ACC tournament primer: Tobacco Road is a long one

History is as deep as any, but there are a few new signs along the way



Notre Dame coach Mike Brey grew up in Maryland and graduated from DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, so he spent his formative years in the shadow of ACC country.

He then got the break of his life when legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski hired him as an assistant in 1987, and he remained in Durham, N.C., until he got his first head coaching job at Delaware in 1995.

Even though the Fighting Irish, along with Pitt and Syracuse, are new to the ACC, Brey didn't need to do much research into the history of the ACC tournament.

And he spent the early part of this week educating his players about how this tournament, not the Big East tournament, set the standard.

"One of the great things about joining this league is you get to participate in what my opinion is one of the great traditions of college basketball, the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament," Brey said. "I tried to educate our guys on the history and tradition of it because they are not as plugged in about it. One of the points I made is it is twice as old as the Big East tournament -- that is how long it is has been going."

The 61st version will get underway today at Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C.

The first one was in 1954, which North Carolina State won, and in 1961, at the prompting of legendary Wolfpack coach Everett Case, it became the first tournament to designate the champion as the recipient of the conference's automatic bid in the NCAA tournament.

Krzyzewski said the ACC showed the way in terms of how great conference tournaments can be.

"I love the ACC tournament," he said. "It is the first great conference tournament; all the others came about as a result of this tournament. So historically this has been the one that has started everything."

The Fighting Irish (15-16) are the No. 13 seed and will kick the tournament off today against No. 12 seed Wake Forest (16-15). The winner of that game will play No. 5 seed Pitt at 2 p.m. Thursday.

This will be the initial ACC tournament for the Panthers, and coach Jamie Dixon is well aware of just how big of a deal it is.

"For a lot of people and the players, winning the tournament is almost bigger than winning the regular season, which is probably opposite of the way most coaches think," Dixon said. "There is a newness and excitement of it for us that has everybody talking about it.

"Really, the history of the ACC tournament, when you look at it, is unmatched. It has a history to it, people respect it and there is a great deal of importance put to it because of the teams that have competed in it."

Unlike the Big East, the ACC does move its tournament to different venues. The 2016 tournament will be played at Verizon Center in Washington. Atlanta had the tournament in 2009 at Georgia Dome and the 2012 version at Phillips Arena.

But Greensboro has been the leader of the pack with 26 tournaments. Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C., has been the host 13 times and Charlotte has had it 12 times.

Some coaches, though, would like to see the tournament moved out of North Carolina because they believe it gives the state's schools -- Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest and North Carolina State -- an unfair advantage.

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said now that the conference footprint has changed and will include teams from Miami to Louisville, Ky., to Notre Dame, Ind., to Boston, moving it around probably makes the most sense.

"I think it should be moved around and always has been moved around so there isn't much difference," Hamilton said. "There has been some talk of finding a permanent site similar to Big East with Madison Square Garden but I'm not sure that is the right thing to do."

Brey added: "We know we are playing a Tobacco Road team on Tobacco Road and we understand that those teams always have plenty of support in Greensboro, but I think our fans are excited about being there as well."

Hamilton, whose Seminoles have been in the championship the past two times it was outside of North Carolina and won it in 2012, stressed that he enjoys Greensboro and he doesn't believe that it gives anyone an unfair advantage.

But numbers don't lie. The four North Carolina schools are ranked one through four in terms of total tournament titles and have combined to win 50 of the 60.

"It has been an excellent venue and to have four schools plus Virginia and Clemson in close proximity, the synergy and atmosphere has been excellent no question about it," Hamilton said. "But like I said, because the footprint changed it is probably only fair to move it every year, but let's see how that works."

Krzyzewski, whose Blue Devils have won the most tournament titles (19), said the North Carolina schools get a bad rap for wanting to keep the tournament in Greensboro. It has been in North Carolina a lot because the state has been the center of the conference, but he conceded that the best thing for the conference now that it has stretched out would be to take the tournament on the road.

"We have new members and they have had their tournament in other places, in New York, and so you have to listen to those people and figure out what it is the best for our conference," Krzyzewski said. "And I would go along with what the group wanted because we are bigger."

Duke and North Carolina, which has won 17 times, are among the favorites again this year, but the Tar Heels haven't won since 2008, and defending champion Miami has only been a conference member since 2004.

Florida State, which won in 2012, joined the conference in 1991, and, this year, the top two seeds are Virginia, which hasn't won since 1976, and Syracuse, one of the three new members.

Through all of the changes, the thing that has endured is that the tournament is a great event with a great history.

"This is a great tournament," North Carolina's Roy Williams said, "I'm not in love with the idea of going around and playing each other for 31/2 months and then playing each other again for four days, but let's face it, that is what college basketball is.

"And when you are speaking of tournaments, the ACC tournament is the granddaddy of them all, and every year the competition is unbelievable. And how competitive all the games are, it is just off the charts."


Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise.

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