FRIEDLANDER: Risks outweigh rewards of holding ACC Tournament

Not only does Greensboro deserve an event bustling with fans, but the ACC risks a watered-down showcase — or worse, one of its teams missing the NCAA Tournament because of a virus outbreak

For the first time since the league tournament was canceled in March, ACC basketball will return later this month (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

The 2020 ACC men’s basketball tournament ended with a surreal scene in which Florida State was awarded the championship trophy by commissioner John Swofford on the floor of Greensboro Coliseum without having played a game in the event.

The ending of this year’s tournament is shaping up to be just as odd.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging and coaches concerned about meeting the strict requirements for entry into the NCAA’s postseason “bubble,” there’s a real possibility that the ACC could stage a championship competition without its top championship contenders in the field.

It’s a scenario vocalized on a recent league Zoom conference by Louisville’s Chris Mack.

“I believe there are some teams that will opt out of conference tournaments, no matter what they look like, knowing they’re a shoo-in for the NCAA Tournament,” he said.

Mack is hardly the only one in college basketball to hold such an opinion, which raises an inevitable question: If the best teams aren’t going to be at a tournament, what’s the point of having the tournament?

The practicality of postseason conference events is a subject that has been debated a lot in recent years.

They’re still a major part of the March Madness experience, made-for-TV extravaganzas that produce huge ratings for ESPN and plenty of cash for the conferences and schools involved.

But since the NCAA expanded its bracket to include more than one team per league, their importance has steadily waned to the point that they’ve become — in the infamous words of North Carolina coach Roy Williams — little more than “a great cocktail party.”

Even under the best of circumstances.

Because this year’s circumstances are anything but the best, the ACC should seriously consider pulling the plug.

It won’t be an easy decision. At least at face value, the cons far outweigh the pros.

There’s the tradition, the loss of TV revenue for a second straight year and the missed opportunity for new commissioner Jim Phillips to make a splashy and triumphant public debut.

But with the NCAA requiring all players and coaches to have seven consecutive negative COVID-19 tests before entering its bubble in Indianapolis, it’s simply not worth the risk of subjecting the ACC’s top teams to possible infection in a mass tournament setting.

And if one or more of those top seeds decide that it’s not in their best interest to play, the eventual champion will forever carry an asterisk and the event will be viewed as even more of a money grab than ever.

While playing a watered-down tournament could help the ACC sneak a team into the NCAA field that might not otherwise qualify — a group that potentially includes all four North Carolina-based schools — the league would be better served to use the week as an opportunity to make up regular season games lost to the pandemic.

There are currently 25 dates that have yet to be rescheduled involving all 15 teams, and time is running out to reschedule them. Not playing the conference tournament allows the ACC an extra week to get at least some of those games in without having everyone congregated in one place.

That place happens Greensboro, which became this year’s venue by default after the original site, Washington, D.C.’s Capital One Arena, became unavailable.

The shift has been viewed by some as payback to the Gate City for last year’s abrupt cancellation, which wiped out the lucrative final three days of the tournament. But with no fans and the revenue they bring to local businesses allowed to attend, Greensboro gets nothing for its trouble other than to have its name painted on the floor for all to see.

The players will miss out on a lot, too, with all auxiliary events outside of the games off the schedule because of health concerns.

“I think we all want to play in the conference tournament because it’s a great experience for the kids, although it’s not going to feel like a normal tournament,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “It’s going to feel different, so what kind of a great experience is it going to be? I don’t know.”

Sure, there’s a chance that everyone will show up, all games will be played as scheduled, a worthy champion will cut down the nets and no one will contract the virus. The problem is there’s just as much of a possibility that things won’t go so smoothly.

Given the circumstances, the reward just isn’t enough to justify the risk.