ACC Tournament returns to its roots in Greensboro

The league’s showcase event comes back to the Gate City this week for the first time since 2015

Wake Forest freshman forward Ismael Massoud dunks during a layup drill prior to the opening game of the ACC Tournament between the Demon Deacons and Virginia Tech at Greensboro Coliseum. (Robert Clark / North State Journal)

GREENSBORO — North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams once described the ACC Tournament as little more than “a huge cocktail party.”

That might have been the case in the old days when the ACC was a small, compact conference with just nine teams all steeped in the history and tradition associated with the league’s showcase event.

These days, the league’s annual hoop gathering has become more like an extended family reunion with distant relatives flying in from as far away as Miami and Boston, and as far west as Indiana, with their own ideas as to how things should be run.

There’s even a curmudgeonly old uncle to help stir things up.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim did just that a few years back when he proclaimed that “There is no value to playing in Greensboro,” a venue that has hosted the tournament more times than anyplace else and is located in the hometown of the ACC’s offices.

Others, including most of those who were in the conference before it started absorbing a majority of the old Big East in 2004, disagree.

That’s why the ACC Tournament is returning to the Gate City for the 28th time this week. The tournament began with both North Carolina and Wake Forest involved in opening-round games on Tuesday and continues through Saturday when a new league champion will be crowned.

“When I think of Greensboro, I think of the ACC and the magnificence of our conference,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after his team’s regular season-ending win against Williams’ Tar Heels on Saturday. “Everyone who is there in the city itself, they embrace it.

“There is history. They get it. There will be a lot of talking about remembering. Other venues have been good, but no other venue showcases our basketball like Greensboro.”

Not everyone around the league is aware of that. Because the ACC hasn’t been back to Greensboro since 2015, a majority of the league’s athletic directors and university presidents will be experiencing what it’s like for the first time this week.

What they’ll see is a community that fully embraces the event like nowhere else.

“I have great respect for the history of the ACC Tournament in Greensboro,” said NC State’s Boo Corrigan — one of those new ADs, but one who is more well-versed in ACC tradition than most since his father was once commissioner of the league. “We’ve historically enjoyed strong support at the coliseum, and we look forward to returning this week.”

There’s something to be said for the national media attention that comes with playing in a major market such as New York, Washington or Atlanta.

But while the atmosphere inside Greensboro Coliseum won’t be much different from that of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, Washington’s Capital One Arena or Charlotte’s Spectrum Center, the vibe in the area surrounding it will be much more tournament-centric.

Two years ago in Brooklyn, a cab driver dropping his passengers at the site of the games had no idea what was going on inside, asking them who the Brooklyn Nets were playing that night. In Greensboro, the entire city is buzzing with tournament fever — including ACC-related signage virtually everywhere you turn.

“We’re fortunate because of what this league has been over the years and its tradition and history and the great coaches and great players that our tournament is successful wherever it goes,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said during the league’s Operation Basketball back in October. “It’s just a question of how successful.

“Is it different in one location than another? Yes. But I think that’s probably good. But it is good to be coming back to Greensboro. And that’s a different experience in Greensboro, obviously, than Brooklyn or D.C. or even Charlotte. But it’s a very good experience.”

The question, however, is whether that experience is good enough for the league to continue coming back.

While the next two ACC tournaments are already set — next year in Washington, D.C., and the year after in Brooklyn — future sites for the event are yet to be determined.

If there’s one thing Greensboro has going for it, other than the history and tradition, it’s that the arena there — with its 23,000 seats — has the largest capacity of any other venue in the ACC’s current rotation.

In addition to the usual suspects, it’s been reported that both Pittsburgh and Boston are interested in hosting the tournament.

Unlike the old Big East, which held its tournament at New York’s Madison Square Garden every year, Swofford said he likes the idea of moving the ACC’s most visible event around to different areas of the league’s “geographic footprint.”

“There doesn’t seem to be another league out there that can move their tournament around and have the success with it that we’ve been fortunate enough to have,” Swofford said. “That’s because of our fans and the tradition and history that was built with the tournament over a long period of time. And most of that was built in North Carolina.”

While it’s inevitable that tournament sites will continue to rotate from year to year, those that have been associated with the conference the longest are hopeful that Greensboro will still be included as the ACC continues to grow away from its “cocktail party” roots.

“I’m a North Carolina guy,” said UNC’s Williams. “I was born in the state and raised in the state. I like the ACC Tournament better in Charlotte or Greensboro.”