Luke DeCock

New tournament schedule combines best of ACC, Big East

When the ACC pillaged the old Big East, it took a lot more than Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Louisville. While it never managed to capture Madison Square Garden as a men’s basketball tournament venue – not yet, anyway – it did steal the Big East’s old Saturday night championship slot on ESPN.

The ACC might have gone this way anyway, because it makes more sense for the conference and more sense for ESPN, which calls so many of the shots around here that the tournament now is sponsored by New York Life, a bracing jolt to the sensabilities of those old enough to remember when the ACC’s strongest corporate partner was a North Carolina insurance company, Jefferson-Pilot.

But this schedule change is as much of a throwback as “Sail with the Pilot,” the old jingle. Until 1982, the ACC played its title game on Saturday, before moving to Sunday afternoon.

That made sense then: In an eight- or nine-team ACC, fans could make a long weekend of it and see four games Friday, two games Saturday and one game Sunday before heading home. It was as much convention as tournament, with the entire league within driveable distance.

Those days, obviously, are long gone. It takes 14 games to winnow down a champion now – 13 this year, with Syracuse ineligible – and almost half the league already is eliminated before the four best teams even show up in Greensboro. The champion, meanwhile, had mere minutes to celebrate before Selection Sunday commenced.

An ACC champion deserves more than 15 minutes of fame.

“It gives your champion, whoever that may be, a chance to celebrate that championship, not ‘Let’s get out of here and figure out where we’re going,’” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

Not only does the ACC now occupy key prime-time slots on Friday and Saturday, its champion actually will get a chance to savor that accomplishment before moving onward to the NCAA tournament – and all of its tournament teams will get an extra day of rest, no small consideration given the ACC’s historic and ongoing Final Four drought.

“If you play Sunday afternoon, you’ve also played Friday-Saturday-Sunday or even Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “That’s three or four straight days of games, and you have to take Monday off and get the team rested up and then you’re straight into the tournament. That extra day, I think, is a good thing.”

It can be hard to get ACC coaches to come to a consensus on anything, but there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the new schedule. As well there should be.

When the matter was up for debate, the new arrivals from the Big East spoke strongly in favor of moving the championship game to Saturday. And the ACC holdovers were willing listeners.

“I do think the other longtime ACC coaches will really get into this format,” Notre Dame’s Mike Brey said. “I don’t think there’s any huge adjustment. The expsosure, the night session Friday and night game Saturday, is great for TV as well as the buzz in the crowd. It gives people a heck of a lot more time to tailgate at that barbeque spot across the road.”

Brey might not have been in Greensboro long last year – “We played our first game and we were back at the hotel and out so fast it was like we didn’t play,” he said – but he managed to find Stamey’s, a staple of the old ACC.

This year, thanks to ESPN, and the ACC’s consent not unreasonably withheld, the floor will say “New York” (Life) and the schedule will be on New York time, but the tournament will still be played in Greensboro, an ideal merger of old Big East and old ACC.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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