FRIEDLANDER: March Madness back where it belongs

The ACC Women's Tournament is back at Greensboro Coliseum this week, and the return of packed stands watching several ranked teams battling for the title should make for a memorable week of basketball. (Walt Unks / The Winston-Salem Journal via AP)

A member of the North Carolina media took a taxi from his hotel to Barclays Center for a session of the ACC men’s basketball tournament the last time it was held in Brooklyn in 2018.

As he got out of the car, the driver asked him who the Nets were playing that night.

The point of this story is that while the tournament remains the signature event on the ACC’s annual calendar, it no longer has the same stature it once did. Especially when it’s played outside the league’s traditional footprint.

With only one team currently in the national rankings, No. 4 Duke, this year’s tournament in Brooklyn next week is the least anticipated in recent memory.

That’s a sharp contrast to the gathering of conference basketball teams getting ready to take place this week.

The ACC Women’s Tournament is still the warmup act to the men’s headliner event when it comes to hype, exposure and interest. But while the crowds at Greensboro Coliseum might be smaller than those at Barclays a few days later, recent history suggests the atmosphere in the arena will be every bit as electric.

If not more so.

And with six of the eight teams in the bracket currently ranked among the nation’s top 25, including two in the top four, it will be hard to match the competitiveness that will take place on the court.

“We’re all going to be well prepared,” Boston College coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee said Monday. “The coaching staffs in our conference are really brilliant and they put together great game plans. The players are hard-nosed. You’re not going to catch a team that’s not going to show up. All the teams are going to bring it with their emotions.”

The intensity figures to ratchet up even higher now that the cardboard cutouts that filled a majority of the seats a year ago will be replaced by actual fans as restrictions brought on by the COVID pandemic continue to be relaxed.

No one is happier about the return of a live audience than NC State’s Wes Moore.

It’s not as if the newly named ACC Coach of the Year and his Wolfpack need any kind of extra advantage or motivation. They come into the tournament as the top seed and two-time defending champion, ranked third in the nation with a 26-3 record.

But with an energized fan base that has already outnumbered home crowds at North Carolina’s Carmichael Arena and Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, Greensboro Coliseum will feel and sound more like Reynolds Coliseum when State is in the house.

As much Syracuse’s curmudgeonly men’s coach Jim Boeheim already dislikes Greensboro as a tournament host, his high-pitched voice would likely go up at least a couple of octaves complaining about the kind of homecourt advantage State will enjoy.

“Two years ago when we won it, there were maybe 8,000 people there. Seven thousand of them were wearing red on the championship day,” Moore said. “No doubt they make a big difference for us. There’s been games where we maybe struggled for three quarters and a lot of fans would have checked out, but they hung with us and gave us the energy we needed to find a way to win.

“I know some of the schools that came over from the Big East wish this tournament would go somewhere else,” Moore said. “But this is the ACC footprint right here. It is great to be able to have fans there, and the energy and enthusiasm is definitely a big plus for us.”

Even with that plus, along with a talented, experienced lineup, the Wolfpack is far from a sure thing to cut down the nets for the third straight year.

It trailed second-seeded Louisville by 16 points in the fourth quarter before roaring from behind for the victory. It struggled to beat fifth-seeded Virginia Tech and ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley twice and suffered its only conference loss to third-seeded Notre Dame.

No. 4 North Carolina is a hot team, having won six of its last seven, including an upset of Louisville. Georgia Tech leads the league in scoring defense.

It promises to be the kind of basketball free-for-all that was once the trademark of the more popular men’s event. And because it will be played in a place where the ACC is as much a part of the local culture as barbecue and sweet tea, it’s doubtful anyone will have to ask what’s going on at the arena.