The ACC basketball tournament as we knew it is no more. Last rites began to be administered six years ago when the league expanded. The official death certificate was written this weekend at the Greensboro Coliseum.
The once-proud tournament - the granddaddy of 'em all - has been reduced to this: Scalpers outside the coliseum Thursday before the first round were taking $5 for a ticket to the opening session. Face value was $72.
The league has rendered the tournament meaningless, its appeal lost in an effort to make football a viable sport on the national scene. A tournament that once served as the social and sports epicenter of peoples' lives now cannot draw a full house for a single game.
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"It all went down the drain with expansion," says Bucky Waters, who participated in the ACC tournament as a player from 1956-58 at N.C. State, served as the coach at Duke for four more tournaments, and has followed them since as a TV commentator.
"Expansion really changed the culture of basketball, and not for the better," Waters says. "Duke and North Carolina fought it. It was done for football. It is what it is."
The ACC will try to tell anyone that the sections of empty seats this weekend in the 23,000-seat Greensboro Coliseum had to do mostly with a sagging national economy.
"With the economy," said John Swofford, the ACC commissioner, "I think we're seeing across the country some softness in all of the conference tournaments, to one degree or another."
I am not buying it. While Swofford admitted three or four schools did not sell their full allotment of tickets this year, he also acknowledged that there was no public sale of tickets. In other words, booster club members bought tickets as they always do. Then they decided to stay home and watch the games on TV.
Why is that? My guess is expansion has watered down the basketball to where it is no longer a must-see event. Expansion killed most of the league's natural rivalries. A crazy-quilt schedule that comes with having 12 teams in a conference, leaves neighbors like Duke and N.C. State playing each other only once a season. Maryland is considered a "natural" rival with Duke, but N.C. State is not. Go figure.
As a result of having such scintillating regular-season matchups as Miami against Boston College, the ACC has become just another league that plays basketball. As for the ACC tournament, why should anyone have much interest in Virginia Tech playing Miami in the quarterfinals? Or even Duke against Miami in the semifinals?
There is no doubting that expanding to 12 schools in 2004 was solely to make ACC football more prominent on the national scene. While six seasons might be a little early to pass judgment, it is enough time to declare the post-expansion ACC is off to a rocky start on the football fields.
The league's championship football game has not played to a sellout crowd, a few games falling woefully short of capacity. Worse still, the league has not come close to placing a team in the BCS national title game. Then there is a 1-5 record in BCS bowls.
Football aside, the disastrous effect of expansion has been felt most in basketball. Before accepting Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech into the fold, the ACC annually was considered among the best basketball leagues in the country. Many years it was unquestionably the most competitive and talented in the land.
That is the way it was in the tournament's early days, when N.C. State coach Everett Case had the brilliant idea of gathering all eight original ACC teams in Raleigh to play a tournament. The winner earned the league's lone spot in the NCAA tournament.
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Eventually, expansion of the NCAA tournament meant accepting more than one team from a particular league. Still, for many years, the ACC and its championship remained significant to the schools, the teams and their fans because they were all members of a close-knit fraternity with storied traditions.
The annual tournament became the social event of the year in the ACC. On top of that, fans got to see some of the best basketball played in the country.
"Getting tickets to this event was once a heritage. It was in your bloodlines," Waters says. "I'm sure with the (Duke) Iron Dukes and the (North Carolina) Rams Club, it's still just as intense. But, otherwise, you can pick up the phone and call Boston and get tickets at midcourt."
Heck, for many of the eight games played Thursday and Friday, a fan could purchase a ticket outside the coliseum for a pittance. If the upper-deck ticket location was not to your liking, you could easily slip into the lower bowl.
It might be understandable that North Carolina played an opening-round game Thursday to a half-empty arena. Tar Heel fans long ago gave up on their team, which is not likely to play in the postseason. There was no excuse, though, for thousands of empty seats on Friday when No. 4-ranked Duke played Virginia.
But that is where we are with the ACC tournament. Its demise would be comparable to some day seeing the SEC football championship game played in a half-empty stadium.
The sad part of that analogy is that the ACC blew up its basketball for the sake of football.