GREENSBORO - I missed the first ACC Tournament ever played in the Greensboro Coliseum.
Of course, the building was so different in those days that it's hard to make the connection between the 23,000-plus capacity facility that now exists with the tiny, 8,766-seat arena that was the site of Larry Miller's triumph over Bob Verga and Duke in 1967.
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I was on hand when the ACC Tournament returned to Greensboro in 1971 and I've been courtside for every one of the 24 ACC Tournaments played in the building since. I had a great view of the famous Lee Dedmon/Kevin Joyce jump ball in '71, a baseline seat for the greatest game ever played in '74; a much better seat for Coach K's first ACC championship in '86 and for J.J. Redick's explosion in '03. Greensboro boasted the best overall tournament ever played in '75 and the worst in '82 (when UNC and Virginia spoiled a great championship game with a seven minute stall late in the second half). It was in Greensboro where Quin Snyder made his great defensive play to secure the '88 title and where Coach K scored what he called his breakthrough win by beating Michael Jordan and UNC in '84.
Greensboro is a great place to play the tournament - the best, in my opinion. But this will be the last Greensboro Tournament for a long time. The event moves to Washington, D.C., next March, then to Brooklyn, N.Y., for two years, then to Charlotte for a year before returning to Greensboro in 2020.
I understand the reason for the moves, but couldn't the ACC consider MY comfort when making its plans? Greensboro is convenient and familiar. I know the hotel we use and there are a variety of excellent dining options on nearby High Point Road and Spring Street - everything from Stamey's Barbeque across the street from the Coliseum to The Saigon Café (the best Asian food I've ever had) two miles up High Point Road.
I'd also add that the proximity of Greensboro to the Triangle gives Duke fans a chance to scalp tickets after the first round or two when other teams leave and their fans dump their tickets. My best memory in this regard was actually in Charlotte, back in 1969. Duke knocked off South Carolina in the semifinals and that night, I went from room to room in the adjacent hotel, buying tickets from drunken Gamecock fans. I was able to bring almost my entire fraternity at Duke down for the championship game - which turned out to be a disappointment as Charles Scott rallied UNC to the title with one of the great tournament performances in history.
Then, again, the scalping is a two-edged sword. The other Triangle fans have an equal chance to bid for extra tickets. And there are a lot more UNC partisans in the marketplace in the years when the Tar Heels have a chance. Plus, I may be overestimating the geography factor - when the tournament was in Washington in 2005, I thought it would reduce Big Four scalping. Instead, Duke fans was out in force to pick up tickets when the homestanding Maryland Terps were eliminated early. By the championship game, Duke noise dominated the MCI Center.
It will be interesting to see what the crowd sounds like Thursday night if it's Duke vs. N.C. State in the quarterfinals. Wolfpack fans usually travel well (to Greensboro, at least). It should be a lively building.
But that's a long way off. There are eight games to be played before Duke takes the court for the first time. Tuesday was just an appetizer - four also-rans playing … four teams that will be long gone before Thursday night. However, Wednesday offers a quartet of interesting games, including at least three that could make serious runs in the tournament - UNC, Miami and N.C. State.
For the record, Greensboro has been very good to Duke. The Blue Devils are 38-17 in this building with eight titles. Of course, there have been some major disappointments too, most recently the 2013 loss to Maryland in the quarterfinals.
Still, it's a great place to watch Duke attempt to pursue its 20th ACC championship.
WINNING THE CLOSE GAMES
This has been the most competitive ACC season in more than a quarter century.
A total of 59 ACC games were decided by two possessions (six points) or less - often much less. The season has included 12 games that have gone into overtime and four into double overtime.
Success (or failure) in close games has had a lot to do with how the final standings ended up:
1. Virginia 16-2 (6-1 in close games)
2. Duke 15-3 (5-1 in close games)
3. Notre Dame 14-4 (7-3 in close games)
4. Louisville 12-6 (5-2 in close games)
5. North Carolina 11-7 (3-3 in close games)
6. Miami 10-8 (5-5 in close games)
N.C. State 10-8 (1-5 in close games)
8. Syracuse 9-9 (5-3 in close games)
9. Clemson 8-10 (3-5 in close games)
Florida State 8-10 (5-2 in close games)
Pittsburgh 8-10 (7-2 in close games)
12. Wake Forest (4-4 in close games)
13. Boston College 4-14 (1-4 in close games)
14. Georgia Tech 3-15 (0-11 in close games)
15. Virginia Tech 2-16 (2-5 in close games)
The number that jumps out at you is Georgia Tech's 0-11 record in close games in the regular season. That's astonishing. The Jackets won three ACC games, but all by double figures. In the non-conference season, Georgia Tech was a reasonable 3-2 in close games.
But the Jackets started the ACC season with a double-overtime loss at Notre Dame and followed that heartbreaker with a one-point loss at home to Syracuse. Georgia Tech also lost at Clemson in overtime, by one to N.C. State (on a buzzer-beating prayer of a 3-pointer), by one at home to Louisville, by two at home to Boston College, by two at Virginia Tech, by three at home to Notre Dame, by four at home to Florida State, by five at Pitt and by six at Duke.
Boston College won one close game in the regular season - against Georgia Tech.
N.C. State won one close game in the regular season - against Georgia Tech.
Was anybody shocked when Georgia Tech lost by one to Boston College in the ACC Tournament opener - blowing a six-point lead with 1:48 to play and losing by one?
With a reasonable record in close games - say 6-5 or even 5-6 - the Jackets might have come to Greensboro as a bubble team. With a good record, Georgia Tech would be in the NCAA field today and not part of the ACC's Tuesday play-in double-header.
One other measure of the ACC's competitiveness this season: Home teams were a mere 76-60 against ACC visitors. That's just 55.6 percent - the lowest home winning percentage since 1987.
And imagine how low it might have been if Wake Forest and Virginia Tech had not been 0-9 on the road!
THE LES ROBINSON INVITATIONAL
For much of its history, the ACC was an eight-team conference. That created a perfect tournament format - four games in the quarterfinals, two in the semifinals and a championship game.
It wasn't much of a problem when the ACC became a seven-team league in the 1970s - between South Carolina's departure and Georgia Tech's arrival. The league simply gave the regular season champion a bye into the semifinals and kept the old format intact.
But the addition of Florida State to the conference lineup in 1992 did shake things up.
With a nine team league, the conference was forced to add a play-in game, matching the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds before the quarterfinals. The ACC resisted calling it a play-in game - it was officially "The First Round", but everybody knew it was a play-in game.
Then it got another name. N.C. State, dealing with self-imposed academic sanctions in the wake of an investigation sparked by Peter Golenbock's sloppy, poorly researched but incendiary book "Personal Fouls", struggled to escape the play-in game.
Actually, Maryland and Clemson met in the first play-in game in 1992, but N.C. State began a run of six straight appearances in 1993 - losing the play-in game in '93, '94 and '95, but winning it in '96, '97 and '98.
The long string of Wolfpack appearances led to the jocular nickname "The Les Robinson Invitational" for the play-in game - even though Robinson was gone after 1996 and the last two appearances in the game were by new coach Herb Sendek.
Before he left, Robinson fired off one of the great quotes in tournament history. After beating Florida State in the 1996 play-in game, Robinson told reporters: "If they're going to name the damn thing after me, I ought to win it once in a while."
The ACC hated the "Les Robinson" nickname more than the term "play-in" game. I think that distaste was behind the bizarre format that was instituted in 1999. Instead of one play-in game, there were two - a No. 7 vs. No. 8 game AND a game matching the No. 1 seed with the No. 9 seed. That second game was essentially a bye into the semifinals.
It was also unfair - the No. 9 seed thus had to win three games to win the title, while the No. 7 and No. 8 teams had to win four games.
The ACC was playing with fire. Luckily, it never got burned as the three No. 1 seeds that had to play in that game (Duke in 1999 and 2000, UNC in 2001) all won handily as they should. But keep in mind, just two years earlier, No. 8 N.C. State had won the play-in game and then beaten No. 1 seed Duke in the quarterfinals.
If the ACC had kept that madness up long enough, they would have gotten burned.
Instead, they went back to the old single play-in game in 2002 and maintained that format until expansion forced a new plan in 2005
Say what you want - the four teams that played Tuesday were teams with nothing to play for in the ACC Tournament. None of the teams are going anywhere this year.
Yet, the four teams in action played with the passion and energy of bubble teams fighting for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. It wasn't always pretty, but it was intense and always interesting.
Several of us old-timers agreed it was the best Les Robinson Invitational ever - two one-point games, each with several lead changes in the last minute and each ending on a missed shot at the buzzer … in fact, Wake Forest had THREE point-blank shots in the final seconds before the buzzer gave Virginia Tech a one-point victory.
It was a good atmosphere too. Helped by early arriving Wake Forest fans and a curtain to block the upper deck, the lower levels were full and the crowd was alive. The day featured a breakout performance by Virginia Tech freshman Jalen Hudson and even a potential controversy
Boston College 66, Georgia Tech 65
Both teams came into the game 12-18, but Jim Christian's Eagles were riding a three-game winning streak - the second longest active streak in the ACC.
But Georgia Tech, riding a four-game losing streak, withstood a 7-0 BC run to open the game and hung around, thanks to a dominant performance on the boards - largely by Maryland transfer Charles Mitchell (14 points, 11 rebounds). Midway through the half, the Jackets led 54-51 and had five straight changes to stretch the margin further.
But the Jackets wasted those three chances, thanks to sophomore forward Quinton Stephens. The masked forward had missed his first six 3-point tries, but with Tech on verge of taking command, he got into his head to fire away. Stephens missed quick 3-point shots on the next three possessions - giving him the worst 3-point day in ACC Tournament history (0-9).
BC was able to catch up and even take the lead.
But Georgia Tech senior Robert Sampson, the son of former Virginia choke artist Ralph Sampson, did hit a 3-pointer with 1:48 left to give the Jackets a 63-57 lead. At that point, the Jackets looked to be in good shape.
However, Olivier Hanlan hit two free throws at the other end, then knocked the ball away from Travis Jorgenson to set up a fast break for the Eagles. He missed the transition layup, but BC got the ball out of bounds and a few seconds later, Patrick Heckman was fouled shooting a 3-pointer.
Suddenly it was 63-62 with 1:10 left.
At the other end, Boston College benefited from a bizarre sequence. Jorgenson missed a driving layup, but teammate Demarco Cox rebounded. He was off balance and rather than fall out of bounds, he slung the ball back near midcourt. Unfortunately, the only person in reach of the ball was Hanlan and he converted the breakaway into a dunk and a 64-63 lead for the Eagles.
Still, Georgia Tech wouldn't quit and got the lead back with 28 seconds left on a drive by freshman Tadric Jackson. That just allowed Hanlan to play the hero - his drive and tough baseline jumper put BC back on top with 12 seconds left.
Georgia Tech pushed the ball downcourt and got a timeout to set up the final play. For some mysterious reason, Brian Gregory put Stephens back in the lineup. It would have been a great story had he gotten the final shot - either to make it or miss it.
Instead, guard Craig "Son of Iron Head" Heyward put his head down and plowed to the goal - much like his father used to do for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unfortunately, his last-second shot clanked off the rim, giving BC its fourth straight win.
The Eagles (13-18) will face North Carolina Wednesday, while the Jackets wrap up their season at 12-19.
It might have been the last game at Georgia Tech for coach Brian Gregory, whose job is said to be in jeopardy after going 55-71 in four seasons with no postseason trips and nothing better than a ninth-place ACC finish.
Virginia Tech 81, Wake Forest 80
Danny Manning surprised reporters when he told them he had never seen a game in Cameron Indoor Stadium before Wake Forest's loss there last week. Monday, he revealed that he had never seen a game at the ACC Tournament (not even when he was a prep star in Greensboro).
Now he has - and like his first visit to Duke, his first ACC Tournament experience was a disappointing one for the Deacs.
But it was a brilliant debut for Virginia Tech's first-year coach Buzz Williams, who was a maniac on the sidelines, sweating through his blue shirt (even though the Coliseum was so frigid that reporters were wearing coats and sweaters to ward off the chill).
It was also a brilliant debut for VPI freshman Jalen Hudson, who entered the game averaging just 6.2 points a game. The 6-5 guard from Richmond scored 23 points in the Hokies' late season overtime loss to Duke, but came back to score one point in each of the next two games.
But Hudson looked like his Greensboro namesake Lou Hudson against the Deacs. The lithe guard scored inside on some spectacular drives and outside, hitting 2 of 3 3-pointers and 10-of-10 free throws (he was a 59.0 percent FT shooter on the season).
He finished with a career high 32 points, including eight points in the final three minutes. With Wake up 80-79, Hudson slashed down the lane and finished in traffic to give the Hokes an 81-80 lead with 17.5 seconds left.
Wake Forest was out of time outs, but veteran guard Codi Miller-McIntyre tried to do what he had done all game - drive for the basket. He lost the ball out of bounds on the baseline with 6.1 seconds left.
The officials signaled Wake ball, but went to check the monitor.
While they were at the scorer's table, a replay of the drive was shown on the scoreboard - and appeared to show that the ball was out off Miller-McIntyre. When - after a three minute delay - the officials confirmed that it was Wake ball, the crowd at the Coliseum booed lustily.
It might have been the kind of controversy that has flavored the ACC over the years had Wake scored … but the Deacs couldn't do it, missing three shots before the buzzer sounded.
That sent Virginia Tech (11-21) into Wednesday's late game against Miami, while Manning will have some time to hit the recruiting trail.
The rest of us can only hope that Wednesday's second round is as good as Tuesday's Les Robinson Invitational proved to be.