Before memory is overwhelmed by a breathless coverage of the “Big Dance” (a name trademarked by the NCAA), we’d do well to give the just-completed ACC tournament its due. Or its don’t, if that’s your preference.
There’s probably never been an aspect of the ACC as regularly challenged and debated as the conference’s postseason tournament. The ACC expansions since 2004-05 drew plenty of heated objections, and still do. But member shuffling appears done, at least for now, while the ACC tournament remains a target for tinkering, criticism and engineered evolution.
Once derided for its very existence, the ACC tournament has arguably shifted from a crown jewel, a signature attraction, to a replica of what once made it special, a blueprint so overused it’s mimicked by every Division I league, even the Ivies. The use of championship tournaments has grown largely because they generate significant revenue and attention. Those were certainly key considerations when ACC founders created a single-elimination event to determine which team got the league’s automatic NCAA bid.
Attempts to minimize the importance of the ACC tournament, or at least to reshape it to serve multiple purposes, are as old as the event, inaugurated in March 1954. Moved from N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum in 1967, the tournament hasn’t returned since to a member’s home court – although don’t be surprised if Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center gets serious consideration as a host site next decade.
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The tournament is an itinerant attraction nowadays. The event changes shape according to the league’s size, now lasting from Tuesday through Saturday, most of a work week. Like UNC’s arena after Dean Smith left the sidelines, the limits placed on commercialization have relaxed to the point a once-proud prohibition on selling tournament naming rights was overturned with barely a murmur of protest.
Now there’s a proposal to revamp NCAA tournament selection in a way that could drain considerable drama and meaning from the ACC tournament.
During the widely viewed regular-season finale between Carolina and Duke, TV analyst Jay Bilas, well-respected for his insights on college sports, urged the virtual exclusion of results from power-conference tournaments in shaping how the NCAA field is formed and seeded.
His argument on behalf of equity for second-tier leagues has merit. Too many mediocrities gain NCAA inclusion from conferences like the ACC, occupying precious spots where the basketball spotlight shines brightest, only to melt away almost as soon as they appear. From 2010 through 2017, 13 ACC teams seeded ninth or lower finished a combined 13-13 in NCAA play, with only three winning multiple times in the same tournament.
“I don’t think that postseason tournaments for major conferences should factor in at all, because the mid-majors don’t get a chance to play (top) quality games,” Bilas declared. “They’re playing games that don’t help them in the RPI and don’t help them rise up, and that’s not right.”
Bilas insisted only a power conference’s automatic bid should be at stake in its tournament, eliminating chances for middling members to cadge a portfolio-boosting win. “That’s what everybody else has to deal with,” the ACC product added. “I don’t see why the major conferences should get all these different bites of the apple.”
Unfortunately, such an approach might push the ACC tournament closer to functioning as a series of exhibition games, akin to lower-echelon football bowls that see star players choose to sit out rather than risk injury.
Reducing the ACC tournament’s impact echoes a theme from the league’s earliest days. Maryland coach Herman “Bud” Millikan proposed holding the ACC tournament near calendar year’s end rather than season’s end. Joining most every coach in the league except N.C. State’s Everett Case, Millikan argued for the regular season, with its balanced, round-robin schedule, to ultimately determine the conference champion.
We heard a hint of that view in recent pre-tournament remarks by UNC’s Roy Williams, a first-place finisher in seven of 15 seasons at UNC. Williams was mentored by Smith, who in turn served at Carolina under ACC pioneer Frank McGuire. McGuire, then Smith habitually knocked the ACC tournament, as in 1988 during Williams’ last days on his staff.
“To me, there was no way you could say that the best team was the one that won a three-day tournament instead of proving itself over an extended regular season,” Smith said, characteristically refusing to concede a point. “It would be analogous to having a one-set U.S. Open tennis tournament, or a one-game NBA playoff.”
Williams similarly resorted to the NBA analogy the other day. But the pros’ approach has its drawbacks too, notably the way months of spring playoffs devalue an 82-game regular season. That effect, like glorifying NCAA tournament results, is contrary to the vision long advanced by college advocates such as Smith and John Wooden.
In that traditional vein, back in 2004 a testy Williams, still adjusting to his return to North Carolina from Kansas, took a dismissive shot at the ACC tournament. The UNC grad clearly had mixed feelings about departing KU, where he resurrected a national power and received mail addressed simply to “Roy, Lawrence, Kansas.” Tellingly, for at least a year when Williams said “we” he sometimes meant the Jayhawks. “Do I love the tournament? No. I don't love the tournament at all,” Williams growled then. “In some ways, it's just a huge cocktail party for four or five days.”
Fourteen years and many modifications later, Williams diplomatically reframed his tournament stance. “It’s not the most important thing in the world to me, there’s no question about that,” he said. “So I’ve tried to stop being so crass and cruel about it. I want to win because I’m playing in it. Period.”
Williams reductive reasoning actually embodies what the ACC tournament and its numerous offspring provide – not cocktails but a gathering for players and coaches who want to win because they’re playing.
So, go ahead and argue over gaining NCAA advantage by pursuing a fresh chance, or simply one more victory, in a league tournament. Debate where and when the games are played. Whatever’s decided won’t prevent the ACC tournament from serving as a stage on which talented competitors can test themselves, witnessed by a community of basketball appreciation spanning generations. If newcomers are taught well, that should suffice.