Coaches weigh pros, cons of playing ACC Tournament

The tournament returns to Greensboro next month, a year after it was abruptly canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic that is still ongoing

Coach Kevin Keatts and NC State will likely need a good performance in the ACC Tournament to be considered for an NCAA bid. (Ethan Hyman / The News & Observer via AP)

Roy Williams has never been a fan of the ACC Tournament, an event he once infamously referred to as little more than “a great cocktail party.”

But that doesn’t mean he’d consider skipping it, even if he had a legitimate reason to do so.


As he does this year with the coronavirus pandemic.

While some league rivals have raised the possibility of opting out to protect themselves from a COVID-19 outbreak that would jeopardize their spot in the NCAA Tournament, the Hall of Fame coach is adamant about having his North Carolina basketball team in Greensboro during the week of March 9-13, ready and willing to play.

“Do you know what opting out means? It means you freakin’ quit,” Williams said Monday during the ACC’s weekly coaches teleconference. “Whether it’s a team or an individual, opting out means you quit. And that bothers me.

“I don’t have a strong, strong opinion. Maybe I’ll develop one. But if we’re going to play, let’s play. If we’re not going to play, let’s not play. We’re trying to play every game on our schedule, so I’m in favor of playing.”

The NCAA has announced it will require seven consecutive negative COVID-19 tests for all players and coaches before they’re allowed into the bubble it plans to create for its national tournament.

Rather than risk exposure around 14 other teams the week before heading to Indianapolis, there is speculation that teams already assured of an NCAA bid might decide to skip the conference event.

Williams referenced a recent conversation he had with Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton questioning the theory behind that philosophy, since players and coaches are no more likely to contract the virus in a tournament setting as they are for regular season games.

“I don’t see any more risk of playing in the ACC Tournament than now,” Hamilton said last week.

There’s a good chance his opinion on the subject may have changed since then. On Tuesday, the ACC announced that the Seminoles’ next three games have been postponed because of positive tests and contact tracing within their program.

This is FSU’s second COVID-related pause this season.

Because of the unpredictability of the virus and the slow rollout of the vaccine designed to contain it, the risk of missing out on the NCAA Tournament might not be worth the reward of playing for an official conference championship for coaches such as Louisville’s Chris Mack.

“I would consider it,” Mack said when asked if his team might opt out of the ACC Tournament. “It probably wouldn’t be my decision alone. I’d talk to our players. I’d obviously talk to our administration. That’d be a helluva choice I get to make, I’ll tell you that.”

The ACC would have to redraw its tournament bracket if one or more teams decide not to come to Greensboro.

But the league has done it before.

Three times in the past five years — Syracuse in 2015, Louisville in 2016 and Georgia Tech last year — a team has been left out of the conference tournament field because of NCAA sanctions prohibiting them from playing in the postseason.

But what if multiple teams decided not to play, including some or all of the top four seeds?

Given the fact that last year’s tournament was canceled just before the quarterfinal round because of the onset of the pandemic, the ACC would naturally be reluctant to pull the plug again.

Especially with a new commissioner set to make his public debut.

The league’s television contract with ESPN and its own ACC Network could also factor prominently in the decision whether to play or not.

At some point, though, it might be deemed necessary to cancel the tournament again — whether it’s because of a lack of participation or to give the league an extra week in which to make up regular season games that have been postponed.

NC State coach Kevin Keatts is hoping it doesn’t come to that, if for no other reason than his Wolfpack will likely need a strong showing in the tournament to even be considered for a spot in the NCAA’s field of 68.

“I’m a fan of us having the tournament, especially if we can continue to do the right stuff,” Keatts said. “I’m sure the ACC is the best at making sure that we are following protocol. It will be weird. There may be a situation where, going into the tournament, you may have one or two teams that have to drop out.

“But that’s no different than what’s going to happen in the NCAA Tournament. There’s a lot more people that make a lot more money at that level to figure it out than we do, but I do think we should have the tournament if it is possible.”