PHOTO: UNC’s RJ Davis [Photo by Todd Turner]
There was a moment on March 9, after eventual tournament winner the University of Virginia knocked UNC-Chapel Hill out of the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament, that the Tar Heels entertained a moment of sober self-reflection.
They had been pre-season favorites to win the whole thing on the strength of last year’s performance, finishing at No. 2 in the regular season, advancing to the semifinal round of the ACC Tournament and capping it off with a Second Place finish in the NCAA Tournament — the Big Dance, as sportswriters like to call it. That Final Four run included delivering a seismic loss to archrival Duke in the very last game the Blue Devil’s storied coach, Mike Krzyzewski, would ever helm.
For the 2022-23 season, the UNC starting lineup was unchanged.
Last week, in a somber locker-room scene that saw players slumped in their chairs and holding towels over their faces as they absorbed this final L of the season, senior forward Armando Bacot summed it up.
“Really, the story of this year was just talking about last year, I feel like,” he said. “That’s kind of all we heard from y’all and stuff we look back on. I think it was just an overdue, long hangover.”
He was talking about the Tar Heels. But in Greensboro — where the ACC was born, flourished and thrived — it was hard not to think he was talking about us.
Despite never having a team in the conference, Greensboro has always been ACC country. It was born here, in 1953, at what would become the Sedgefield Country Club, and like a lot of the ACC’s current woes, it started because of football.
The first seven teams in the ACC peeled off of the Southern Conference because of its ban on postseason play, initiated a couple years earlier. It’s hard to imagine why a major college sports conference would demand that its teams sit out bowl games, which even in the 1950s were a Very Big Deal. The short answer is that they did it out of spite, feeling that the SoCon’s smaller schools were shut out of bowl bids, and the revenue those games generated, by larger and more moneyed programs. The final straw came in 1950, when Washington & Lee won the SoCon football title but did not receive any bowl bids, while conference mate Clemson was invited to play in that year’s Orange Bowl.
The ACC began with just seven teams, bound by geography and discontent: Clemson, Duke, Maryland, NC State, South Carolina, UNC and Wake Forest. Virginia would join one year later, giving the ACC a solid core of quality programs, all within a few hours’ drive of each other with Greensboro as the hub.
And while football may have been the impetus for the conference, basketball was what gave it gravitas.
The first 13 ACC Basketball Tournaments were held at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, built expressly for NC State basketball in 1949. The tournament moved to the Greensboro Coliseum in 1967, the first time Duke faced UNC in the finals — Carolina won that one, 82-73. The tournament would be held there 28 more times, more than any other venue in the country.
During those years, the city and its arena became synonymous with the ACC Tournament, playing host to some of its most memorable moments: Duke’s Krzyzewski won his first ACC Tournament here in 1986; Carolina’s iconic coach Dean Smith won both his first and last ACC titles here, in 1967 and 1997. Duke and Carolina would face off in the final game three more times under the coliseum’s roof: 1979, 1988 and 1998. Maryland won their only ACC title here, in 1984. And it was the site of what is largely held as the best ACC title game ever in 1974, when NC State beat Maryland in triple-overtime, 103-100. Veterans of that game gathered at the coliseum over the weekend to celebrate that moment, those days, this place.
We can quantify what the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament has brought to Greensboro over the years in terms of dollars and cents: hotel rooms, restaurant dinners, tanks of gas, lap dances and souvenirs. This year’s tournament is expected to bring in $13.6 million, according to the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
Less tangible is the effect it’s had on the city over the years. Longtime Greensboro residents can remember watching the games on TV in their classrooms and the thrill of seeing their hometown on the national stage, or waiting outside the coliseum after the early-round games scavenging tickets from fans whose teams got knocked out.
Those who remember issued a long cry of lament when the ACC decided, in September 2022, to move its headquarters to Charlotte, a brighter, shinier and — most important — more lucrative market. It could have been worse: The ACC might have landed in Orlando, Fla. had the state legislature not encoded a $15 million payout to the conference in 2022, provided at least two of the men’s tournaments would be held in Greensboro over the next 15 years.
Those theoretical Greensboro dates have yet to be locked down, as have the tentative dates for the ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament, which has been held at the Greensboro Coliseum for 23 of the past 24 years — missing only 2017, when reaction to NC’s “Bathroom Bill” caused them to switch to the HTC Center in Conway, SC.
There’s hope among coliseum officials that the men’s tournament could return as soon as 2027, the 60th anniversary of the first ACC Tournament in Greensboro. ACC beat writers are confident that Greensboro will always be in the rotation, and perhaps land more than the two mandated by the payout.
But many of the programs in the ACC — now 15 teams strong and spread as far north as Boston, as far south as Miami and as far west as South Bend, Ind., home of Notre Dame — have no loyalty to the city, few fond memories of the Greensboro Coliseum, little to hold them to a legacy of which they have no part.
The 2020 tournament was supposed to be the year Greensboro showed all of these newer teams just what it meant to be in Tournament Town in March. That was the year COVID-19 descended, abruptly ending all of the conference tournaments and canceling the NCAA Tournament altogether.
At the Greensboro Coliseum, on the morning of the third day of the 2020 tournament, they gathered all of the media on the floor, declared regular-season winner Florida State the champion and sent everybody home.
The 2021 tournament was held without fans in the stands. In 2022 it went to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the third time since 2017.
It almost felt like old times in the Greensboro Coliseum on March 9. Four North Carolina teams were still in the hunt — Duke, NC State, UNC and Wake Forest — as well as ACC legacy teams Clemson and Virginia.
The two other teams that remained — Miami and Pitt — are relative newcomers to the ACC. Miami came in a 2004-05 expansion that also included Virginia Tech and Boston College, all swiped from the Big East Conference. Pitt joined in 2013 along with Syracuse, also defectors from the Big East. Notre Dame came on that year as well, though it kept its football operations independent. And Maryland left to join the Big 10.
With these acquisitions, the ACC hoped it would bolster its reputation for football, which had never been its strong suit. It worked, to a degree, with Clemson, Miami and Florida State lending legitimacy to its football portfolio.
It also spread the conference thin, geographically speaking — Miami and Boston are almost 1,500 miles apart, which is fine for high-dollar sports like football and men’s basketball, less so for programs like field hockey, wrestling and track that don’t bring in as much revenue.
And it expanded the original 8-team slate to 15, which come tournament time adds an extra day. The first matches of the tournament, held on Tuesday, are essentially play-in games where the weakest in the field try to advance. NC State, Wake Forest and UNC didn’t start their tournament runs until Wednesday; Clemson, Duke and Virginia didn’t begin until the quarterfinals on Thursday.
That was the day for old-school ACC fans, but the day ended poorly for NC teams — Wake dropped a tough one to Miami; Virginia dominated UNC; NC State could barely touch Clemson. That left Duke as the last team from the Old North State still standing. They rode all the way to the finals after a tight game in the semifinals against Miami that saw 12 lead changes, 10 of them in the last 10 minutes. The coliseum cleared out after that first game, local fans declining to watch Virginia beat up on Clemson.
That left two OG ACC teams in the finals: Duke and Virginia. The stands teemed with Dukies, Virginia fans looking like spatterings of orange paint on a deep blue canvas. But the game was a dud — scores remained in the single digits for most of the first half, with long stretches of scorelessness punctuated by small explosions of action. Virginia shot just 33 percent from the floor in the 10-point loss.
The fans stayed this time — to watch Duke hoist yet another ACC trophy, to see their first-year coach Jon Scheyer make history, to see the confetti spiral down to the coliseum floor and, perhaps, to say a long goodbye to this room, which will not see another ACC Tournament for another five years or so.
Despite the celebratory feel, the ACC left Greensboro with a whimper, not a bang.
EPILOGUE: The day after the ACC Tournament ended, five ACC teams were selected for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament: Duke (5-seed, East region), Miami (5-seed, Midwest region), NC State (11-seed, South region), Pitt (11-seed, Midwest region), Virginia (4-seed, South region). Pitt will play 6-seed Iowa State at the Greensboro Coliseum on Friday. UNC was offered a bid to play in the NIT Tournament, but they declined, opting to end their season after their loss in the ACC Tournament.
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