The curtains were hung in the upper deck of the Greensboro Coliseum Wednesday, in anticipation of a small turnout for the first round of the 61st ACC Tournament.
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But while the old arena was not packed, there was an impressive turnout to see the six worst ACC teams begin their impossible quest for a title and an NCAA bid. The lower bowl was packed on the sidelines and while there were some gaps in the end zones, there were plenty of people there too. Counting the 500 or so fans in the abbreviated up deck, attendance was probably close to the announced figure of 10,945.
As one wag put it, "it was the largest Wednesday turnout in ACC Tournament history." Of course, it was the first Wednesday session in tourney history.
Those who showed up (or watched on TV) got to see Wake Forest, Miami and Georgia Tech take a tentative first step toward a national championship. Only 10 more steps to go.
Quite frankly, none of Wednesday's winners will be making an NCAA Tournament run. And while one or two might pull a surprise today, it's a pretty safe bet than none of the three will be on hand Sunday for the ACC title game.
Of course, the gap between the promise of the ACC Tournament and harsh reality is greater than officials and coaches would like to admit. We always talk about the possibility that any team can play its way into an NCAA bid by winning the tournament - and this week there was a lot of talk about how UConn did just that in the 2011 Big East Tournament - but the truth is that in the 33 years since the NCAA went to its modern format (meaning no limits on teams per conference), no ACC team that wasn't going to get an at-large bid anyway has won the ACC's automatic bid.
Some believe N.C. State did just that in 1983, but Wolfpack historian Tim Peeler talked to Gene Corrigan, a selection committee member in '83, who said that State's first-round victory over Wake Forest was enough to secure a bid … and the Pack's semifinal victory over UNC certainly locked up the bid. The title game victory over Ralph Sampson and Virginia was merely icing on the Wolfpack's cake.
Several teams - like the '83 Wolfpack - have improved their NCAA standing by winning an ACC Tournament game or two. Duke did that in 1980, when a slumping team beat N.C. State and UNC in the first two rounds to secure a bid - then capped it with a title game victory over Maryland.
A couple of teams have come close to playing their way into the tournament, but N.C. State's 1997 team and the Pack's 2007 teams both lost in the finals and wound up in the NIT. In fact, those two Wolfpack teams are the only two teams since 1980 to reach the finals and NOT get an NCAA bid.
There are a couple of teams starting play in Thursday's second round that might be able to win a bid by reaching the finals, even without winning it. But that doesn't describe Wednesday's three winners.
WAKE FOREST 81, NOTRE DAME 69
Within the last week - including the ACC teleconference Monday, the practice day interviews Tuesday and Wednesday's postgame press conference - Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdeilk talked to the press three times. And in those three interviews, he must have pointed out that his roster included "nine freshmen and sophomores" at least half a dozen times.
Bzdelik, who could very well be in his final days as Wake's coach, is trying desperately to play the youth card as his fourth season in Winston-Salem winds to a close. There is some truth in that observation in that his current team is built around sophs Devin Thomas and Codi-Miller McIntyre, along with two budding talents in sophs Tyler Cavanaugh and Arnaud Adala Moto.
Still, Bzdelik's tenure was extended by at least one more day, thanks to a career performance by the oldest player on his roster. It was some deadly long-range shooting by senior guard Coron Williams that allowed the Deacons to jump on top of Notre Dame early. Then it was his free throw shooting that stifled the last, faint hopes of the Irish.
Williams, a transfer from Robert Morris, finished with 25 points (six more than his previous high at Wake Forest) to lead all scorers. Williams hit back-to-back 3's early, turning an 8-7 deficit into a 13-8 lead that the Deacs never relinquished. He ended the half 3-for-3 from 3-point range, then connected on his first 3-pointer of the second half. He finished the game 7-of-8 from the floor and 4-of-5 on 3-point tries.
Late in the game, when Notre Dame had fought back from a 13-point deficit to get to within six points with two minutes left, Williams went to the foul line and nailed two free throws to pad the lead. He hit four more free throws down the stretch to keep the Irish at bay.
Of course, he did have some help from the kids. Thomas had 19 points, 10 rebounds and five assists to singlehandedly outplay Notre Dame's trio of big men. Miller-McIntyre scored just five points, but he played a great floor game with six assists and just one turnover. He also added five rebounds.
There was a funny scene in the postgame press conference. Bzdelik appeared on the podium with his two seniors - Williams and four-year starter Travis McKie. Although McKie was almost invisible in the win (4 points and 2 rebounds in 32 minutes), the Wake coach spent almost two minutes praising McKie for his fortitude - for sticking with the Deacons program through adversity … for finishing what he started.
Fair enough, but you had to wonder how Williams - who bailed on the Robert Morris program for a chance to play at Wake - felt about Bzdelik's paean to a player who refused to transfer.
The victory gives Wake Forest a Thursday afternoon matchup with Pittsburgh (2 p.m.). The Panthers buried the Deacons 80-65 at home in mid-January.
As for Notre Dame, they'll head back to snowy South Bend with their quickest tournament exit in six years. Mike Brey's last five Big East teams all won at least one game in the Big East Tournament … his last four teams all reached the Big East semifinals.
Notre Dame was never really in the game. Oh, with about 12 minutes left, the Irish cut a double figure deficit to five points and had several chances to get closer. But Brey's team missed two open 3-pointers, missed two shots close in and turned the ball over before Miles Overton hit a 3-pointer for Wake Forest. After Notre Dame scored a two-pointer, Overton hit another 3 from exactly the same spot and suddenly the lead was nine again.
"They hit a bunch of timely shots," Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton said.
Brey didn't use his team's poor performance - either in the regular season or the tournament - to trash his new league.
"Big picture here, forget the game today," he said. "We're very honored to play in the ACC Tournament.
This wraps up Brey's worst season at Notre Dame and the first time since 2006 that one of his Irish teams failed to win 20. With a 15-17 finish, this will be Brey's first Notre Dame team to finish with a losing record and the first that will not qualify for a postseason tournament - either the NCAA or the NIT.
On the other hand, Wake Forest is 17-15 and no matter what happens against Pitt, the Deacons will finish with their first winning season under Bzdelik.
MIAMI 57, VIRGINIA TECH 53
I missed the first half of this thriller - and I don't mean that ironically - while listening to the coaches after the first game of the day.
When I was handed a halftime stat sheet as I took my seat on press row, one number jumped out at me - Virginia Tech had zero turners at the half … and Miami had just two.
Those are historically low turnover numbers. In fact, the ACC record for least turnovers by one team (1) the and least by two teams in one game (5) was set in one of the most famous games in ACC history - N.C. State's 12-10 deep freeze victory over Duke in the 1968 semifinals.
The Miami-Virginia Tech game was slow, but it wasn't THAT slow. So I watched the start of the second half with real interest, watching to see how long the near-perfect ballhandling could last. Unfortunately, Miami committed its third turnover on its second possession of the half and Virginia Tech turned it over three minutes in when Joey Van Zegeren rebounded a missed shot and had the ball knocked away from him. Moments later, Rion Brown came up with a clean steal for Virginia Tech's second turnover.
As it ended up, Virginia Tech committed three turnovers - tied for the third fewest in tournament history. Miami added eight, so the two-team total of 11 was also the third fewest. With the low number of turnovers, there was also a low number of steals - just three between the two teams, matching six other tournament games for the lowest total in history.
But I was wrong to be distracted by the statistical show because Miami and Virginia Tech played a real thriller. The game was close all the way and with 9.5 seconds left, Virginia Tech's Van Zegeren went to the free throw line with two shots - and the Hokies down just 53-52.
But Van Zegeren (a 36.6 percent FT shooter on the season) clanked both shots and moments later Miami's Brown hit two free throws to stretch the lead to three. The 'Canes fouled freshman Devin Wilson to prevent him taking a game-tying 3-pointer with 5.6 seconds left. He hit his first free throw and intentionally missed the second.
Amazingly, VPI's Jarrell Eddie stole the rebound - just Tech's third offensive rebound of the game. He went up in traffic with a chance to tie the game, but hit the bottom of the backboard with his shot. Miami rebounded, added two more free throws and clinched the 57-53 win.
Obviously, the game has little meaning. Neither team is going to make a run for the tournament title and neither is going to get a postseason bid. Still, it was a thrilling and interesting game.
It disappointed me in just one way. Media members of my generation pride themselves on their impartiality, but I admit that I was pulling like a dog for Virginia Tech to tie the game and force overtime. I was hoping for three or four extra periods.
You see, it was just after 5:30 p.m. when Van Zegeren went to the line with a chance to tie or give Virginia Tech a one-point lead. The third game of the night was set to start at 7 p.m.
The window for the Scott McCreery concert was shrinking fast. A few overtimes and we wouldn't have been subjected to more than a few minutes of his monotone - maybe he could have sung the national anthem before the day's final game.
Okay, I admit to an irrational prejudice against McCreery's music - he's the reason I stopped watching American Idol. But I can't help how I feel - I'd rather listen to Jeff Bzdelik talk some more about his "nine freshmen and sophomores" before hearing another McCreery song.
I am pumped to see Miami take on N.C. State tonight (7 p.m.) in the second round. The 'Canes lost a one-point heartbreaker to the Wolfpack in Miami, but hammered N.C. State in Raleigh.
GEORGIA TECH 73, BOSTON COLLEGE 70 (OT)
The power outage that delayed the Boston College-Georgia Tech game for about 10 minutes late in the first half Wednesday night is nothing new for the ACC Tournament. Indeed, the 2014 women's tournament in the same building was delayed on back-to-back days with power outages.
The most famous power outage in ACC history was in the final minutes of the 1959 title game in Reynolds Coliseum. And it wasn't an accident.
Here's what happened. N.C. State was on probation, so when North Carolina beat Duke in the semifinals to earn a title game matchup with the Pack, Tar Heel coach Frank McGuire talked about sitting his starters to rest them for the upcoming NCAA Tournament. In the end, he went with his regular starting lineup, but when State put on a small spurt and opened a 10-point lead with just under 10 minutes left, McGuire cleared his bench.
The sellout crowd at Reynolds was outraged that McGuire was waving the white flag. One fan was mad enough to sneak into the basement, smash a door to the electrical room and short out the system, plunging Reynolds into darkness. Power was eventually restored, although there was a second brief outage a few minutes later. After the game, McGuire got into a shouting match with a reporter who questioned his will to win.
The Boston College-Georgia Tech game started as if both teams were playing in the dark.
By the first TV timeout at 13:59, the score was 4-2 and the two teams were a combined 1-of-17 from the floor.
The display was so bad that it reminded me of the 1982 first-round game between N.C. State and Maryland. That one was 13-11 at the half - no slowdown, just bad offense - and the fans were so outraged that the crowd booed both teams as they exited the court. Later, a reporter asked N.C. State coach Jim Valvano what he thought of the boos. He said he didn't mind - he felt like booing too,
In the end, State won 40-28 as Maryland hit just 12 of 44 field goal attempts.
But the BC-GT bad start was merely misdirection. After the ugly opening, the two teams played a beautiful game. Georgia Tech seemed to be in control, thanks to a massive edge on the backboards (a 41-30 advantage), but with the Jackets up 10 late and coasting to victory, sophomore Patrick Heckmann began imitating countryman Dirk Nowitzi - hitting a couple of long 3s, then slicing up the Jackets with the drive.
He brought the Eagles all the way back, although it was Canadian soph Olivier Hanlan - who burned Georgia Tech for 41 points in last year's ACC Tournament opener - who hit a free throw to force overtime.
The two teams went back and forth in the extra period, until Tennessee transfer Trae Golden converted a 3-point play with 35 seconds left to give Georgia Tech a two-point lead. Ryan Anderson missed a hook shot at the other end and Bernard Holsey ended up hitting four straight free throws to clinch the Georgia Tech win.
It was the ninth Boston College loss of the season either by less than five points or in overtime.
Georgia Tech (16-16) will advance to a second-round matchup with Clemson tonight at 9:30 p.m. The winner of that one will face Duke in Friday night's late game.
THE ALL-TRANSFER TEAM
Transfers used to be rare in the ACC.
But that was before the NCAA loosened its standards for transfers, allowing seniors who graduated with eligibility remaining to transfer without penalty and granting transfer waivers with dizzying frequency.
Now the ACC is loaded with transfers. Enough that a couple of writers decided to pick an All-Transfer team. In fact, there were enough transfers to pick two teams:
- Rodney Hood, from Mississippi State to Duke (Transfer of the Year)
- Trae Golden, from Tennessee to Georgia Tech
- Anthony Gill, from South Carolina to Virginia
- Ralston Turner, from LSU to N.C. State
- Donnavan Kirk, from DePaul to Miami
- Evan Smotrycz, from Michigan to Maryland
- Michael Gbinije, from Duke to Syracuse
- Desmond Lee, from New Mexico Junior College to N.C. State
- Coron Williams, from Robert Morris to N.C. State
- Alex Dragicevich, from Notre Dame to Boston College
Hood, who was second team All-ACC by both the media and coaches, was an easy pick for transfer of the year. It was also interesting that because of expansion, we had two transfers within the league - Gbinije from Duke to Syracuse and Dragonvich from Notre Dame to Boston College. Adam Smith (UNC-Wilmington to Virginia Tech) probably would have made at least second team, but he was hurt and hasn't played since December.
Just one note: We decided that only first-year transfers were eligible. Notre Dame's Garrick Sherman (from Michigan State to Notre Dame) and Dez Wells (from Xavier to Maryland) were also transfers, but both played for their new schools last year and weren't eligible for this year's transfer team.
I wrote about knucklehead voters for All-ACC honors yesterday, but I refrained from naming any of the media members whose votes had me scratching my head.
But I got some new information Wednesday morning and that provoked me to out one outlandish voter.
Mike Jula is one of the two voters who made the ridiculous choice of James Michael McAdoo as first-team All-ACC.
That's bad enough, but it also turns out that Jula left Jabari Parker off the ACC All-Freshman team.
That double-dose of stupidity deserves recognition.