ATLANTA — Standing in a drab corridor outside his team’s locker room at the Georgia Dome, Gary Williams was asked if he could ever remember a season like this in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The fiery Maryland coach squinted his already narrow eyes and furrowed that well-worn brow, thinking back over his long career in the ACC. Finally, he shook his head.
Nope, this one stands apart.
“It’s been a great year in the league,” Williams said Wednesday. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen three teams have this level of talent. It’s unusual these days for one league to have that much talent. It’s tough to play in, but it’s great fun to compete in.”
The ACC tournament tips off today at a football stadium in downtown Atlanta, where things figure to be a bit unusual in the stands.
For the first time since 1966, the league put tickets up for sale to the general public, and there were still seats available on the eve of the opening game. Blame the sour economy and a huge venue (more than 30,000 seats) for taking a toll.
It sure has nothing to do with the quality of the competition.
No. 1 North Carolina (27-3, 13-3 ACC) comes in as the top seed after winning the regular-season crown outright, but the Tar Heels can hardly coast to another championship. There’s all sorts of potential challengers standing in the way, most notably eighth-ranked Wake Forest and No. 9 Duke.
Don’t forget 17th-ranked Clemson, one of three ACC teams that didn’t lose outside the conference. Or No. 22 Florida State, showing it’s more than just a football school. Heck, even last-place Georgia Tech thinks it has a chance.
The Yellow Jackets (11-18, 2-14) will be playing at home — their campus is less than two miles away — and trying to duplicate rival Georgia’s remarkable run through last year’s Southeastern Conference tournament, which was held in the same arena.
Well, part of it was played at the Dome. A tornado struck the stadium during the quarterfinals, forcing SEC officials to move the final two days of the tournament to Georgia Tech’s arena. Last-place Georgia won three games in two days to claim an improbable NCAA berth.
“We’re just hoping there’s another tornado outside,” joked Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, whose team will face Clemson (23-7, 9-7) in the opening round.
In all likelihood, the Yellow Jackets will be long gone by the time the championship is decided on Sunday. Anyone hoping to run the four-wins-in-four-days gauntlet would likely have to knock off at least two top 10 teams.
But everyone has hope.
“There’s a lot of talent in this league. That’s why any team can win,” said Sidney Lowe, coach of 10th-seeded North Carolina State. “On any given night, it can happen.”
North Carolina has a bye and skipped a chance to practice Wednesday at the Dome. Coach Roy Williams has downplayed the importance of winning in Atlanta, making it clear there will be far more important games in the weeks ahead.
“The ACC tournament is the granddaddy of all tournaments. I love it when I get there. I love the pageantry of it,” Williams said. “But in today’s times, it’s not what it was 30 years ago.”
The Tar Heels know they will be playing in the NCAAs no matter how they fare in this tournament. They are mainly looking to lock up a No. 1 seed.
Williams compared 2005, when North Carolina won the NCAA championship after losing in the ACC tournament, to the last two years. The Tar Heels have won two straight conference tournaments, but were knocked off in the NCAAs each time.
With that in mind, North Carolina might be more conservative with ACC player of the year Ty Lawson, whose right big toe was badly swollen after last Sunday’s regular-season finale against Duke. Williams will want Lawson to be fully healthy when the Tar Heels begin their run for a national title, which everyone penciled them in for as soon as reigning national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough decided to return to school for another season.
Lawson was seen limping around the Smith Center earlier in the week. He has been wearing a protective wrap on his toe and keeping it iced.
“If I can play, I definitely will play, even if it’s a little bit of pain,” the speedy point guard said. “But the big picture is the NCAA tournament.”
The most intriguing matchup Thursday could be between N.C. State (16-13, 6-10) and seventh-seeded Maryland. The Terrapins (18-12, 7-9) likely need a win or two to assure themselves of an NCAA bid, but they’ll face a team that would love nothing more than to knock them right out.
The Wolfpack remembers Greivis Vasquez knocking down a meaningless, unguarded 3-pointer at the buzzer of Maryland’s 71-60 win in Raleigh. The flamboyant Venezuelan makes no apologies for his shot, which was his retort to a crowd that heckled him mercilessly throughout the game.
“That’s the way I am,” Vasquez said. “I’m not going to change.”
The other first-round games: sixth-seeded Boston College (21-10, 9-7) vs. No. 11 Virginia (10-17, 4-12) and eighth-seeded Virginia Tech (17-13, 7-9) vs. No. 9 Miami (18-11, 7-9).
The big boys take the court Friday. Wake Forest (24-5, 11-5), Duke (25-6, 11-5) and Florida State (23-8, 10-6) also earned some extra rest, then they’ll get started on trying to deny the Tar Heels a third straight ACC tournament title.
Williams’ attitude notwithstanding, don’t think North Carolina is just here for a tuneup.
“We look at every game as an opportunity to get better and an opportunity to win something and put a banner up,” senior Danny Green said. “And we want to put up as many banners as possible.”