In the 63-year history of the ACC, the men’s basketball tournament has been held outside of the state of North Carolina a dozen times.
It will take a detour to Brooklyn for the next two seasons, tipping off this Tuesday at the Barclays Center. With the conference reshaping itself four years ago — now stretching from Boston to Miami and out to Louisville — the northern trend likely is to continue. Last season’s tournament was held in Washington D.C. The previous northern-most site was Landover, Maryland, in 1987.
“I think you have to move it around now because you have schools up north like Syracuse and Boston College,” said Phil Ford, who played for North Carolina from 1974 to 1978 and was tournament MVP in 1975. “But I’m a little selfish, I like it in North Carolina, there is nothing like the ACC tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum.”
If the ACC in Brooklyn sounds like an affront to basketball sensibilities, also consider that it will be going head-to-head with the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
“I have mixed emotions about it,” said Gene Waldron, who played at Long Island City High School and then starred at Syracuse from 1980 to 1984. “I spent my entire career in the Big East and playing at Madison Square Garden. It does feel a little out of place with the ACC here. On the other hand I am pleased, because Syracuse has a huge fan base in New York City so we’ll have good crowds at the Barclays Center.”
Jay Bilas, who played at Duke from 1982 to 1986, would like to see the ACC find a permanent home in New York.
“When I was playing in the ACC, I would have never believed that,” said Bilas, who will call the ACC tournament for ESPN. “The ACC was eight teams and it was the best conference in the country. Now that the league has expanded, New York is the place for the tournament to be. I was fortunate enough to call the old Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. And I thought it was a better tournament than the ACC. That was because of Madison Square Garden. I think the ACC should be at Madison Square Garden every year.”
Syracuse is one of seven former Big East schools now in the ACC. That doesn’t sit well with some basketball purists, among them Matt Brust, a three-time Newsday All-Long Island guard from Babylon in the early 1980s. Brust may be more qualified than most to talk about the ACC-Big East paradox. His brother Chris played alongside Michael Jordan on North Carolina’s national championship team in 1982. Matt initially signed with North Carolina but transferred to St. John’s 14 games into his freshman season.
“Syracuse used to be a big part of the Big East,” said Brust. “I think the conferences have lost a lot of their luster because these rivalries have been broken up. I just never thought it was a good idea for them to leave the Big East. There is no sense of rivalry or tradition.”
Brust won a Big East title with St. John’s in 1986, beating Syracuse at the Garden in the final.
“At that time, St. John’s was the show in New York,” said Brust. “I would drive to the games and you would come over the rise on the Grand Central Parkway and see the Empire State Building lit up in red and white. That was for us. When we played in the Big East tournament, the Garden was sold out. There were some great battles there, so much tradition.”
Waldron added: “The atmosphere at the Garden was always electrifying. You had all the Big East history there. For a New York City kid, it was a special place to play.”
Brust also remembers the aura of the ACC tournament while watching his brother.
“The ACC tournament was the Greensboro Coliseum,” he said. “It was kind of run down but it was great for the tournament. It was hallowed ground. You wanted to be there.”
It was announced in 2014 that the ACC tournament would come to Brooklyn. “I firmly believe that the experience for our players, our coaches and our fans will be second to none when we come to Barclays,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said at the time. “It’s the media capital of the world, and we want our brand in this city, in this facility, in Brooklyn.”
The ACC is expected to bring a different style of basketball to New York.
“The Big East was rough and tumble,” said Brust. “Pushing and shoving. Physical play was part of Big East basketball.”
“The Big East in my day was brutal, physical basketball,” said Waldron. “The ACC is definitely more of a finesse game.”
Adrian Autry played for Syracuse from 1990 to 1994 and has been one of the Orangemen’s assistant coaches since the team arrived in the ACC.
“It’s not the big tough, rugged game that I played in during the Big East,” said Autry, who went to St. Nicholas of Tolentine High School in the Bronx. “There’s a lot of scoring in the ACC, it’s a more fluid game. New York is a sports town and I think they’ll love it. To have North Carolina and Duke playing in New York, the atmosphere is going to be tremendous.”
Ford agrees that the more “athletic” style will be welcomed in New York.
“New Yorkers love great basketball and I think they’ll be excited about the level of play,” he said. “We take basketball very seriously in this part of the country. The basketball office at Duke is about eight miles away from the basketball office at North Carolina. That’s a rivalry. The intensity is going to be great. That plays well anywhere.”
The distance between Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center is five miles. There’s a new rivalry in town. Let the Madness begin.