These are real throwbacks. The mid-major men’s basketball tournaments that tip off this week around the country hark back to the days when the ACC engaged in a winner-take-all sweepstakes that left players, coaches and fans exasperated from the pressures that accompanied such an event.
All 11 teams in the Big South Conference tournament that gather Thursday through Sunday at Campbell University know full well what is at stake. Only one team will claim the crown, and it will be the lone representative in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
“There’s pressure. There is no tomorrow. There is no tomorrow,” said Cliff Ellis, the Coastal Carolina head coach whose club enters the Big South tournament as its third seed. Ellis has witnessed all sides of the conference tournament, first in 20 seasons of coaching in the ACC and SEC at Clemson and Auburn, respectively, and in the past nine seasons at Coastal Carolina.
When he coached at his previous two stops, every season anywhere from four to eight teams knew before conference tournament time that they were headed to the NCAA tournament. Any drama remaining from the regular season was reserved for those few teams on the NCAA tournament “bubble” heading into the conference tournament.
In his third and fourth seasons at Coastal Carolina, Ellis found out what UNC and South Carolina coach Frank McGuire once termed “Russian roulette” basketball was all about. Ellis’ Chanticleers won 28 games in both the 2010 and 2011 seasons, only to lose in the Big South championship game. Appearances in the NIT both seasons represented a disappointing consolation prize.
“Twenty-eight wins is hard to do. I don’t care what level you play at,” Ellis said. “The pressure is just unbelievable (in the Big South tournament). It’s just totally different. Totally, totally, totally different.”
It is totally like the ACC tournament from its inception in 1954 through 1974. That is when the ACC – and all other conferences – sent a single representative to the NCAA tournament. Third-ranked Maryland’s loss to second-ranked N.C. State in the ’74 ACC tournament title game led to an expanded NCAA tournament field the following season.
So devastating was that Maryland loss, the Terps immediately turned down an invitation to play in the NIT. Equally crushing was South Carolina’s championship game loss to N.C. State in the 1970 title game. South Carolina had gone unbeaten in the ACC and entered the championship game with a 25-2 record and No. 3 national ranking.
This is the first game of the NCAA tournament.
Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis
A tournament championship would have sent the Gamecocks to their home court in Columbia for the Eastern Regionals. Instead, senior guard Bobby Cremins drowned his sorrows by going into hiding for weeks in the North Carolina mountains.
The ACC tournament was the brainchild of Everett Case, the N.C. State coach who brought big-time basketball to North Carolina from his high school days in Indiana. In Case’s world, while the regular season was important, everything was geared toward winning the conference tournament and advancing to the NCAAs.
Bucky Waters, the former Duke head coach who played at N.C. State from 1956 through 1958, recalls how all focus intensified the week of the ACC tournament. Case was years ahead of his time by placing his team in a hotel that week, even though the first 13 tournaments were played at Reynolds Coliseum. It is a practice employed today by most NCAA football teams prior to home games.
“Everything took a different twist, a different tilt,” Waters said. “Everything was of more importance.”
Case’s teams practiced back then in sessions of four quarters. At the conclusion of the final period each day during tournament week, the N.C. State team lifted its coach to the players shoulders and carried him to beneath one basket. Case, scissors in hand, and his team practiced the custom of clipping down the net for winning the ACC tournament title.
Ellis said he rarely attempts to change practices or rituals from regular-season games to conference tournament games. He does admit to altering his pre-game talk to his team when the Big South tournament begins.
“This is the first game of the NCAA tournament,” Ellis said he tells his team. “You win, you just keep playing. So, just keep playing.” Coastal Carolina has kept playing into the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons.
Campbell and its third-year head coach, Kevin McGeehan, enter the Big South tournament as an 11th seed. He is of the belief that maintaining normalcy in the conference tournament is important. His players will be housed in their own apartments and dormitories throughout. Practices will be conducted as if it was another regular-season game.
Even as the tournament’s bottom seed, Campbell will have the same crack as the rest of the field at winning the conference’s lone bid to the NCAA tournament. The Fighting Camels will hold a home court advantage and face a lot less pressure than High Point and Winthrop, who know their regular-season co-championships mean nothing beginning Thursday.
Those higher-seeded teams will know what it was like for 1957 North Carolina, 1963 Duke, 1970 South Carolina and 1974 N.C. State teams that swept through the ACC regular season without a loss, only to face the prospect of losing the conference tournament and going home.
“It’s a throwback to the old days,” Ellis said, “and that’s what makes these type conference tournaments more exciting.”