Most of the fans who turned out for Tuesday’s first-round ACC Tournament games were following their teams, N.C. State and Wake Forest in the opener and later Florida State and Boston College.
They were adorned in team logo wear, but scattered among the crowd of several thousand was the occasional fan in Duke blue, Carolina blue and Clemson orange.
One Duke fan seated in the front row behind the N.C. State bench drew some early attention. He was former major league pitcher Billy Wagner, who was there with his wife Sarah and four children.
“We’ve always been Duke fans,” said Wagner, 44. “But this is our first time coming to the ACC Tournament. We’re ACC fans, big time. This is just a great opportunity.”
Wait a minute. “Billy the Kid,” the hard-throwing lefty who for 16 years brought heat from the Astros, Phillies, Mets, Red Sox and Braves bullpens, is 44? Say it isn’t so.
So how did he end up a Duke fan? Wagner grew up in Virginia Tech territory in Tazewell, Va., and now lives in Crozet, about 20 miles west of Charlottesville and UVa.
“Everybody liked UVa and Ralph Sampson back then,” Wagner said. “Everybody hated Duke, so when I got into basketball it was during Duke’s big run. I got to know (former Duke players) J.J. Redick and Lee Melchionni and went to their games.”
Wagner was attending Tuesday’s games with his wife Sarah, whom he met when they attended Ferrum College in Virginia. Sarah played basketball there, and she explained that their four kids – Will, 17; Jeremy, 15; Olivia, 12; and Kason, 9 – were all on spring break this week, making the getaway possible.
Billy said they were attending the early games because he would be heading to Florida later this week with the high school baseball team he coaches at Miller School, a private school in western Albemarle County. His sons Will and Jeremy play for him, and the team will attend spring training at the Braves and Astros camps in Lake Buena Vista and Kissimmee, Fla. “They’ll get to meet some of the guys I played with. I played there for a long time. Having some inside ties always helps,” he laughed.
The view from the fans
Cat on a hot tin horn: The prime topic of conversation for N.C. State fans before the Wolfpack tipped off against Wake Forest Tuesday was whether this would be Cat Barber’s last game. The junior point guard led the ACC in scoring at 23.4 points this season and earned first-team All-ACC honors from both the media and the league’s head coaches.
He is projected as a second-round pick, which means an NBA contract wouldn’t be guaranteed, but ACC observers agree his draft stock might never be higher. And there’s always the risk of injury.
Many fans echoed the observations of N.C. State freshman Thomas Brann of Winston-Salem, who is a trombone player in the pep band.
“I don’t know,” said Brann, who was wearing a ski cap with a large knit wolf perched on top. “I can see it both ways. I can see him coming back and not coming back.”
Brann said it will probably come down to how Barber performs in the NBA Draft Combine. Under a new rule in effect this year, college players who are not automatically eligible must declare themselves eligible for the draft by April 24. They have until May 25, or 10 days after the combine, to withdraw from the draft without losing their college eligibility as long as they haven’t hired an agent.
The combine will be May 10-15 in Chicago, and the draft is June 23 in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
N.C. State fans will have Barber for at least one more game. He scored 22 points in State’s 75-72 win over Wake, his 21st game of 20 or more points this year. The No. 12 seed Wolfpack (16-16, 5-13 ACC) will play fifth-seeded and No. 9 Duke (22-9, 11-7) at 2 p.m. Wednesday.
Misplaced fans: Neil Keller, a 56-year-old accountant from Rockville., Md., and a 1987 Maryland grad, was seated in Section 103 adorned in a red Terrapins sweatshirt. Even though Maryland is no longer a member of the ACC.
“I’m a big Terps fan, and I love the ACC,” Keller said. “I went to the tournament in Charlotte (in 2008).” This one in his backyard is the only other one he’s attended, but he’s warming up for next year’s Big Ten Tournament in the Verizon Center.
“The Big Ten Tournament will be in D.C. next year,” Keller said. “But I’d rather still be in the ACC. Put Notre Dame back in the Big Ten.”
Tournament first-timer: A woman wearing a Boston College athletic shirt who was trying to wrangle a 1-year-old with limited success in the Boston College fan section turned out to be Jessica Owens, older sister of Eagles junior wing Garland Owens. They’re from Gaithersburg, Md., 28 miles northwest of D.C.
Jessica works in real estate but said, “I had to take the day off to come and see this.” It was her first ACC tournament, and she was enjoying the fanfare. Not so much the result on the floor. By halftime, Boston College was down 39-30.
At one point, her 6-foot-5 brother Garland, was matched up against FSU’s 7-4 Chris Koumadje, who promptly threw in a hook shot over the shorter defender.
“I know, what was up with that?” Jessica said of the mismatch.
Jessica, a graduate of Bowie State, said it’s been a tough season for the Eagles, who are winless in the ACC this season. But she said her brother and his teammates have remained upbeat.
“They had some close calls,” she noted, “North Carolina (68-65), N.C. State (73-72), they lost by one point. That was exciting.”