Washington, Brooklyn give ACC Tournament a change of pace

As a former basketball coach, Paul Brazeau understands the role of a point guard running the show. In that sense, Brazeau could be considered the ACC’s point guard for the conference basketball tournament in Washington, D.C.

The ACC tournament takes a three-year hiatus from North Carolina and will be played at the Verizon Center beginning Tuesday before moving on to Brooklyn, N.Y., for a two-year stay. The 2019 and 2020 tournaments return to Charlotte and Greensboro, respectively.

This is Brazeau’s second year as ACC Senior Associate Commissioner for men’s basketball. He joined the league after one-year stints at the Big East and American Athletic Conference. Before that he spent 10 years as Vice President of Basketball Operations at the NBA. The Boston College grad was an assistant coach at Boston College and Ohio State before serving as head coach at the University of Hartford for eight seasons (1992-2000). So he knows his basketball and understands the challenges of moving the tournament from its comfort zone

“Greensboro was a little bit turn-key for me,” Brazeau admitted. “Everybody has been doing it there for a number of years. There are challenges for every tournament and every event. The decision to move it around is a little different. Our challenge here is you’re moving the entire operation from Greensboro to Washington for one year.”

So far, and it’s only Day 1, Brazeau is encouraged by what he’s seen.

“Washington is used to big events,” said Brazeau, so the tournament won’t dominate conversation in D.C. as it might in a college town. After all, there’s some interest in a national election here. “But from what I can tell, the people at the Verizon Center and the hotels have been terrific to us. David Touhey, the general manager of the Verizon Center, and his staff have been terrific. We have great partners (broadcast) in ESPN and Raycom. That side of the tournament will be handled by professionals.”

And Brazeau is already looking ahead. “The Brooklyn people came to Greensboro last year to get a view,” he said. “Their operations people as well as management were there. They want our event in Brooklyn to be memorable as well.”

The key for Brazeau? “You try to make it as seamless as possible for the teams. That’s our focus, the players and coaches. That’s our goal.” He compares this year’s operation to the first American Athletic Conference tournament two years ago in Memphis. “American was the biggest challenge because that was all new,” he said.

“We’ve been able to address the needs of the conference and schools here,” Brazeau said. “Washington has different challenges. The North Carolina schools were used to jumping on a bus and coming over (to Greensboro). Capacity is less, so there are fewer tickets.”

The Verizon Center is listed at 20,000, while the Greensboro Coliseum seats 22,000. FYI, next year’s venue, the Barclays Center, has a capacity of 18,103.

For those fans who stick around until late in the week, the semifinals and final are evening-only sessions, which provides some down time and a sightseeing bonus. “We have two free days for the fans, Friday and Saturday, to get out and see the nation’s capital,” Brazeau said. “But what will make the tournament memorable is what happens on the court. We have talented teams and excellent coaches.”

Behind the scenes

The 63d annual ACC Tournament is being played in the Washington area for the fifth time. The championship was played at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., in 1976, 1981 and 1987, where Virginia, North Carolina and N.C. State captured the championships. Duke won it in 2005 in the MCI Center, the former name of the what’s now known as the Verizon Center.

Verizon bought MCI in 2006 the following year and changed the name of the arena to the Verizon Center, although local fans affectionately refer to it as the “Phone Booth” because of its history with telecommunications companies.

Fans may need to come up with a new nickname in two years, however. In May 2015 it was reported that Verizon would not renew its naming rights deal when it expires in 2018. That same week, Etihad Airlines, the second-largest airline in the United Arab Emirates, signed a deal to become the official airline of Verizon Center, leading to speculation that the airline would also acquire naming rights to the arena.

Greensboro vs. other sites: TV commentator Debbie Antonelli, who regularly covers ACC games for ESPN and Raycom, will be a sideline reporter and studio commentator for Raycom during the tournament. The Cary native and former N.C. State player admitted to a preference for Greensboro as a venue.

“It doesn’t have the convenience of Greensboro,” she said of Washington, comparing the venues as destinations. “But once you get in the building, it feels the same.”

N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried, who is taking part in his fifth ACC Tournament, also favors Greensboro as the tournament site.

“I just think I like the fact that there are a lot of teams whose fans can get there by car,” said Gottfried, whose Wolfpack played two games at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in November. “It’s cumbersome to get here or Brooklyn. And expensive.”

Gottfried said he couldn’t get a feel for the tournament atmosphere so far. “We’re playing in the first game,” he shrugged.

First-time tourist: Boston College’s redshirt senior center Dennis Clifford has been to five ACC tournaments. “But I’ve never been to D.C. before, so I’m real thankful for that,” he said. He’s hoping to get in some sightseeing with his family and friends. “We have the rest of the day,” he said after the Eagles wrapped up a one-hour practice early Monday afternoon.

What does he plan to see? “I don’t know – my mom takes care of that (itinerary),” he laughed. “Hopefully I can get out a little.”

Fans are scarce: The practice day before the tournament’s opening round usually draws several hundred fans in the Greensboro Coliseum. The first three sessions Monday afternoon, with Wake Forest, Boston College and N.C. State working out, attracted only a handful of spectators. In fact, there might have been more ushers in the stands than fans.