Thad: One more special weekend

It never quite made it on the books as an official state holiday, but ACC Tournament quarterfinal day holds a special place in the hearts of the region's basketball fans, especially in the Triangle area.

This coming Friday afternoon is a time for canceled appointments, winks and nods to bosses and co-workers, annual get togethers among old college friends, radio headphones snuck into high school classrooms. And in Chapel Hill itself, it's pretty safe bet that at about 2:30 p.m., some teacher in some 7th period class at either Chapel Hill High and/or East Chapel Hill High School is going to have a television wheeled into the room, reasoning that history or chemistry can wait but that seeing how the Tar Heels fare in the first half against Georgia Tech cannot.

More power to that teacher and class, too, because this is the last of the old-school ACC Tournaments, in which everyone in the conference has reason to gather in the same place on equal footing, in an event that is not only fierce competition but a celebration of the sport and the league itself. This year, Carolina faces a rematch with a good Georgia Tech team, knowing that a victory gets the Heels a third shot at knocking off Duke and putting an end to the Blue Devils' five year win streak in this tournament. If this were, say, 2006, the fifth seeded Tar Heels instead would be playing a twelve seed like Virginia Tech in a game with little to gain and everything to lose--hard to see the area's public school teachers finding a match-up like that worthy of a skipped lecture.

For one more weekend though, it's best to put that depressing thought aside and try to make the most of the tournament at hand, just as the entire league chipped in to a scintillating regular season in the swansong of the home-and-home format. There are so many familiar aspects to day 1 of the tournament, too easily taken for granted in the past, that should be cherished for what they are worth this year: the uncertainty that always exists about who's going to play well and who's going to come out of the gate sharp; the excitement of seeing your own team appear in the tunnel to take the court; the way fans of the other schools will pay rapt attention to games not involving their own team, so long as it's close; the big roar that passes over the crowd when an underdog makes a run; the respect and appreciation fans occasionally show to outstanding performances and outstanding performers from rival teams; the anticipation of knowing there are still two days of basketball ahead.

Just about every ACC fan has their own treasure trove of tournament memories from quarterfinal day.

Watching 1-13 Georgia Tech get into the spirit of things on their tournament debut in 1980 by taking top seed Maryland to overtime; seeing the farewell ovations given to great players over the years like Vince Taylor and Tom Gugliotta who had the misfortune to have their careers end in the ACC first round; Randolph Childress putting the 1995 Duke team out of its misery with an incredible first-half performance to overcome an early 18-point deficit; hearing the entire Atlanta Omni erupt in 1985 when Dean Smith was whistled for technical in an eventual overtime victory over Wake Forest; watching a hapless Clemson Tiger fan cry in the concourse of the Capital Centre in 1987 moments after Tyrone Bogues orchestrated a stunning Wake comeback victory over the second-seeded Tigers; freshman Justin Gainey leading N.C. State to a terrific win over top seed Duke in 1997; even the spirited, emotional effort the 2002 Tar Heels put forth in trying to execute Matt Doherty's delay strategy against a superior Duke team and somehow prolong a doomed season--all those memories (and many more) quickly come to mind for this writer in remembering ACC quarterfinal days gone by.

To be sure, there will be quarterfinal days in the future--with one-third of the league not on hand. And there will be basketball worth watching played in future "first round" games just as there was in the Big East Wednesday--but rarely if ever will those early round winners be in the reckoning at the end of the tournament.

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From a Carolina point of view, of course, another component of the ACC Tournament experience historically has been feeling the sheer weight of 7/8ths of an arena rooting against the Tar Heels. It hasn't quite been that way the last couple of years, and not for happy reasons: it will be interesting to see how quickly the historic enmity towards the light blue uniforms returns not just from the Durham contingent but from other "neutrals" should Carolina and Tech, not surprisingly, go down to the wire Friday afternoon.

After both games of the home-and-home split between UNC and Tech, the losing coaches pointed to breakdowns on defense in explaining the outcomes, and not without reason. Roy Williams has been telling reporters in the last week or two that UNC is an improved defensive outfit, and hopefully by now his players don't need much reminding that a repeat of the defensive lapses seen in Atlanta four weeks ago is a sure recipe for a long, hard practice Saturday, rather than a coveted rematch with Duke.

Truth be told, while Carolina enters Greensboro with the right to feel reasonably good about themselves after a 5-3 2nd half and another near-miss against Duke last Saturday, anything short of a date in Sunday's final will be interpreted by both those within the program and the fan base as a substantial disappointment. No one wants to lose in the first round--that's a given; and after already coming so close twice, no one wants to lose to Duke three times in a season either, or enable the Blue Devils to capture yet another tournament crown. Of course if Carolina should make it to the final, the Heels will desperately want to win, but in that scenario a gallant loss might merit more pride than frustration among Carolina fans. Probably not so in the case of a loss Friday or Saturday.

To make it to Sunday, Carolina is going to have to prove Roy Williams right on defense, and Rashad McCants is going to have to get more reliable help in the scoring department, especially from Jawad Williams and Melvin Scott, each of whom have been puzzlingly inconsistent in recent weeks. (Williams and Scott combined for 10-36 shooting from the field in the two games last week.) It's possible the Tar Heels might manage to win this event without realizing the dream of having each of the top seven players simultaneously performing to their capability in the same game, but unthinkable that it could happen without each of those seven chipping in very significantly at some point along the way.

If Carolina falls short, of course, the season is not over. There is precedent in ACC history for teams bowing out of the ACC Tournament early and going on to make big time noise in the nationals--(1984 Virginia and 2000 Carolina come to mind). But that's a consolation no one in Chapel Hill wants to resort to come Friday.

The fact is, the ACC Tournament is probably the best chance this team has to win a major event and cut down nets, and after the events of recent years, no one should fail to appreciate how exciting it is that a relatively healthy, competitive team that is still passionate about the game and on the same page with its coach will hit the floor at half past two Friday.

The recent past has been forgettable, and in today's college basketball, no one knows what the future will bring from year to year, but right here and now this Carolina team has the ability and the motivation to make it a special weekend in Greensboro.

That's why you might as well cancel 7th period on Friday.


Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html. You can email Thad at thwilliamson(nospam)@earthlink.net.


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