Smith’s teams have never participated -- a tradition that’s been extended by Bill Guthridge, Matt Doherty and now Roy Williams.

Duke’s situation is different. Krzyzewski has worked out on-site many times over the years.

Two years ago, that wasn’t the case in Washington, D.C., when the new format necessitated by the ACC’s expansion from nine to 11 teams (Boston College was still a year away from entry) eliminated the practice day. Krzyzewski complained loudly because the conference didn’t provide a practice time for the teams with first-round byes. He was very bitter about the prospect of playing in an unfamiliar arena with nothing more than a 20-minute pregame warmup against a team that had played in that arena a night earlier.

His objections were one of the primary reasons that the ACC re-instituted its practice day. So where was Coach K Wednesday? After raising such a stink over practice time two years ago, why did it suddenly become so useless now?

Duke will be making its first-ever appearance in the St. Pete Times Forum Thursday and his team’s only exposure to the unfamiliar facility will be the brief pregame workout before the 7 p.m. tipoff against N.C. State.


Duke and N.C. State have met 22 previous times in ACC Tournament play -- more than any other two schools.

A handful have been memorable:

-- N.C. State upset top-seeded Duke in the 1965 title game as reserve forward Larry Worsley had the game of his life with 30 points. The most memorable aspect of that game came afterwards, when the State players rushed to press row and lofted dying coach Everett Case (who had left the team earlier that season) on their shoulders and allowed him to cut down the nets.

-- One year later in 1966, N.C. State was on the verge of upsetting top seeded (and No. 2 ranked) Duke in the title game for the second straight year. But senior guard Steve Vacendak, a second-team All-ACC player, rallied Duke in the final moments. His play was so impressive that he not only earned the tourney MVP award, but the next week was voted ACC player of the year.

--One year after that, first-year coach Norm Sloan pulled off the greatest deep-freeze in ACC history. He didn’t plan on an all-out stall, but Vic Bubas wouldn’t come out of his zone and State ended up winning the 1967 semifinal matchup 12-10. That’s the game where UNC broadcaster Bill Curry is credited with the line: “This is about as exciting as artificial insemination.” It turns out that he stole the line from Durham sports editor Jack Horner, who used it in a column a year earlier to describe Duke’s 21-20 victory over North Carolina in the 1966 semifinals.

-- Jim Valvano started his 1987 ACC title run in Landover, Md., with a first round overtime victory over No. 3 seeded Duke. In truth, the game was close, but it wasn’t very good. But it did propel the Pack to better performances in dramatic victories over Wake Forest and North Carolina.

-- First-year coach Herb Sendek used Duke as a stepping stone to a remarkable tournament run in 1997. The No. 8 seeded Pack knocked off Georgia Tech in Thursday night’s play-in game, then bounced back the next afternoon to upset top-seeded Duke in the quarterfinals. Sendek’s Pack beat Maryland in the semifinals before losing to UNC in the fans -- the closest thing to four wins in four days that the ACC has ever seen.

-- A year after Duke manhandled N.C. State in the 2002 ACC title game, the Blue Devils appeared destined for defeat in the 2003 finals. Trailing the Pack by double digits with 10 minutes to play, freshman J.J. Redick went nuts, scoring 20 of his game-high 30 in the final 10:04. Amazingly, Redick didn’t make the all-tournament team since most ballots had been collected before he blew up.

Duke has a 14-8 edge in its tournament matchups with N.C. State -- the last win coming in the 2005 semifinals, when Redick tortured the Pack again with 35 points (he did win the MVP that year).

But the Blue Devils won’t have Redick in uniform Thursday. And N.C. State will have senior point guard Engin Atsur, who sat out Duke’s 79-56 victory over the Pack back on Jan. 20.

“He’s a major difference for us,” Wolfpack coach Sidney Lowe said Wednedsday. “He’s a calming influence.

Atsur himself pointed out that when he’s out, it forces almost everybody else on the team to play out of position. That was especially hard on junior Gavin Grant, a fine wing who has struggled as a replacement point guard.

Another N.C. State player said he’s been looking forward to a rematch with Duke for a long time.

“I remember after the first game telling one of my teammates that I want to see them again,” sophomore center Ben McCauley said. “I said that if we see them again, we’re going to put up a much better battle this time and maybe even get a win. When I saw that we were paired with Duke, I actually got pretty excited. We know that team isn’t 20 points better than us.”

N.C. State may have another edge. Lowe is a link to the school’s glorious past -- and a lot of the Wolfpack history was written during the ACC Tournament. The Pack’s new head coach was the tournament MVP in 1983, when N.C. State started its miraculous run to the NCAA title by winning the league crown in Atlanta. Assistant coach Monte Towe was the starting point guard on the Pack’s 1973 and 1974 ACC champs -- the latter leading to the 1974 national title. Quentin Jackson, the team’s director of basketball operations was the point guard for N.C. State 1987 ACC champs. And Justin Gainey, who played point guard for all 160 minutes of State’s remarkable run to the 1997 title game, is on the staff as an administrative assistant.

“Coach talked to us about 1983,” McCauley said. “He’s so proud of that. He knows what it takes to win here.”

Lowe is promising miracles … but he’s not sure who will perform them.

“Special things are done [in the ACC Tournament] every year,” Lowe said. “You just don’t know who is going to do it. Hopefully, it will be us, but somebody is going to do something special.”