- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

In the approaching spring of 1978, when the ACC was a youngster of 25 rather than a middle-aged entity of 50, a Washington sports columnist with the same name as mine wrote, "The question before the house is just how good everybody in the ACC is. The answer would seem to be, not very."

Guess what? A long quarter-century later, both the situation and the site are the same. The ACC has dispatched merely a batch of good to mediocre teams to Greensboro Coliseum for this weekend's frantic frolicking, and all the hype in the world won't change that hard fact.

Back in '78, Lefty Driesell was just about halfway through his 17-year run as master of hoops at Cole Field House. The Terrapins had struggled to a 14-12 regular-season record, their worst since Driesell's second season in 1970-71, but the Lefthander got them properly psyched for the tournament. The Terps outlasted N.C. State 109-108 in triple overtime before losing to eventual national runner-up Duke 81-69 in the semifinals.

(By the way, does anybody remember the identity of that pre-K Duke coach? He was Bill Foster, one of two ACC head coaches with that name at the time; the other was at Clemson, and confusion frequently reared its ugly head.)

All this athletically ancient history seems appropriate because of the similarities cited above. Gary Williams has been at Terptown for 14 seasons now, which puts him within at least screaming distance of Driesell's tenure, and last spring he won the national title that escaped Lefty during his 41-year career. But although Maryland did much better than 14-12 this season, I guarantee you Gary doesn't have any better idea what to expect this weekend than Lefty did in '78.

Normally, in tomorrow night's quarterfinal, we might figure the Terps to brush off an uncharacteristically weak North Carolina team they bushwhacked by 40 points three weeks ago. Yet past scores are notably inaccurate prognosticators of ACC tournament results. Besides, the revived Tar Heels stunned proud Duke last weekend while Maryland was going ker-plop, or maybe ker-plunk, against a Virginia team that had lost seven straight.

It's worth noting that Maryland didn't win the ACC tournament last season despite its national championship, losing to otherwise undistinguished N.C. State in the semifinals; in fact, the Terps haven't emerged victorious from the tournament since 1984. Maybe that loss to the Wolfpack inspired Maryland to much greater things, but I suspect Gary would have much preferred to win the conference title and take his chances thereafter.

There's no way to predict Maryland's fate in Greensboro this time. Perhaps seniors like Steve Blake, Tahj Holden, Ryan Randle and Drew Nicholas will ascend to ridiculous heights or sink to preposterous depths under the pressure. Ditto for freshmen Nik Caner-Medley, John Gilchrist and Travis Garrison. I don't know, you don't know and Gary Williams doesn't know. All we can do is wait and watch, with fingers crossed and a prayer on our lips.

OK, OK, so the ACC tournament isn't as significant as in the days when a team had to win it to claim the conference's only NCAA bid (see N.C. State 103, Maryland 100 in 1974). Nonetheless, it remains a totally unfathomable affair that often turns mediocre teams into good ones and good teams into great ones for at least a few days.

It's also neat to have it in Greensboro for the first time since 1998, because that semi-traditional site neatly reflects the undeniable fact that North Carolina teams and venues dominate the ACC, to the customary dismay of Maryland, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Clemson. Earlier this season, even Williams who is usually reasonably calm and collected away from courtside complained that Maryland "might as well be in Alaska" as far as gaining any favorable decisions from the league office.

Is Gary just a little paranoid? Sure, but he's entitled. The tournament has unfolded at Greensboro Coliseum 18 times and in Carolina 41 times during its half-century. True, three editions were held at Capital Centre and MCI Center is the scheduled site for 2005, but that's probably because the ACC office momentarily misplaced its compass.

Some things, though, will be as true this weekend as they were 25 years ago. Along High Point Road outside the coliseum, people will be lined up for blocks trying to buy tickets from scalpers and hang the cost. At Stamey's Restaurant across the street, more hands will shovel more barbecue into more mouths than on any other weekend. Hotel lobbies will be jammed, newspaper racks will be empty by 7 a.m. and the massage parlors a few blocks away will have all kinds of "specials" going pick your poison.

All that will be missing is a super basketball team, unless one springs up overnight. You just never know. That's why they keep playing the ACC tournament and why it remains one of the most compelling events on our annual sports calendar.

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