So, with damaging losses to Clemson, Georgia Tech and Stanford, and without any resume-building wins, and after one of the least entertaining regular seasons in ACC history, and with Thursday’s slate of rematches poised to be completely unwatchable, here we are: to State, this ACC Tournament very much matters.
After the loss at Clemson, our NCAA Tournament chances were seemingly hopeless. But with such a weak bubble, and with a little help, we may actually be able to use the ACC Tournament as a springboard into the NCAA Tournament, just like so many other ACC teams have done over the years. There was a time when a 9-7 league record and a win in the ACC Tournament used to be a lock for an NCAA Tournament bid. But that was back before expansion and scheduling imbalances watered down the tournament match ups, back when the ACC Tournament used to be a pinnacle event, and quarterfinals Friday was the ACC’s Holy Day.
Those privileged few among us who ever attended the tournament experienced a weekend-long pageantry of pent-up intensity, borne from a grueling, two-month round robin, an event that was unrivaled by any other in college basketball, including the Final Four. Reds, blues, oranges, and golds, at first divided evenly by sections on Friday afternoon, eventually shifted and merged towards center court as colors were eliminated and new alliances formed to root against Carolina. Outside, after each session, the sharks frenzied as winners snatched up the tickets of the losers who just wanted out of the Old North State. The ACC distinguished itself for decades with its tournament, and due in no small part to N.C. State.
State won its first five ACC Tournament titles at home, in Reynolds Coliseum. The consensus among the older generations is that the greatest ACC game ever played – and arguably the best in all of college basketball – was the 1974 State-Maryland ACC Championship game. A little perspective: State and Maryland were ranked one and two in the nation, but the loser of that game would go home. We all know State won in overtime, en route to the National Championship, but that game’s legacy was far greater. It was largely responsible for the expansion of the NCAA Tournament beyond 16.
Almost a decade later, in 1983, the Cardiac Pack stormed into March with its only shot at the NCAA Tournament as the ACC Tournament champion. You may vaguely recall that a few weeks later that team left Albuquerque as National Champions. Remember, there were no Cinderellas and March wasn’t Madness before State set that precedent.
Then, in 1987, Vinny Del Negro stepped to the free throw line in the Capital Centre in Washington, D.C., trailing those Bastards Born & Bred (who were undefeated in league play) 67-66 with only 14 seconds left, and coolly drained two foul shots for the 68-67 victory and the ACC Tournament title. Contrary to what Mike Patrick will tell you, it hasn’t always been just Duke and Carolina. On that day 25 long, tortuous years ago, State was tied with Carolina for ACC titles, and led Duke by three.
That was State’s tenth ACC title, but since ours is a story of stubborn, tragic endurance, it was also our last. We’ve had our moments since, albeit short-lived; otherwise the ACC Tournament has been mostly agony. The 1989 team that was honored recently lost its Friday game as the one-seed. Then, State played on Thursday six consecutive times between 1993 and 1998; those first three years, State couldn’t even get to Friday. In the past 15 years, we’ve played for the championship four times, losing each one (none worse than 2003). Even still, the tournament captivated us. We could cheer on James Forrest and Georgia Tech past Duke on Friday and then Carolina on Sunday in 1993; Randolph Childress and Wake Forest past Carolina in 1995; and Greg Buckner’s dunk with 1.3 seconds left to beat Carolina in 1996. Then we were finally relevant again, making that unlikely Thursday-to-Sunday run past Georgia Tech, Duke and Maryland, before coming up just short on tired legs on Sunday in 1997. We beat eventual-National Champions Maryland on Saturday in 2002 and made another unlikely run to Sunday in 2007.
The ACC Tournament used to represent the best the league had to offer, but in recent years it has lost its luster, and is hardly the premier event it used to be. There’s a variety of reasons, many of which can be blamed on Boston College and, of course, John Swofford.
Some say expansion — and “the de-emphasis on basketball and the dilution of traditional rivalries [which] has sucked the life out of what was once its signature event” — has created an overall lack of appreciation for the tournament’s once-great legacy, while many of the attendance woes can be blamed on the poor economy and somewhat on the location, but also on fan bases that simply no longer care.
There’s a common perception among many fans that the ACC over-promotes the Blues while officials give them preferential treatment (for reference: here and here), which has created an unfair advantage that has resulted in one of them winning all but one of the past 15 tournament titles. But I think the main problem nowadays is the overall poor quality of the league, due in no small part to the poor match ups created by an unbalanced league schedule. The past few regular seasons, particularly this one, offered little quality and even less excitement, and far too often the basketball was simply unwatchable.
Demand for tournament tickets has declined since 2009. I recall a Sports Illustrated column back in the late 90s about how an ACC Tournament ticket was a luxury few could acquire, as tough as a Master’s ticket, and even more so than the Final Four. The reason was simple: ACC Tournament tickets weren’t made available to the general public. The ACC Tournament sold out for 43 consecutive years, and in 2001 at the Georgia Dome, average attendance was over 36,500 per session with a record 40,803 on Saturday (TheACC.com). By 2009, again at the Georgia Dome, 26,000 booklets were sold on Friday, yet fewer than 20,000 “passed through the turnstiles” (N&O).
This year, the tournament is at Philip’s Arena, which seats less than 19,000…and tickets are still available.
And it’s not just the fans who don’t care. It’s been well-documented that Roy Williams doesn’t give a sh** about Carolina or the ACC Tournament. But to be fair, most years lately State has played like it doesn’t give a sh** about the tournament, either.
The ACC Tournament many of us grew up anticipating is done. Adding teams will only water it down further, and it’s likely there will be a de-emphasis on Greensboro, as the ACC will undoubtedly look towards venues such as Madison Square Garden in coming years (Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
But the difference this year, for us, is that State can use this tournament to strengthen a weak resume for Selection Sunday. I think that if we’re playing on Saturday, and if we get a little help, then we’ll be in one of the play-in games (as a 12-seed); and if we can somehow make it to Sunday (which we’ve done with far inferior teams), then we may not even be one of the last four in.
And if, somehow, we win the whole durn thing, then I’m sure I can make an argument for the ACC Tournament still being as great as it ever was.