Why the ACC Tournament in D.C. feels so odd but yet still so right

WASHINGTON, D.C. — If the ACC Tournament doesn’t include a local team, can it still be the ACC Tournament? That’s the question I came looking to answer Thursday on what used to be one of my favorite days of the basketball year — the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament.

I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area enchanted by the ACC Tournament and its players. This was when basketball had a bigger seat at the table in college sports before getting shoved aside by football.

The last ACC Tournament I attended was in Washington in 2005, when the ACC had 11 teams. As a kid, I remember watching the eight-team 1987 ACC Tournament from Landover, Maryland, when our teacher rented a TV from the media center and rolled it into class. Thanks, Mr. Smith. You didn’t not watch the ACC Tournament back then.

“That was a different time and a different era,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “I guess you could say an eight-team tournament is almost a perfect number in terms of a basketball tournament. For that period in time, that was a great thing for the ACC. That’s sort of what built the tradition and history. But in today’s world, it’s different and the thing that has pleased me so much is we’ve evolved. The quality of our teams and the brands we have are outstanding.”

So here we are this week with the ACC Tournament — located in North Carolina for 51 of the past 62 years — in the nation’s capital even though Maryland left for the Big Ten. The tournament heads to Brooklyn for the next two years. Good luck getting sweet tea, Tobacco Road.

The ACC doesn’t want to surrender recruiting hotbeds and claims the tournament can stand on its own. It does; it’s just different. There was a large crowd and tremendous buzz Thursday afternoon when North Carolina won the first game and Notre Dame rallied from 16 points down in the second half to beat Duke in overtime.

Still, it’s an odd feel this week at America’s best conference tournament. The ACC in 2016 is Syracuse vs. Pittsburgh on Georgetown’s home court as “ACC legend” Derrick Coleman says on TV he’s glad the tournament got moved out of “Greenville.” (That would be Greensboro, Derrick.) The ACC in 2016 is Notre Dame beating Duke for the fifth time in six chances, increasing the likelihood that a non-North Carolina school will win the ACC tournament for the fifth straight year.

Good, bad or indifferent, expansion forever altered ACC basketball. Times change. The ACC’s reward for surviving by swallowing the old Big East is it gets to showcase its brand in new places, even though conference tournaments don’t matter nearly as much anymore. The NCAA Tournament dwarfs nearly everything else in the basketball season.

There are now 15 basketball schools in the ACC, although only 14 are here this week since Louisville stayed home given its prostitution scandal. (That’s one brand the ACC would like to forget. Other forgettable ACC brands: North Carolina’s never-ending NCAA investigation over fake classes, and Jim Boeheim bizarrely saying his absence earlier this year for an NCAA suspension should be factored into the NCAA selection committee’s consideration.)

Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten before Washington was picked for this year’s tournament, yet here’s the ACC tournament anyway. How ironic. For years, former Maryland coach Gary Williams criticized what he perceived as the ACC’s bias toward Duke and North Carolina, once saying he had trouble contacting the ACC office because “we’re up there in Alaska at Maryland.”

You can now see Alaska from the ACC offices. Alaska is closer to the geographic center of the ACC than ever before.

“It’s fair to the other teams not to play it in Carolina every year,” Williams said. “I think that helps the league. If you were from Maryland and played in the semifinals, it was basically a Duke crowd or a North Carolina crowd because they were almost always in the semifinals and tickets went to those people. This is kind of a neutral court, which I’m sure a lot of schools like.”

Even though the Terrapins are long gone, you can understand why the ACC wants to keep a presence in Washington. Swofford cited the political connections ACC schools have with lobbyists, strong alumni bases in the area, and the ability for fans to sight-see when not at games.

“And it’s a basketball recruiting mecca,” Swofford said.

That is largely why the ACC is back in Washington. With or without Maryland, the ACC has a brand to sell to arguably the most talented basketball recruiting footprint in America.

Take a look at the ACC’s demographics for current players: 12 percent come from North Carolina, 10 percent from Georgia, 9 percent from New York/New Jersey, and 8 percent from the Washington/Baltimore area. Even more striking is 12 of the 15 ACC schools have at least one player from Washington/Baltimore, compared to nine ACC schools with a player from North Carolina and six with a player from New York/New Jersey.

The depth of talent in the D.C. area was most evident in 2004, when some high school senior named Kevin Durant only made honorable mention in The Washington Post’s All-Met team. Ahead of Durant were future NBA players Jeff Green, Rudy Gay, Ty Lawson and Roy Hibbert; future college All-Americans Scottie Reynolds and Sam Young; James Gist, Deron Washington and Marcus Ginyard, all starters in the ACC; and Folarin Campbell, who started for George Mason’s Final Four team.

This year, Markelle Fultz from DeMatha High School in Maryland — ranked by 247Sports as the No. 8 recruit in the country — signed with Washington. Another local five-star recruit, V.J. King, is headed to Louisville. Corey Manigault, a three-star player from Northern Virginia, signed with Pitt.

D.J. Harvey, a five-star DeMatha player for the 2017 class, reportedly cut his list in January to 16 schools. Duke, Louisville, N.C. State, North Carolina and Notre Dame made the cut. So did Maryland — the only Big Ten school on Harvey’s list.

For five days this week, all of this future talent gets exposed to the ACC instead of the Big Ten, Big East and Atlantic 10, which are now the homes of D.C.-area schools. So yeah, that’s a big reason why the ACC is here.

The quality of basketball, and the ACC’s relationship with this region, explains why Verizon Center was nearly filled for Thursday’s early games.

“I love coming here and giving our fans and student-athletes more things to do,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “That’s what we loved about the Big East Tournament in New York — you could do so many things. I was fascinated today by how much of the crowd was from other schools that didn’t play in these games. There were a lot of Virginia fans.”

Williams, the ex-Terrapins coach, is now a fundraiser for Maryland and he will be keeping his eyes on the Big Ten Tournament. “I don’t think I’ll be going to any ACC games,” Williams said.

An ACC tournament in Washington, D.C., with no Gary Williams just feels … odd.

New coaches with Maryland roots inherit the us-against-Carolina mantle. So it is that Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, born and raised in Maryland, went through Duke and North Carolina to win the ACC tournament last year in Greensboro and embraces the chance to do it again this week in his backyard.

“That would be really cool again,” Brey said. “We’ve been good against those teams. It’s really helped our credibility in the league to do what we’ve done against Duke and Carolina. … I’m sure (Notre Dame players) are talking about cutting a net down in D.C., which would be great ‘cause I kind of like this town.”

This town still likes the ACC tournament. It’s an odd relationship right now, but it’s not going away. D.C. and the ACC still fit.

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The ACC Tournament has branched out to Washington, D.C., this season. (USATSI)
The ACC Tournament has branched out to Washington, D.C., this season. (USATSI)

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