Still can’t get used to the sight of empty seats at the ACC Tournament, especially in Greensboro. Victories by Duke and N.C. State yesterday probably insure that today’s crowd will at least be respectable — a Duke/Miami/FSU/Georgia Tech foursome probably would have meant a couple thousand people hanging around after the Duke game was done.
I’ve heard the TV guys saying that it always hurts the attendance in those rare years when North Carolina isn’t any good, and it’s hard to argue with that. Always suspected that the number of fans of Tar Heel basketball is probably considerably greater than the number of just plain basketball fans in that same group.
I’ve got a historical precedent for that supposition which, in fairness, isn’t limited just to supporters of the University of North Carolina.
Back when it was a whole lot easier to get tickets to NCAA basketball tournament games, I went with a group of my friends each year to whatever first round or regional site was closest — generally Charlotte, Greensboro or Raleigh. We’d order the tickets as soon as they went on sale and take our chances on what teams we would see — usually we would get the Tar Heels, possibly Duke or N.C. State (this was the late Seventies to the mid-Eighties.)
In 1979, we settled on the Eastern Regional in Greensboro, whose bracket would match Duke and North Carolina in the regional final (it was a 40-team tournament at the time) if all went as expected.
But other teams had other ideas. On the first weekend of the tournament, the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels — both of whom had first-round byes, became second-round upset victims in Raleigh. It became known as “Black Sunday” in news accounts of the time.
Ivy League champion Pennsylvania, which had beaten a Jim Valvano-coached Iona team in the first round, ousted North Carolina, 72-71, and St. John’s upset Duke, 80-78. Fans expecting an epic fourth meeting of the season between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels (UNC had beaten Duke in the ACC tournament final), instead got Penn-Syracuse and St. John’s-Rutgers.
Still a lot to like in a basketball sense, but the only “regional” appeal was way north of the Mason-Dixon line, quite a distance from Greensboro. We already had the time off work so we decided to use our tickets.
But a lot of folks didn’t. The Greensboro Coliseum, which seated about 16,000 at the time, was about half full for both sessions. Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, writing in the Basketball News, castigated local ACC fans for “abandoning” the Eastern Regional.
I wouldn’t be a Southerner if I didn’t resent someone from up North telling me what we ought to do down here. And once someone’s paid for a ticket, it’s theirs to use or not as they see fit. But he did have a point. The three games were competitive and well-played, all decided by eight points or fewer.
For the most part, that was true of the ACC tournament yesterday. Duke’s 57-46 victory over Virginia was the most one-sided contest and that one wasn’t decided until a big Duke run late in the second half. And today, the Duke-Miami game is close early in the second half.
Not sure why that’s not worth seeing, whether you’re a Tar Heel fan or a Clemson or Wake Forest fan or anything else. But then I’m just a basketball fan.