Jacobs: Odd Doings Fitting For New ACC

The color of the new ACC is luminous green. 

Not a traditional green. Not even the lustrous green raked in by the expanded league’s presence in 10 states, reaching huge media markets in New York and Chicago. 

No, the new tone is the unnatural green of the garish Nike shoes worn by Miami’s Garrius Adams, the same color highlighting names and numerals on Notre Dame’s uniforms, a shade that might look spiffy under a black light. 

But not necessarily what you want to use to connote heavyweight basketball.

The brightness did contrast smartly with the unyielding black background of the draped upper deck in the Greensboro Coliseum, curtained off to put the smallish crowd on the first day of the ACC Tournament in the best possible light. Building management employed similar strategic camouflage during the 1998 and 1999 NHL seasons. Back then Greensboro was the temporary home of the Carolina Hurricanes (formerly the Hartford Whalers), trailing the league in attendance while waiting for a new arena to be built in Raleigh.

The 10,945 spectators in a building that holds 23,300 was actually impressive under the circumstances. “Opening day,” as it was dubbed by the ACC, featured only two of six teams with records above .500, as well as a pair, Boston College and Miami, farthest removed geographically from Greensboro. What’s more, it was a Wednesday, for goodness sake.

The peekaboo screening, removed on the tournament’s second day, underlined the fact this is a new kind of event in a different sort of league, one in which leaders accept that fans might not flock to see struggling teams struggle further on the first of five days of a 14-game marathon.

That’s why a gas-powered T-shirt Gatling gun, common at many regular-season games but not previously at the conservative ACC Tournament, was wheeled out during breaks in the action to engage fan interest with souvenir manna arching from the heavens. And that’s why, within minutes of the conclusion of Miami’s narrow win over Virginia Tech, the coliseum lights dimmed and spectators were regaled with a free concert by American Idol winner Scotty McCreery. 

“What’s going on, ACC Tournament!” shouted the deep-voiced country singer, a Raleigh native and N.C. State student. 

“Don’t you hate that it’s come to this (word for waste that rhymes with ‘hit’)?” griped one longtime ACC radio announcer as he left the playing area. 

McCreery gamely (pun intended) went through his repertoire before an audience doubtless more subdued and scattered than is normal at his concert appearances. Such receptions could change: if live musical interludes become a feature at the ACC’s Opening Day, more folks might spring for the one-day ticket as a cheap way to see a favorite performer and some basketball too.

Multi-platform marketing, don’t you know.

As for actual basketball contests, in the event’s opener the gaudily-attired Irish came and went without putting up much of a fight. In the process they became the fifth of seven ACC expansion members over the years to lose their tournament debut. 

Virginia (1954), Georgia Tech (1980), Miami and Virginia Tech (2005) likewise dropped their first outing in the conference’s signature event. Only Florida State in 1992 and Boston College in 2006 started off on the right foot. 

Pitt upped the newcomers’ historic record to 3-5 in Thursday’s second round by handily dispatching Wake, conqueror of the Irish. Syracuse, which like FSU in ’92 comes in as a No. 2 seed, debuts on Friday after enjoying double byes.

The Demon Deacons ended their run of seven straight defeats in ACC Tournament play with their win over Notre Dame. “We just wanted to break the streak, not only for this team, but for Wake Forest,” said stalwart senior Travis McKie.

Beating the Irish also assured coach Jeff Bzdelik’s first winning record in four years at Winston-Salem.

But breaking dubious streaks, even coupled with regular-season victories over in-state rivals Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State, didn’t dissipate the cloud of doubt surrounding Bzdelik’s tenure. 

In fact, three of the six coaches working the sidelines in the first round were the focus of spirited speculation about their job status. Besides the bland Bzdelik, trouble looms for BC’s Steve Donahue and Virginia Tech’s James Johnson.

Donahue’s club was perhaps the ACC’s biggest surprise in 2014, but not in a good way. This figured to be a breakout season for the Eagles; instead they finished 8-24, matching Bzdelik’s 2011 team for the most losses in conference history. 

“No one wants to go through this kind of season,” Donahue said, citing a parade of close losses, including in overtime to Georgia Tech in the nightcap on the tournament’s first day. “This has been the craziest year in my 30 years of coaching.”

College attendance already is in decline, not just at tournaments but on campus. For individual schools, especially smaller ones, this means a significant loss of revenue. That in turn puts a greater premium on winning to generate and sustain enthusiasm.

The converse was evident at the home arenas of three Wednesday contestants. Boston College filled fewer than half the seats in 14 games at Conte Forum, averaging 4007 fans in an arena that accommodates 8,606. Virginia Tech, where first-time coach James Johnson has posted consecutive losing seasons, drew a comparably paltry 4,812 fans per game at Cassell Coliseum, which seats 9,847. 

Wake didn’t fare significantly better in 2014 despite a 14-6 start and visits from the Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Wolfpack, all major draws. Yet Bzdelik’s bunch averaged a generously estimated 9,000 spectators at 14,407-seat Joel Coliseum, which the school purchased last summer. 

Therein lies danger in a bottom-line environment, especially one in which the competitive landscape is becoming ever more top-heavy. 

Duke and North Carolina already dominate the ACC. Pending this weekend’s outcome, the last time neither reached the tournament finals was 1996, when today’s players were preschoolers. This year the league added Syracuse, a perennial national power that threatened to run the table until BC went to the Carrier Dome in mid-February and derailed the Orange’s undefeated season.

Next year Louisville, another top-shelf program, joins the conference.

Fair or not, given the ACC’s new circumstances, the costs and burdens of falling off the competitive pace grow more pronounced, forcing tough choices for administrators. All the music, flashy uniforms, and drawn curtains in the world can’t change that.