Luke DeCock

Even as interloper, ACC tournament finds its city footing – DeCock

At some point Friday night, as the momentum and the volume shifted from North Carolina to Duke, geography became irrelevant. Put that game anywhere – Atlanta, Albany, Alaska, Australia – and people will want to be in the building and they will make noise and it will feel like the ACC tournament.

That atmosphere validated the ACC’s trip here, even if some of the other alleged fringe benefits of being in the big city have yet to materialize. The tabloids paid scant attention, making Jim Boeheim’s media-market comments look pretty foolish. It’s hard to make a splash here, not when the Big East is playing at Madison Square Garden, a tournament the city will always look upon as its own.

These are two very different tournaments, the scene in Brooklyn decidedly more genteel than the raucous affair on 33rd Street, pastel cashmere sweaters instead of black leather jackets. Thursday night, as Creighton and Providence got ready for the late game at the Garden, just about every available surface was covered with empty beer cups. While the Barclays Center has cocktail carts lining its concourses – $22.50 for a double shot – the Big East is a far boozier, more boisterous event. The building was almost completely full for the last game of the night, with impressive contingents of both Providence and Creighton fans.

Coverage of the Big East, and the Villanova juggernaut in particular, dominated headlines. Media interest in the ACC was more along the lines of “Duke’s Jayson Tatum would be good fit for Knicks,” an actual (and accurate) New York Daily News headline from the Louisville game. While the ACC paid to have tour buses emblazoned with giant ads for the tournament, the Big East put its money into ads inside subway cars – a marketing Rorshach test, targeting tourists and commuters respectively.

Still, there was a lot to be said for being at the nexus of college basketball, with the ACC on one side of the East River, the Big East on the other and, a few blocks north of the Garden, the NCAA’s basketball selection committee sequestered high above Times Square.

The 10-member committee, which includes Duke athletic director Kevin White and UNC Asheville athletic director Janet Cone, relocated its final deliberations from the NCAA’s home base in Indianapolis last year to to be closer to its television partners at CBS (although the door is still guarded by an Indiana state trooper). At a long table lined with computer monitors, committee members have spent the past five days debating teams – and, increasingly, even what the criteria should be as they increasingly look to more sources of information in an attempt to make better decisions.

White was stuck in the conference room even Friday and Saturday as Duke made its run at the ACC title, watching on his iPad. So that was one interested party not present in Brooklyn, but you’d never notice. The North Carolina fans traveled, and there was never going to be any shortage of Duke and Notre Dame fans in New York.

Maybe a Duke-Carolina semifinal was the boost this tournament needed. Maybe it would have been fine anyway, even with Syracuse’s early exit. The debate over where this tournament should be played is really a pointless one. The days when it was an ACC convention and all but one school played on Friday are long gone. It’s a made-for-TV event that can be played anywhere. This week proved that, conclusively.

“I’ve been pleased with our presence in Brooklyn and everybody here has been extremely accommodating from an operational standpoint,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said earlier this week. “The building is tremendously functional for our event. They know how to handle these events. So far, I’d say so far, so good. We’ve learned when we go somewhere new with this tournament, we purposely don’t evaluate it until it’s really complete and we can see the whole event and put it in context.”

We can put it in context now. The ACC may not have had the impact it hoped on the city of New York, but being this far north certainly didn’t have any negative impact on the tournament. Maybe next year’s return visit will be different, the groundwork having been laid.

Lesson learned: You can play the ACC tournament anywhere. And in years to come, they just might.

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

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