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Feather's ACC Tournament Blog

BY AL FEATHERSTON

ATLANTA - Philips Arena is a fairly undistinguished NBA-style arena - packed with luxury boxes, but only enough seats to look good on TV.

It's close enough to the Georgia Dome - the site of the 2001 and 2009 ACC Tournaments - that the two facilities share the same public parking lots. It's not far from the location of the old Omni, where N.C. State's 1983 Cardiac Pack started their march to glory.

This is the sixth ACC Tournament in Atlanta - three in the Omni (1983, 1985, 1989), two in the Georgia Dome (2001, 2009) and now one in Philips.

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It's the 11th different arena to host the ACC Tournament. That's if you count the Greensboro Coliseum as one site, even though its gone through four major transformations between its first tournament in 1967 (when it was a one-deck arena that seated 8,766 fans) and its most recent tournament in 2011 (when it averaged 23,381 a session).

Duke has had some success in Atlanta, but mostly in the Georgia Dome - winning both tournaments there.

The Blue Devils were less successful in the Omni.

It was there that Ralph Sampson and his second-seeded Virginia Cavaliers laid a historic whipping on Mike Krzyzewski's third Duke team in the 1983 first round (109-66) - then infuriated Coach K by complaining about Duke's "dirty play". Two years later, Duke beat Maryland in the quarterfinals of the 1985 tournament, but lost to Georgia Tech in the semifinals. And in 1989, Danny Ferry led the Devils past Wake Forest and Virginia into a titanic championship game battle with North Carolina.

That one included a classic shouting match between Krzyzewski and Dean Smith, an epic individual duel between Ferry and UNC's J.R. Reid and Christian Laettner's first career 3-point shot. It ended with Ferry's 75-foot potential game-tying shot bounced off the front of the rim.

Duke's Atlanta fortunes changed in 2001, when the tournament moved to the Georgia Dome and drew the largest crowd ever to see a conference tournament. The Blue Devils actually got off to a bad start when the team managers forgot to pack the right uniforms. But on court, things went well - Duke routed N.C. State in the quarterfinals, edged Maryland in the semifinals (on Nate James' famous tip-in) and stunningly blitzed ACC regular season co-champion  North Carolina in the championship game.

The 2009 title run was a bit less dramatic. The most excitement came in the quarterfinals when No.  3 seeded Duke edged Boston College by one when the Eagles couldn't get off a good shot at the buzzer. After that, it was fairly easy - a victory over Maryland in the semifinals and over Florida State in the finals gave Coach K his 11th ACC title.

He has 13 titles now - tied with UNC's Smith for the most in ACC history. He's won championships in four different arenas (six in Greensboro, four in the second Charlotte Coliseum, two in the Georgia Dome, one in the MCI Center in Washington).

Coach K is not the only current ACC coach with bad memories of the 1983 ACC Tournament in Atlanta. First-year Miami coach Jim Larranaga has a Virginia assistant that year. He played a major role in the outcome of that tournament, drawing a pivotal technical foul from the end of the Cavalier bench during N.C. State's decisive run in the title game.

DWINDLING ATTENDENANCE

Although the ACC has announced that the maximum attendance at Philips Arena is 19,520 this weekend, the facility is actually set up for 18,371 fans. The extra  1,200 or so is counting the media, the players, the coaches, the refs, the vendors, the security guards, the ushers, the cheerleaders and the mascots.

But no matter the capacity, the crowds for Thursday's four first-round games were embarrassingly small.  The guesstimate at tipoff of the Maryland-Wake Forest opener was less than 7,000 fans. It wasn't any better for the N.C. State-Boston College game that followed (although the ACC listed the crowd as 19,520). The turnout for the Thursday night session was no better.

The turnout is in sharp contrast to the 2001 ACC Tournament in Atlanta, when a crowd of more than 23,000 packed the Georgia Dome for the 8-9 play-in game.  The quarterfinals and semifinals drew over 33,000 fans to each session and the championship game drew a Final Four-like 40,083 fans. That's an NCAA record for a conference tournament.

ACC attendance was historically strong, at least from 1965 through 2008, when there was never a public sale of tickets. In the 1985, when the ACC returned to Atlanta for the second time, the Atlanta Journal Constitution did a survey and rated the ACC Tournament as the toughest ticket in sports - ahead of the Masters, Super Bowl or the World Series.

No longer.

Starting in 2009, when the tournament returned to the Georgia Dome, the ACC has struggled to sell all its tickets.  And while the slow sales at the massive Georgia Dome were unfortunate, it was even more alarming in 2010, when the tournament returned to its real home in Greensboro and to a sea of empty seats. Attendance at last year's tournament in Greensboro was better (it was very close to full for the Duke-UNC title game), but still far short of the event's glory days.

The decline in interest in the tournament explains the ACC's decision to play this week in Phillips, which is barely a third of the capacity of the Georgia Dome next door.

Sadly, even that small capacity is too much for the current interest level in what was once - but no longer - the toughest ticket in sports. Tickets for Thursday's sessions were selling on Stubhub for $1.99 each.

THE BUBBLE TEAMS

N.C. State and Miami entered the 2012 ACC Tournament as the league's only two bubble teams. UNC, Duke, FSU and Virginia are confident of getting bids and nobody else has a realistic chance of getting in without winning the tournament and the automatic bid that goes with it.

Normally, with State and Miami vying for one of the last few spots in the field, the fans of the two teams would be pulling against the other. But there's one quirk in the situation that should have Wolfpack fans pulling for the Hurricanes.

N.C. State's resume is pretty good in a lot of areas - especially when it comes to strength of schedule. According to The big problem for Pack coach Mark Gottfried is that his team is just 1-8 against the RPI top 50. But his team does have two wins against No. 51 Miami … and with a couple of wins in Atlanta, the 'Canes could crack the top 50 and that would suddenly improve N.C. State's biggest flaw.

The conventional wisdom is that N.C. State and Miami both need to win Friday - the Pack over No. 4 seed Virginia and the 'Canes over No. 3 seed FSU - to put themselves on the right side of the bubble. But who knows? It could take a win Saturday to get either team in the field and that means N.C. State would probably have to upset North Carolina, while Miami would need to beat Duke.

For N.C. State, the situation is very similar to what the Pack faced in 1983 in the Omni. Jim Valvano's team entered that tournament on the bubble, needing to win to get in the NCAA field. The Pack's first-round win over Wake Forest might have been enough. When they upset No. 1 seed North Carolina in the semifinals, the Pack was probably safely in (at least that's what Gene Corrigan, the chairman of the NCAA selection committee, later told author Tim Peeler).

Of course, that team removed all doubt by beating No. 2 seed Virginia in the title game and earning the automatic bid.  The '83 Cardiac Pack used its great ACC Tournament run to ignite its remarkable run to the national title.

THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE

The most prominent figure at the first day of the 2012 ACC Tournament wasn't even in Atlanta.

Referee Karl Hess was in New York, working the Big East Tournament.

The news of Hess' absence leaked before Thursday's opener - whispered by reporters who were surprised to learn that the ACC's most prominent official was not working the tournament.

But those whispers became shouts when the veteran officiating trio of Jamie Luckie, Mike Eades and Bernard Clinton took the court for the Maryland-Wake Forest opener.

All three refs had adorned their black shoes with a small piece of white tape. Written on the tape were the initials: "KH."

Was that a protest against Hess' absence? Was the ref suspended, perhaps as a reaction to his controversial ejection of former N.C. State players Tom Gugliotta and Chris Corchiani from the N.C. State-Florida State game in the RBC Center last month?

Normally, reporters can't talk to officials. But if there is a controversy that needs explaining, a pool reporter can be appointed to visit the officials' locker room. A pool reporter was requested to ask the reason for the "KH" initials.

Instead, ACC Director of Officials John Clougherty released a statement:

"Karl Hess wanted to make sure that he did not take away from the ACC Tournament, its teams and the players; therefore, he made the decision not to participate this year," Clougherty's statement read.

But if Hess' absence was voluntary and not ordered by the conference, then why did his fellow officials wear his initials on their shoes?

Clougherty's statement didn't address that issue directly. Instead, he reported:

"The officials, as a group, have agreed to respect Karl's decision and will eliminate any further distraction from the tournament."

That sounds like they were ordered to cease their protest. At any event, the officials for the last three games of Thursday's first round worked without any adornments to their uniforms.

Permit me an editorial comment: This kind of situation makes me miss Fred Barakat, the former ACC Director of Officials.

Barakat was a former coach and he was not afraid to step up when one of his officials screwed up.  For instance, when Rick Hartzell mismanaged the end of the 1997 Duke at Virginia game, Barakat talked to his crew, then issued a statement explaining their mistakes and announcing that all three officials at that game would be suspended.

Clougherty is a former official and he's very reluctant to criticize his officials in public. Everybody knows that when Hess ejected the two former Wolfpack stars, he displayed remarkably bad judgment (and remarkably thin skin). Instead of admitting to the mistake and issuing a minor punishment (which would have defused the situation), Clougherty issued a convoluted statement, admitting that Hess made "procedural errors" - but failing to address the central issue that a rabbit-eared ref removed two fans for routine heckling that was neither obscene or threatening (as testified to a non-N.C. State official who was within earshot).

Hess was actually pulled off a subsequent game in Raleigh, but since officials' assignments are not announced in advance, it was not portrayed as a suspension.

Now we have three officials making a very public protest of Hess' "voluntary" absence. We get another convoluted statement that doesn't make sense.

I miss Fred Barakat.

THE FIRST YEAR WOLFPACK COACH

Mark Gottfried got a win in his first ACC Tournament game, beating Boston College in the first round.

That's pretty common for N.C. State's coaching fraternity. In fact, four Wolfpack coaches - including the last two before Gottfried - directed runs to the ACC Tournament finals in their debut year. You could up that total to five if you want to include Vic Bubas, an N.C. State star and assistant coach, who guided Duke to the finals (and the title) in his first season.

It was no big deal when Everett Case won his first ACC Tournament. He has already won six of seven Southern Conference Tournaments in his seven years in Raleigh (including his first, 1947). His fourth seeded Pack had to upset top-seeded Duke in the semifinals to win the '54 title.

When Case stepped down three games into the 1965 season, he was replaced by assistant coach Press Maravich, who guided his first N.C. State to a stunning championship game upset of Duke.

Norm Sloan did lose his first tournament game in 1967, although he did guide third-seeded State to the finals in his second season (upsetting second-seeded Duke in the infamous 12-10 game in the semifinals).

Jim Valvano, who replaced Sloan, also lost his first tournament game in 1981. He didn't have a deep run until his 1983 team went all the way to the title. Les Robinson never had a deep run.

But Herb Sendek flirted with magic in 1997, when he guided his first N.C. State team to the title game. Along the way, his No. 8 seeded Pack upset top seeded Duke in the quarterfinals.

And Sidney Lowe's finest moment as N.C. State's coach came in his first ACC Tournament in Tampa, when he engineered a run to the finals - his 10th seeded team beating Duke in the first round.

I guess the point is that N.C. State's coaches have had a lot of success in their ACC Tournament debuts, compiling a composite 13-5 record (14-5 after Gottfried's win). And it's worth noting that the four coaches who did fashion first-year runs, all upset Duke at some point along the way.