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The case for Tournament Town

by Ogi Overman

Some old-timers would trace it all the way back to Everett Case’s coming south from Indiana. Others would make the case for Carolina’s mythical year of 1957 or NC State’s magical year of 1974, which ended in triumph, as any fan over 40 easily recalls, in the Greensboro Coliseum. Still others might point to the point-shaving scandal that ended Raleigh’s successful Dixie Classic in 1960 and later opened the door for Greensboro’s equally successful Big Four run through the ’70s. The pragmatist might argue that it was the seeming neutrality of a court within close geographical proximity of four schools, adding that it was Greensboro’s foresight to build and then twice expand its coliseum. And the skeptic would merely reason that it boils down to the fact that the ACC office is located here and the powers that be like to sleep in their own bed after the lights have gone dark in the arena.

Actually, it’s all the above and then some, but the fact is that some time after the Atlantic Coast Conference’s formation in 1953 and its emergence as the nation’s premier basketball conference, a town that had no college in the league and no visible connection to any of the rivalries became the preferred home of the league’s annual post-season tournament. Some time after Case and McGuire and Bones, during Dean Smith and Coach K and Jimmy V and Lefty, and long before Roy Williams and Skip Prosser and Seth Greenberg, Greensboro, North Carolina became ‘“Tournament Town.’”

While it is impossible to pinpoint the exact date ‘—or even the era ‘— this fair burg assumed the mantle, it got around to officially designating itself with the appellation just this year. Given the fact that the Greensboro Coliseum will make history this March by hosting three major tournaments in three successive weeks, it only made sense to declare itself ‘“Tournament Town.’” Credit for the idea goes to coliseum managing director Matt Brown, who is glad to share it with the community that has taken ownership of the events.

‘“I was in Detroit for the baseball All-Star Game,’” explains Brown. ‘“Everyone knows Detroit as ‘Hockey Town’ and it got me to thinking that we needed some kind of identity like that here. When you hear [ESPN broadcaster] Mike Patrick on national TV say that the ACC Tournament belongs in Greensboro, that nobody does it better, that there’s no better place for it, you start to believe it. When you have no professional team and you’ve got this great big facility, we really ought to stand for something, and one thing we seem to do well is post-season basketball tournaments.’”

So, as of March 2006, and probably well into the future, Tournament Town it is.

Self-proclaimed though it may be, the moniker is not without merit and justification; it is more than a marketing ploy, more than a product of Matt Brown’s fertile imagination. Several pertinent facts speak for themselves, to wit:

This year marks the 21st time the Gate City has hosted the ACC tournament, by far the most of any city or arena.

For the first 13 years of its existence it was held in Raleigh’s Reynolds Coliseum, before the powers that be wisely decided that an off-campus venue would be more appropriate. Since 1967 Charlotte has hosted the tourney 11 times, the Capital Centre in Landover, Md. and the Omni in Atlanta three times apiece, and the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and the MCI Center in Washington, DC, once each.

After this year the event will move to Tampa in 2007, Charlotte in ’08 and Atlanta in ’09, before returning to Greensboro in 2010.

The ACC Women’s Tournament held its inaugural event in 1978 but did not venture to Greensboro until 2000. Now in its seventh consecutive year here, the current contract will take it through 2009. Attendance has risen in each of those years, with last year’s tourney drawing 48,108 overall ‘— 11,578 for the finals. By every measure, it has been a resounding success.

‘“No question, it’s been a perfect fit here,’” remarks ACC Associate Commissioner Bernadette McGlade, who oversees women’s athletics. ‘“The support from the coliseum staff and the city is everything you could hope for. We just had a meeting [Feb. 22] and got the news that we’ve already sold 50,000 tickets and we’re still a week out from the tournament. Also, we found out that the ACC is leading every other conference in tournament pre-sales. And these are paid tickets, mind you. We decided early on not to create an artificial demand by papering the house and giving away a lot of tickets to make it look good. The corporate community, Sports Council and city at large has really embraced this event.’”

Naturally, Greensboro is most closely associated with the ACC, but it is certainly no stranger to the NCAA Tournament’s ‘“Big Dance.’” Before this year’s first- and second-round regionals, the last time the tourney visited the Gate City was in 2001, ironically the site where Duke began its march to the national title with wins against Monmouth and Missouri. In all, the coliseum has hosted 10 postseason tournaments that encompassed 45 games. And, for the marginal fan under 40, the highlight of those totals was the 1974 Final Four, won by the David Thompson-led NC State Wolfpack.

The argument could also be made that Greensboro did not evolve into an ACC hoops hotbed ‘— it began as one. True, this is the ancestral home of the conference, having been formed right here at the Sedgefield Inn on May 8, 1953. Seven schools ‘— Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, South Carolina and Wake Forest ‘— withdrew from the Southern Conference and became its charter members. Virginia became the eighth member on Dec. 4 of that year. South Carolina dropped out in 1971 and Georgia Tech was added in 1978. Florida State joined the fold in 1991, followed in 2004 by Virginia Tech and Miami. Boston College officially made the ACC a 12-member loop in 2005 and no other additions are on the horizon.

Making the case

While expansion will no doubt enrich the conference’s coffers and enhance its prestige, especially in football, it is in some ways a double-edged sword, at least for Greensboro and the Triad. The addition of major media markets Boston and Miami obviously gives the league more national exposure, but those two markets also have large, modern arenas, and it may be just a matter of time before they enter the bidding fray to host the ACC Tournament. Already Tampa has secured a date and it only stands to reason that the Fleet Center in Boston and the American Airlines Arena in Miami will submit proposals for the 2011’–’15 events.

‘“We have already made our proposal to the conference for those years,’” discloses coliseum marketing director Andrew Brown. ‘“The ACC does not divulge which venues have submitted proposals, but I’m sure it will be competitive, like it always is.’”

Some fear that the Greensboro Coliseum, with fewer seats than any of the domes scattered along the East Coast, and the city itself, with far less glitz and glamour than, say, Miami or Boston, may be the odd man out. Several local civic leaders who are in a position to know, however, seem to think otherwise, that as long as Greensboro continues to be proactive and not rest on its laurels, its place in the rotation will be secure. In fact, many contend that these next three weeks will prove that Greensboro belongs on the national stage.

‘“This is a tremendous commitment for the city,’” comments Tom Martin, president of the Greensboro Sports Council and former city planning director. ‘“But the good news is that we pride ourselves on going beyond and doing it better than anybody else. I don’t think there’s anybody in the country that can do a better job of pulling all the elements together for three events than us. We go the extra mile and give the extra effort to make people feel welcome and a part of our community.’”

Marc Bush, who holds a similar position with the Greensboro Sports Commission and lately doubles as president of the tournament host committee, concurs.

‘“With back-to-back-to-back events, we’ll activate around 600 volunteers,’” says Bush in a rare free moment. ‘“Most of what we do is external or separate from the actual running of the events, so that Matt [Brown] and Scott [Johnson] don’t have to worry about the delivery of courtesy cars or welcome gifts or team logistics. We’re also a support vehicle to help promote and sell tickets to the women’s tournament. People coming in for the tournaments are constantly complimenting us on the good job our volunteers do organizing and managing and presenting the events. They really appreciate the level of service they get here.’”

No less a figure than ACC Commissioner John Swofford affirms that the city’s level of service and commitment is superior.

‘“The ties between the Atlantic Coast Conference and the city of Greensboro are remarkable,’” comments Swofford. ‘“Coupling two of the conference’s most successful events with the privilege of hosting the NCAA men’s first and second rounds speaks tremendously of this city. As I have said before, no community does a better job hosting these events than the city of Greensboro.’”

Facts & figures

By Matt Brown’s calculations, over 249,000 fannies will occupy seats during the 28 upcoming contests. That translates into an economic impact of $40-$45 million, a figure that is verified by the Greensboro Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Sports Council, Sports Commission, Chamber of Commerce and Merchants Association. The breakdowns per event are $5 million for the ACC women, $21 million for the ACC men, and $19 million for the NCAA regionals.

‘“Those figures are based on room nights and what’s projected as to how much they’ll spend and how many times it’s turned over and multiplied,’” notes Marc Bush. ‘“But the biggest thing, the thing you can’t quantify, is the exposure our community gets in something like this. One alone would be big but three back to back to back is huge.’”

So, for three weeks in March, Greensboro will justifiably lay claim to the moniker of Tournament Town. So far as anyone knows, the 28 games played on 10 dates over three successive weekends are a first.

‘“What makes me proudest,’” smiles Tom Martin, ‘“is that the ACC and NCAA have enough respect for this community and the leaders that give of themselves year in and year out to have three events in a row. No one to my knowledge has done this. Our buttons should be popping off because we were selected as the town that could pull this off.’”

Week One

Surely it must be coincidence, but the era of Duke dominance in ACC women’s hoops began precisely when the tournament made the Greensboro Coliseum its semi-permanent home in 2000. Until last year, the scenario had unfolded roughly the same way each year, with Duke beating UNC in the finals. Only in 2001, when NC State was the victim, did the pattern vary. Even last year, when the Lady Tar Heels turned the tables on the Dookies to the tune of a convincing 88-67 victory, the chain of events had a familiar feel.

And, truth be known, this year may be no different. But there is one variable in 2006 that alters the equation considerably and could upset the apple carts of both the in-state rivals. Instead of one or two clear-cut favorites, this time around there are three.

Enter Maryland.

While all the attention has been focused on Duke and North Carolina, the Lady Terps have quietly slipped in under the radar and become a contender. A serious contender.

After the marquee game of the year, UNC’s 74-70 upset of then-No. 1 ranked Duke on Jan. 29 (nationally televised on ESPN2) propelled them to the top of the heap, it seemed that a subtle shift in the conference pecking order was taking place. But just as quickly as the torch appeared to be passing, Maryland stepped in on Feb. 6 and shocked the Lady Heels with a 98-95 overtime win.

A week later, the Lady Devils jumped back in the driver’s seat with a 90-80 home-court win over Maryland. Now the loop clearly had a three-team logjam at the top, with barely a hair’s breadth separating them.

If those three represent the first tier, Florida State (8-4, 17-8), Boston College (6-6, 19-8) and NC State (6-7,16-10) probably are the second tier (all stats as of Feb. 23) and should get an invitation from the NCAA to join the postseason dance. Speculation has it that as many as eight teams from the ACC could get bids, which makes a win or two in the conference tourney paramount for Miami (5-8, 15-11) and Virginia Tech (5-8, 18-8). Unless they win the tourney, chances are that Virginia (3-9, 15-10), Wake Forest (3-9, 12-13), Clemson (2-10, 8-18) and Georgia Tech (2-10, 13-12) are on the outside looking in.

Individually, fans will be treated to two of the best players in the country as well as a handful only a notch below. Carolina’s Ivory Latta may be the most explosive point guard in the country, while Duke’s Monique Curry is mentioned as a national player of the year candidate. Also, be advised to keep your eyes on Maryland’s Crystal Langhorne (16.5 scoring average and 8.7 rebounds) and Shay Doron (15.1 ppg); Miami’s Tamara James, who is leading the league in scoring (20.3); Wake’s Cotelia Bond-Young, the ACC’s top three-point shooter (3.29 per game); and Virginia Tech’s Gerri Gardin, leading the league in rebounding (9.5) at only 6-foot-1.

Incidentally, the dates have been altered slightly this year. Instead of the title game being played on Monday evening, it will take place on Sunday afternoon, March 5, at 1 p.m. Fox Sports Net will televise the finals and semis, and regional networks will carry three of the four quarterfinals.

Week Two

When the ACC became a nine-team league in 1991-92, it necessitated a meaningless Thursday play-in game at the tournament, derisively referred to variously as the NC State Invitational or Clemson Invitational. Then last year, with the addition of Virginia Tech and Miami, the three Thursday games became a bit more significant, but the brackets were still uneven. Now that Boston College is officially in the fold, the ACC is a 12-member conference and there is again some symmetry to the post-season event.

Beginning this year, the format is that the top four teams will receive a first-round bye. (This also applies to the women’s tourney.) With Duke having clinched the top seed, at this writing the other three byes would go to NC State, UNC and Boston College, but with two or three conference games remaining for each school, nothing is set in stone at this juncture. Florida State and Virginia (both 7-6), Miami (7-7) or Maryland (6-7) could run the table and wind up resting on Thursday, March 9.

As for NCAA bids, because of early defections to the NBA (see next week’s YES! Weekly for a detailed story on the ACC men’s tourney) this is a bit of a down year for the ACC. Anything more than five bids to the Big Dance would be a surprise. Duke is virtually assured a No. 1 seed, with UNC and NC State in the 3 or 4 range. Boston College is likely in, perhaps a 5 or 6, leaving Florida State, Virginia, Miami and Maryland on the bubble, forced to fight it out in Greensboro to avoid the NIT.

Week Three

Even the most astute bracketologist known to man could not possibly predict which eight teams will wind up in Greensboro Thursday, March 16 and which four will still be playing Saturday, March18. But just for fun, let’s run a few scenarios.

First, let’s assume that Duke will get a No. 1 seed and be rewarded with the easiest route out of the regionals on the way to the Final Four, this year played at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. Since the recent advent of the pod system, NCAA rules prohibit the top three teams from any one conference to be sent to the same pod. So, that means that Greensboro could get the fourth or fifth team from the ACC.

With three weeks left in the regular season, Tar Heel fans were speculating that the Heels might wind up in Greensboro. But now that Carolina has streaked to a surprising 9-4 league record, it will likely be shipped elsewhere. That leaves BC or FSU as the most likely candidates for this pod.

Other teams with local ties that could wind up here are Charlotte (10-3, 17-9), Delaware State from the MEAC (14-1, 16-11), Georgia Southern from the Southern Conference (10-4, 19-8) or Birmingham-Southern (12-3, 19-7) or Winthrop (11-3, 18-7) from the Big South.

But the only way to know with certainty is to tune in to ‘“Selection Sunday’” on CBS, Sunday, March 12 at 6:30 p.m.

The tournament is officially a sellout, but anyone interested in getting on a waiting list may do so by faxing 336.373.7413 or e-mailing ncaa2006@greensboro-nc.gov with your name, address, e-mail address, and daytime phone number.

Tickets to the ACC Women’s Tournament are available at the coliseum box office and all Tickets.com outlets. Books are $79 ($72 seniors/students) and individual games are $18 ($15 seniors/students).

Tickets to the men’s tournament are’… come on now. You weren’t thinking of buying one at the gate, were you?

To comment on this story, e-mail ogi@yesweekly.com.

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