College basketball grabs us on one side of winter and deposits us, bleary but entertained, at the threshold of spring. The end of the regular season is greeted by crocuses and daffodils blooming brightly among browns and grays, and by one last chance at basketball renewal, even for losing teams.
Of course the odds of success in a postseason conference tournament, where an automatic NCAA bid goes to the ultimate winner, favor the powerful. Thats especially true in a five-day, 14-game extravaganza like the newly expanded ACC tournament, which gives double-byes to the first four finishers.
For an ACC mens enthusiast like Mike Brey, a Maryland native, simply participating is a reward. Im really proud that we can take part in it, that our program can be part of this historic tournament, said the Notre Dame coach, whose 13th seeded squad will face No. 12 Wake Forest in Wednesdays opener. Im really looking forward to being around the ACC tournament vibe.
Brey even speaks fondly of Greensboro as the heart of the ACC, an appreciation not universally shared among the ACCs latest enrollees from the old Big East. He nevertheless believes strongly the tournament should be played periodically at Madison Square Garden, where the reconstituted Big East still holds its championship event. The sexiness of New York City and all that is great, Brey said. Again, I love it and Ill miss it.
However, now that the former Duke assistant coach (1988-95) is back in the league, he has schooled his players on the ACC tournaments history and tradition.
This is what were going into, Brey told them. This is some of the history of it. This is some of the guys that played in it. And I got some footage together, my assistant put some footage together, to try to show them some of the great games that were played in the history of this thing. Im kind of the old history teacher on the ACC.
Brey, 53, was exposed to ACC basketball at age 2, when his mother took him to the visitors locker room at Cole Field House to see her brother, Jack Mullen, a member of Dukes 1960 league champs. Brey remembered listening to the tournaments Friday quarterfinals on a radio hidden among his textbooks as a student at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md.
The young Maryland fan attended summer basketball camps conducted by Terrapins coach Lefty Driesell, watched numerous DeMatha grads play in the ACC, and recalled being glued to the TV for the 1974 ACC tournament final, an overtime thriller lost by Driesells Terps against N.C. State.
Brey first participated in an ACC tournament in 1988, fresh from coaching at DeMatha under Hall of Famer Morgan Wootten. Mike Krzyzewskis club won the title even as Brey and fellow Blue Devils assistant Bob Bender drove vans full of players to and from Durham, a low-cost, low-comfort alternative quite improbable today at Duke. He also vividly recalled Danny Ferrys near-miss on a game-tying heave from 80 feet in the final at Atlanta in 1989.
An old man would have had a heart attack if that had gone in, UNC coach Dean Smith famously noted afterward.
Duke reached four ACC championship games, winning again in 1992 at Charlotte, while Brey worked for Krzyzewski. Coming back as a head coach this time, Brey said, will be kind of a trip down memory lane.
But not an excursion ride. The tournament offers an opportunity to salvage a disappointing season, a situation Notre Dame shares with eight other squads that failed to post a winning ACC record.
Its nice that you can kind of psychologically flush the last two months, Brey said after 12 defeats in the regular seasons final 17 games. All right, here we go. Clean slate. Fresh. I know that theres great stories Connecticut (in 2011), Virginia in 1976. But as I told the team yesterday, Fellows, lets get one. For us, lets get one, lets go back to the hotel and talk about that a little bit and then maybe talk about a second. Thats who we are right now.
The Irish were picked fifth in preseason, but enter the ACC tournament with a 15-16 record, the worst of Breys 14-year tenure at South Bend, Ind. Unless Notre Dame wins the ACC tournament, this will be the first time since 2009 his program failed to earn an NCAA bid. Notre Dame did play at the Greensboro Coliseum as recently as the 2012 NCAAs, losing to Xavier, a lower seed, on the heels of No. 15 Lehigh shocking Duke.
The current teams fortunes declined quickly after senior Jerian Grant, its scoring and assist leader, was lost to academic difficulties on the eve of the 2014 conference schedule.
Following a home win over Duke, further personnel upheaval and adjustments to a new league took an additional toll.
To stress the possibility of redemption, Brey showed his squad film of the 76 Virginia team that won the ACC title by beating nationally ranked N.C. State, Maryland and North Carolina on consecutive days. The names of Wally Walker, Billy Langloh, and Marc Iavaroni, stars of that sixth-seeded group, rolled fondly off his tongue. Virginia, the top seed this weekend, has not won an ACC championship since.
Notre Dames seniors arguably saw a more remarkable tournament triumph first-hand, when ninth-seeded Connecticut won five straight games behind guard Kemba Walker to capture the 2011 Big East championship.
Thats my great reference point, Brey said. We witnessed it. We saw them rise from the ashes after we beat them at their place in the regular-season finale. Magical things, crazy things can happen.
That such last-gasp opportunities exist at all in college basketball largely reflects the past popularity of the ACC tournament. Preceded only by the lower-profile Southern Conference and CIAA, in 1954 the ACC put its official championship up for grabs in a tournament and was widely derided. Meanwhile, the event became a fan favorite; until recently it was a perennial sellout.
Most early ACC coaches aside from N.C. States Everett Case, whose teams excelled in tournament play argued that a single-elimination format was unfair. They preferred to honor the regular-season champ. And until 1975 only one school from each league was accorded an NCAA berth. That led South Carolinas Frank McGuire to denounce the tournament as ridiculous after his top-seeded Gamecocks, 14-0 during the regular season, were sidelined by a 42-39 double-overtime loss to N.C. State in the 1970 final.
These days most every conference has a postseason tournament, if only to improve its position in the basketball marketplace. Whether thats a fair way to determine a champion is no longer a topic of frequent, heated debate. In the modern ACC and other large leagues with unbalanced regular-season schedules, the tournament is the only level playing field left. Fortunately, what hasnt changed is that every ACC team participates in the basketball tournament, reserving a last chance, however faint, to make good on its aspirations.