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Feather On The 2015 ACC Tournament And The History Of The Greatest Conference Tournament Of Them All

Everybody is focused on the NCAA Tournament these days, but winning the ACC's official championship should be something to cherish. Under the previous format, there was little chance to do that. A team would win the title, there would be a release of confetti from the ceiling, a brief award ceremony at midcourt, then everybody would rush home to see the NCAA pairings released a couple of hours later.

Randolph Childress put on one of the greatest shows in ACC history in the 1995 Tournament.
Randolph Childress put on one of the greatest shows in ACC history in the 1995 Tournament.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

I love the ACC Tournament.

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Maybe it's a generational thing. I grew up - and first got started as a professional sports writer - when the ACC Tournament was a unique event - it was a three-day extravaganza to decide the ACC champion and the league's sole representative to the NCAA Tournament.

I wasn't old enough to remember much about 1957, when an unbeaten and No. 1 ranked North Carolina team almost saw its season end in the ACC Tournament semifinals against Wake Forest. But my first ACC Tournament as a sports writer was in 1974, when No. 1 N.C. State (the eventual national champion) had to go overtime to beat No. 3 Maryland and earn the ACC's only ticket to the NCAA playoffs.

The very next year, the NCAA Tournament expanded to allow two teams per conference to play in the NCAA Tournament. Five years later, all restrictions were off and a conference could send as many teams as deserved it to the tournament.

The ACC Tournament - and especially that 1974 N.C. State-Maryland game - were responsible for that.

Nowadays, every conference (except the Ivy League) has a postseason tournament. Why not? It's a big money-maker and it rarely hurts a league's NCAA chances. But none of those tournaments has a history to match the ACC Tournament.

You can still get a whiff of what the ACC Tournament was like in the old days when you watch Championship Week on ESPN. There are still almost 20 one-bid leagues. The championship games in the Big South or the Patriot League are like a throwback to the old ACC Tournament.

Just close your eyes for a second and imagine that just one bid was available this week in Greensboro. Can you imagine the drama of every game - especially a potential Duke-Virginia final?

The current system is fairer … but the old way was a lot more fun.

Having said that, I still love the ACC Tournament, even in its current form. Allow me a few observations:

-- I love, LOVE, LOVE!! the new format.

In the first place, the Saturday night finale (with Friday night semis and Thursday quarterfinals) is a throwback to the original ACC Tournament format. When the tournament made its debut in 1954, there were four games on Thursday, the semifinals Friday night and the championship game on Saturday night.

Even before 1954, that was the format for the old Southern Conference Tournament from the time it moved to Raleigh in 1933 until the seven best athletic programs in the league broke off to form the ACC after the 1953 season.

So that was the format for half a century before the ACC switched to a Sunday afternoon championship game in 1982. I'm glad to see the old format return.

The second reason the new/old format is better is exposure. The prime time slots on ESPN Friday and Saturday nights will go a long way towards reestablishing the ACC as the nation's premier basketball tournament.

Thirdly, the new format allows the ACC finalists - usually the league's two best teams -- a bit more rest before NCAA play begins. Actually, everybody gets an extra day - the semifinal losers are finished Friday night, the quarterfinal losers on Thursday and so on.

That's not a huge deal, but it is a positive.

Finally, I love the new format because it gives us time to celebrate the ACC champion.

I know everybody is focused on the NCAA Tournament these days, but winning the ACC's official championship should be something to cherish.

Under the previous format, there was little chance to do that. A team would win the title, there would be a release of confetti from the ceiling, a brief award ceremony at midcourt, then everybody would rush home to see the NCAA pairings released a couple of hours later.

The Monday morning papers would be focused more on the upcoming NCAA outlook than upon the ACC championship.

Now, we crown a champion on Saturday night and the winners can have most of Sunday to celebrate their accomplishment before moving on to their NCAA dreams.

-- Which side of the historical divide are you on?

From its earliest days, the ACC Tournament has been a controversial event.

Originally, the ACC was a maverick in the college basketball world. In 1951, when the NCAA first allowed the 10 biggest conferences to designate their champions for an automatic NCAA bid, nine of the 10 conferences elected to send their regular season champion to the NCAA Tournament.

The Southern Conference was the exception, designating its tournament champion as its sole NCAA representative.

It was a logical decision at the time - the Southern Conference included 17 members and schedules were wildly uneven. In 1952, West Virginia had the best regular season record in the league, but played just one game against the four toughest teams in the league. Furman did something similar with Frank Selvy, piling up win after win against the leagues patsies, but dodging the powers on Tobacco Road.

The problem is that it didn't make a lot of sense for the new ACC to send its tournament champion. Starting in 1955, the ACC played a balanced home-and-home schedule for the next half century. But the tournament remained the centerpiece of the conference season - both for its revenue and its tradition.

Several coaches hated the arrangement - most vociferously, UNC's Frank McGuire (who compared the event to Russian Roulette) and Maryland coach Bud Milliken (who called it "the $60,000 farce" - at a time when the tournament was bringing in $72,000-80,000).

The most vocal defenders of the tournament were N.C. State coach Everett Case (who declared, "The Tournament is a banquet and every game a feast.") and Duke athletic director Eddie Cameron, the chairman of the league's basketball committee.

He defended the tournament in a 1956 press conference.

"The tournament has a pretty sound basis," Cameron said. "It not only has been the chief source of conference revenue, but has also done much for the sport itself. I believe the interest is at a tremendous level now and it would be a gamble to try any other method. For instance, the Southeastern Conference cut out its tourney and attendance and interest are at the lowest level in years in the SEC."

Cameron told the writers that he had just returned from trips to Louisiana and Florida.

"In both states, there were important college basketball games between traditional rivals," he said. "But the crowds were small and the attention they got in the press was slight. In this area, we have basketball at its peak and I think the tournament has a lot to do with that."

It's no coincidence that the one major conference that elected to play a postseason tournament became the only major conference where basketball - and not football - was the premier sport.

And over the years, the early divide - with McGuire and Milliken on one side and Case and Cameron on the other - has continued. Later coaches at UNC (especially Roy Williams) and Maryland (including both Lefty Driesell and Gary Williams) have continued to deride the ACC Tournament, while later coaches at N.C. State and Duke have continued to defend it.

Again, is it coincidence that N.C. State (seven regular season titles and 10 Tournament titles) and Duke (18 regular season titles and 19 Tournament titles) have had more tournament success than regular season success, while UNC (29 regular season titles and 17 Tournament titles) and Maryland (five regular season titles and three Tournament titles) have had more regular season success than tournament success?

So before you trash the tournament, just stop and think, "Do I want to align myself with Maryland and UNC in this debate?"

-- Obviously, Maryland is gone and the Terps' replacement, Louisville, will be playing in its first ACC Tournament.

But Louisville has had great tournament success - in a number of different conferences.

Denny Crum won 11 Metro Conference Tournament titles between 1978 and 1995. In 2003 and 2005, Rick Pitino guided the Cards to titles in the Conference USA Tournament.

Louisville joined the Big East in 2006 and in eight seasons in that conference, Louisville won three conference titles, including the last two it participated in.

And, in one year as a member of the American Athletic Conference, Louisville won the conference tournament.

So while none of the Cards has any ACC Tournament experience, senior Wayne Blackshear comes to Greensboro with an 11-0 record in three postseason tournaments in two different leagues. No current Louisville player has ever lost a conference tournament game.

-- Freshmen have not played a big role on ACC championship teams in recent years.

In 2006, Duke won the title with freshmen Josh McRoberts and Greg Paulus in the starting lineup. A year later, UNC won in Tampa with three freshmen starters - Brandon Wright, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington.

But since that tournament, just a total of just two freshmen have started on the last seven ACC championship teams - Elliott Williams started for Duke on the 2009 championship team (but played just 13 minutes and went scoreless) and London Perrantes started for Virginia in 2014 (playing 34 minutes and scoring seven points).

Obviously, Duke must break that trend if the Blue Devils hope to win the 2015 title with three freshmen in the starting rotation.