Greensboro is a familiar home for the ACC Tournament, but despite the traditional location, this year's event has a new look.
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There will be five days of basketball for the first time in ACC history. Four teams have a double bye into Friday's quarterfinals and five teams a single bye into Thursday's second round. Six teams are facing the Full Monty - needing five wins in five days to win the tournament.
It's the same format that the Big East used until its breakup.
"In a way, this is more comfortable for the new members," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Tuesday. "It's new territory for the original members."
To put the format into perspective, it's worth going back then the genesis of the postseason tournament. The ACC event can trace its roots back to the tournament sponsored by the Atlanta Athletic Club in 1921. It was open to any team in the South and more than a dozen schools of all shapes and sizes entered. The tournament lasted five days before Kentucky won the first title.
That's sometimes called the first Southern Conference Tournament, but the Southern Conference wasn't involved that first year. In fact, the new league - featuring most of the teams that now make up the ACC and SEC - was formed that weekend in an Atlanta hotel. The Southern Conference took over administration of the tournament in 1922, but that first year (and the next), it remained open to any Southern school. It wasn't until the 1924 event that the field was limited to conference members only.
But even then the conference was approaching 20 members and the event took almost a week to complete. Those first Southern Conference Tournaments were long and draining affairs. Yet, the conference insisted on allowing every conference member to compete.
That was the situation in 1932 when 12 Deep South programs broke off to form the SEC. A dozen schools remained in the Southern Conference - mostly future ACC teams.
Both leagues retained the postseason tournament. The SEC kept its event in Atlanta (later moving it to Knoxville and Louisville), while the Southern Conference moved its tournament to Raleigh - in the center of the league's new footprint (which stretched from Maryland to South Carolina).
The new Southern Conference made another change - restricting the postseason tournament to the league's top eight teams.
That created considerable controversy almost every year. The problem was that the massive league (soon up to 17 teams) played nothing like a balanced schedule. That made it tough to choose between teams with good records and weak conference schedules and those with worse records, but considerably stronger schedules.
The problem came to a head in 1938 when The Citadel qualified for the tournament with a 9-1 conference record. The problem is that not only did the Cadets play the minimum number of conference opponents allowed, but that the nine wins came against the worst teams in the league. The Citadel played one game against the four North Carolina powers - and lost it.
There were voices that suggest that Wake Forest - 9-7 with one of the strongest conference slates possible - had a better case for admission to the tournament. But Duke coach/athletic director Eddie Cameron, who was the chairman of the league's basketball committee, ruled that qualification for the tournament would be strictly by league winning percentage. Otherwise, he argued, the process would be open to political machinations.
But the 1938 controversy had an odd consequence - one year later, the league voted to expand the tournament to 12 teams, which added an extra day to the process. Amazingly, a Clemson team that was one of the four extra teams allowed to compete won four straight games to win the championship … the only league title the Clemson basketball team has won in almost 90 seasons of competition.
A year later, the Southern Conference Tournament was cut back to eight teams and remained at that number until the ACC broke off in 1953. Still, there was annual criticism of the selection process and the seeding (all based strictly on winning percentage) and a myriad of plans were offered to balance the regular season or to change the selection process.
The problem wasn't solved until the ACC was formed in the spring of 1953. Seven Southern Conference schools - joined a few months later by ex-Southern Conference member Virginia - formed the new eight-team league.
And even though football was the driving force behind the formation of the ACC, the eight- team membership was perfect for the new league's postseason basketball tournament.
The shape of the ACC Tournament was formed in 1954 - four games on Thursday, two on Friday night and the championship game on Saturday. There were no byes … just a perfect balance.
That balance was upset a few times in the first few decades of the league. When UNC went on probation in 1961 and opted out of the tournament, Wake Forest got a first round bye - and won the tournament. After the 1971 season, South Carolina dropped out of the league, leaving the ACC with just seven members. From 1972 until 1979, the regular season champion was given a first-round bye (winning the tournament in five of eight seasons). But Georgia Tech joined the league again in 1980 and the perfect ACC Tournament shape was restored - although the Thursday-Friday-Saturday format was soon replaced with a Friday-Saturday-Sunday format).
But perfection didn't survive ACC expansion. The addition of Florida State in 1991-92 created a nine-team league and led to the creation of a Thursday night play-in game, matching the league's two worst teams. Only the ACC didn't like to call it a "play-in" game - they insisted that it was part of the tournament … not a play-in game to get in the tournament.
It didn't take long for the name to change. The first of the extra games matched Maryland and Clemson, but N.C. State lost on Thursday night in 1993, 1994 and 1995 - leading to the unofficial nickname of the play-in-game as "The Les Robinson Invitational."
In his final season (1996), Robinson finally won his own invitational (before losing to top-seeded Georgia Tech in the quarterfinals). A year later, new Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek also had N.C. State in the Les Robinson Invitational (for the fifth straight year) - but not only did Sendek beat Georgia Tech in the play-in game, he led the Pack past top-seeded Duke in the quarterfinals and past Maryland in the semifinals, before losing to UNC in the title game.
Despite that success, ACC coaches hated the stigma of the play-in game and prevailed on the league to come up with a new format. The result was a ridiculous scheme that matched the No. 1 seed against the No. 9 seed on Thursday night, while the No. 7 seed played the No. 8 team. The 1-9 winner earned a bye into the semifinals.
After three seasons of that nonsense, the league reverted to the Les Robinson Invitational and kept that up until the addition of Virginia Tech and Miami in 2005 (and Boston College in 2006 turned Thursday into a three-game affair.
Now the league has gone to 15 teams and that means six teams will play three games on Wednesday. The three winners and five mid-level teams will play four games on Thursday and the four Thursday winners will join the four top teams for the old-fashioned, eight-team Friday-Saturday-Sunday finish.
Welcome to the new ACC.
THE FIRST WEDNESDAY
No one knows what to expect when the six worst ACC team teams compete tonight.
Turnout for the old Les Robinson Invitational was so spotty that the ACC started allowing youth groups in for free to fill the house. There ought to be a lot of freebies for today's two afternoon games and the single nightcap. The only local team involved is Wake Forest and a large segment of the Deacon fan base is more interesting in getting rid of coach Jeff Bzdelik than they are of actually winning a game or two in the tournament.
Brey said that turnout for the first round of the old Big East Tournament was always terrible. He expects a light turnout today - except he's hoping that Notre Dame's fan base will turn out in strength.
The ACC, in an effort to pump up the crowd, has scheduled a concert featuring Country and Western warbler and Bojangles spokesman Scotty McCreery for the gap between the second afternoon game and the nightcap.
We'll see how that helps the gate.
It wasn't so long ago that an ACC Tournament ticket was worth its price in gold. Between the first sold out tournament in 1963 and the 2008 tournament in Charlotte, there was no public sale of tickets. Instead, the schools used the precious tickets to extort contributions from boosters.
The peak of interest was reached in 2001, when the ACC took over the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and drew more than fans for the play-in game than any other conference tournament drew for its title game that season. The ACC's Duke-UNC title game drew 40,083 fans - and the total attendance for the event was a record 182,525.
But when the ACC returned to the Dome in Atlanta in 2009, the fan interest had clearly slipped. For the first time in almost a half-century, tickets were available for public sale and although the announced average attendance of 26,352 per session looked good on paper, that was clearly an inflated figure.
Worse, the passion didn't return in 2010 when the event returned to Greensboro. Again, every session was listed as a sellout, but in both 2010 and 2011, there were plenty of empty seats. Things recovered a bit in Atlanta in 2012, but only because the event moved to a much smaller arena (under 20,000 capacity).
There was a time when ACC Tournament tickets were regarded as the toughest ticket in sports (in 1985, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did a survey and rated the ACC Tournament No. 1 - just ahead of the Masters and the Super Bowl). Now, Duke-Carolina tickets are harder to get than ACC Tournament tickets.
How many people will turn out this year to see Wake Forest-Notre Dame or Miami-Virginia Tech? How many will stick around after McCreery's show to see Georgia Tech and Boston College?
Only a hard-core basketball fanatic (such as myself) could get excited about that lineup.
-- 1 p.m. Wake Forest (16-15) vs. Notre Dame (15-16)
Two mediocre teams that beat Duke square off in the tournament opener. The Deacs beat the Irish in Winston-Salem in their only regular season meeting.
One interesting aspect of this game is Wake Forest's six-game ACC Tournament losing streak. That matches the worst tourney streak in school history (the last three years of Bob Staack's regime and the first three years under Dave Odom). A seventh straight loss would set a new record for futility.
Wake still has a ways to go to set the conference record. Clemson lost 11 straight in the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s and 10 straight in the 1980s (actually, the Tigers won their first game of the decade, then didn't win again until the arrival of the 1990s). Virginia also had an 11-game ACC Tournament losing streak, losing its last game in the 1950s, losing every game in the 1960s, then ending the streak with the school's first game in 1970.
Just one aside about Virginia's streak. It was so unexpected when Virginia upset three-time defending ACC champion North Carolina in the 1970 quarterfinals that the school was had to scramble for hotel rooms - Virginia officials were so used to losing in the tournament that they only booked their Charlotte hotel rooms through Friday night.
Nobody is more excited to be playing in Greensboro this week than Mike Brey.
The Notre Dame coach grew up in Rockville, Md., and he recalled sneaking a radio into his classroom so that he could listen to the Thursday afternoon games. He has a vivid memory of watching N.C. State upset Maryland in the 1975 semifinals - when Craig Davis dribbled off his foot to Kenny Carr for what proved to be the winning basket.
He also has fond memories of his first ACC Tournament as an assistant at Duke in 1988.
"That was the year we beat North Carolina for the third time in the championship game," Brey said. "But what I remember best is that we drove to the games in two vans. I was driving one and Bob Bender the other. It was like we were an AAU team. I still remember driving back after we won, roaring down I-85 with the radio turned up and blowing the horn."
Brey said he's tried to educate his players as to the history of the ACC Tournament. He also suggested that no one had more reason to love the tournament than the six teams at the bottom of the standings.
"If a team is playing Wednesday, they are not happy with their season," he said. "This is a fresh start, a chance to end the season on a positive note."
Brey has another reason to want to stick around Greensboro this week.
"We just had nine inches of snow in South Bend," he said. "I wake up this morning and its 70 degrees here. I'm in no hurry to get back."
-- 3:30 p.m. Miami (16-15) vs. Virginia Tech (9-21)
This is an oddity - Virginia Tech won just two ACC games all season … and both were against Miami.
"The first game, we caught them early," Virginia Tech coach James Johnson said, referring to Tech's 61-60 overtime win in Miami on Dec. 8. "They were still trying to figure out who they were going to be and how they were going to play. Then [in a 52-45 win in Blacksburg on Feb. 15], we made some shots."
Larranaga, who won the tournament a year ago as the top seed, pointed to the changes both teams underwent over the course of the season, suggesting that the first two meetings were like four different teams. And, he offered, this matchup will be like two more new teams.
There are whispers that Johnson, who is 22-40 in two seasons at Virginia Tech (6-31 in the ACC), might not survive to coach a third season in Blacksburg, especially with a new athletic director to make the call. Larranaga offered a strong defense of his embattled opponent.
"I've always believed that a coach should be given time to build a team with his own recruits," the Miami coach said. "James, he's headed in the right direction. I believe that [sophomore center Joey] Van Zegeren will play in the NBA. [Freshman big man Trevor] Thompson is a talent. So are [freshman guards Devin] Wilson and [Ben] Emelogu. One more good recruiting class and they'll be right there."
-- 7 p.m. Georgia Tech (15-16) vs. Boston College (8-23)
This is a repeat of one of last year's first-round games. The Eagles won 84-64 as freshman Olivier Hanlan poured in a record 41 points.
"We've won a game in the tourney in three of four years, but we haven't won two games yet," BC coach Steve Donahue said. Actually, he's off a year - unless that's a prediction. The Eagles have won first round games in 2011 and 2013, while losing the 2012 opener.
Brian Gregory is still looking for his first ACC Tournament win after making fast exits in 2012 and 2013. But his team finished the regular season strong, winning at Syracuse and finishing up with a home victory over Virginia Tech. That two-game winning streak is tied for the longest active streak entering the tournament (with Maryland and N.C. State).
Gregory suggested that his team is in much better position after getting sophomore forward Robert Carter back to full health and senior guard Trae Golden back close to 100 percent.
The big question about the six bottom teams won't be answered Wednesday. Three will win and three will lose. But how many will add a second win Thursday? And can any of the six mount the five-game winning streak that will be necessary to win the title and earn an NCAA bid?
Several coaches cited UConn's run through the Big East Tournament in 2011, when the Huskies won five games in five days - then used that run to win six NCAA games and the national title.
"We got a good look at that," Brey said. "We gave them their last loss before that run. We beat them in Storrs [in the last regular season game]."
But the Notre Dame coach is not asking his team to match that feat.
"Everybody talks about UConn's run," he said. "I told my guys, 'Let's win one, then we'll go back to the hotel and see where we stand.'"
While I didn't agree with every player picked to the three All-ACC teams picked by the media and the coaches this week - it's hard to get too upset about any of the results announced Monday and Tuesday.
Just one note about the two groups voting these days.
The media team is the historic All-ACC vote. We've been picking the team since 1954.
The coaches began picking their team last year. So it has a two-year history.
Normally, I'd be inclined to suggest the coaches know more about basketball than the media, except that one of the league's coaches didn't vote N.C. State's T.J. Warren to the All-ACC first team. That's not to say there weren't some dumb votes by the media - two idiots picked James Michael McAdoo for first-team All-ACC and four numbskulls voted Jabari Parker as the ACC defensive player of the year.
There's another difference between the media and the coaches' vote. The media vote is public record, while the coaches vote in secret. We can't find out which coach put Warren on his second team. But we can learn which media members cast dumb votes.
Actually, I learned that one writer originally left Warren off the first team and another writer left off Parker. When a player comes so close to unanimous honors, Dave Goren, who heads the ACC media organization contacts the aberrant writer to make sure the vote was not a mistake. In this case, both writers changed their ballots to make Warren and Parker unanimous.
I checked with Goren to find out who voted McAdoo first team. It was two guys I've never heard of - one a radio producer and one who writes for a preseason football magazine. The eight guys who left Marcus Paige off the first team were all from the northern end of the league, except for two Virginia-based TV men.
I know I should be more outraged over the dumb picks, but as long as we come up with reasonable teams, it's hard to waste too much emotion about it. OF COURSE, there will be some dumb votes. We have a history of that. This year's strange picks are nothing like the racially motivated snubs of Charlie Scott in 1969, when five writers left the All-American off their first-team ballots.
I actually like having two All-ACC teams because it allows us to honor more players. I wrestled over the choice of K.J. McDaniels and Malcolm Brogdon for first-team All-ACC honors this season. Well, it turned out both of them made it - the media had McDaniels first team and Brogdon second … the coaches had Brogdon first team and McDaniels second.
Now they can both claim to be first-team All-ACC guys.
The two All-ACC teams together are reasonable. Both groups picked Warren as player of the year and both picked Parker as rookie of the year. Both picked McDaniel as defensive player of the year (although I wish the coaches had gone with Mitchell - he deserved the honor too).
Those are all solid picks.