"The ACC tournament doesn't start until Friday," is a phrase I heard more than once Thursday, the day on which the ACC tournament actually started.
I was especially prone to hearing that sentiment, considering my penchant for complaining about the lack of quality basketball. Still, all good drama needs a setup; those first two establishing acts that make us care about the climax. Even a joke needs a foundation, and it remains to be seen which path this tournament will take.
Before we take a tour of the notable events from Thursday, here are the basics you need to know.
1. Miami outscored Georgia Tech in the second half to keep its tournament hopes alive and draw Florida State in Friday's quarterfinals.
2. NC State did the same to Boston College, the youngest team in the country, and earned a showdown with Virginia, another potential bubble team. This particular game was over fast; before BC could blink, State was up 14-0.
3. Seth Greenberg, the much-beleaguered Virginia Tech coach, notched a win over Clemson that will mean nothing unless the Hokies win three more games and the ACC title.
4. In a similar position, Maryland embarrassed Wake Forest with a strong second-half run.
And now that you've got the skeleton, let's go team-by-team to add the flesh. But first, a few trinkets.
If someone gave you the choice of watching a trampoline act that featured performers who finished their jumps by dunking, or a trampoline act that featured performers who only jump, which one would you take?
The dunks, right? Well you would be dead wrong, my friend, because the jumpers were professionals, and they almost literally soared through the roof at Philips Arena at halftime of the NC State game. They also did a lot of gymnastic stuff, and for some reason, one guy even wore skis. The finale, where one dude bounced absurdly high on his stomach while making comical gestures to the crowd (casual waves, sleeping pose, the whole repertoire, really), might have been the high point of American entertainment in the 21st century. As for the dunkers? I don't know, man. They just dunked.
There was also an act called QuikChange, where this magician would wave a little hoop over a woman, and all a sudden she'd be wearing a new dress. It was ridiculous. It haunts me; how did he do it? I'll pay up to $100 for the secret.
At the start of the Maryland-Wake game, people all around me started to notice something peculiar; the three refs, Mike Eades, Bernard Clinton, and the inimitable Jamie Luckie, all wore white tape on their sneakers with the letters "KH" written in black. Hmmm. Could it be a tribute to a fallen comrade?
No. It was a nod to fellow referee Karl Hess, who had been reprimanded by the ACC earlier this year for tossing two former NC State players (Tom Gugliotta and Chris Corchiani) for what he called "excessive demonstration." The reprimand was toothless, but Hess still decided not to participate in the ACC tournament. Again, it was Hess's decision. After the game, a short statement from John Clougherty, the ACC supervisor of officials, was passed out to the media.
"Karl Hess wanted to make sure that he did not take away from the ACC tournament, its teams, and the players," the statement read. "Therefore, he made the decision not to participate this year. The officials, as a group, have agreed to respect Karl's decision and will eliminate any further distraction from the tournament."
The tape was gone for the next game, but great job not taking away from the teams or the players, Mr. Hess. Still, the outcry from NC State fans might have been worth it.
Let's start with the Pack. State rolled out a quick lead and absorbed what few runs Boston College had to offer on the way to a lopsided win. Along the way, Scott Wood hit a few 3s and C.J. Leslie connected with the electric Lorenzo Brown (that should be his full name) for a pretty insane alley-oop.
On Thursday, State coach Mark Gottfried spoke openly about the injustice of Virginia being a seeming lock for the NCAA tournament despite their similar résumés and Virginia's weak strength of schedule. Today, he'll get his shot to prove the point at 2 p.m. (ET), when the two teams meet in the quarterfinals.
In the lone head-to-head meeting between the two teams this season, Virginia won 61-60 in Raleigh, and the Pack are eager for revenge.
"Mmm, man," C.J. Williams said, shaking his head as he recalled the loss. "That was a tough one to take. That's the good part of college basketball. You get a shot at a lot of teams."
The Cavaliers are one of college basketball's slowest teams, and they pride themselves on stingy defense. I asked Richard Howell, State's 6-foot-8 junior forward, if that style was frustrating to play against.
"Very, very, very frustrating," he said. "It kinda takes you out of the game because they make you do stuff you don't want to do. That's what basketball is. We want to be on the break, we want to get out and have our wings run and have me and C.J. (Leslie) fly down the court."
And that's the rub; State will have to run against a team that does everything it can to prevent fast play. If Gottfried and his team succeed, they'll be happy campers on Selection Sunday. The season comes down to a single game.
All you have to know about the worst team in this year's ACC is that eight minutes into the game, when the Eagles made their first bucket, the arena erupted in sarcastic cheers.
Steve Donahue inherited a team with a few talented seniors last season, and he led them to an NIT berth. This season, the seniors are gone, and more often than not, Boston College plays with five freshmen on the floor. Success for the former Cornell coach is two years away, and these are very much the growing pains before the blossoming.
In fact, there's only one senior on the team, and that's John Cahill. At 6-foot-1, the red-headed Cahill doesn't look like a Division I basketball player, and that's because for three years, he wasn't.
"I was just a regular college student," he told me. "I thought my playing career was way over. I was playing intramurals and stuff."
Then he got an e-mail from one of Donahue's assistants, who was on the lookout for bodies, and before he knew it he was a walk-on. But instead of riding the bench like most non-scholarship players, Cahill took advantage of the situation and averaged 14 minutes per game during his two years of eligibility. He even cracked double digits in scoring once each year, against Virginia Tech and Holy Cross.
"I've been able to live out a dream these last two years," he said. "Obviously this isn't the way you want to end your career, but I never thought I'd be able to do this."
He didn't score any points in 13 minutes of action against State, but he did have one of the funniest moments of the game when he mouthed to the referee that Wood was pushing off. "Watch him," he said. Wood, who loves to speak to referees, caught wind of it, and gave Cahill and the ref a hurt look. Cahill stayed silent, but the minute Wood turned his head, he nodded at the referee, eyes wide, and made the pushing motion again.
Cahill wants to stay in the game, either through coaching or maybe even refereeing like his dad. He won't get to play for Boston College as Donahue's tenure begins to bear fruit, but in some ways, he'll be his first recruit.
Reggie Johnson and Shane Larkin, a 6-foot-10 junior and a 5-foot-11 freshman, respectively, are quickly becoming my favorite players to speak to at the ACC tournament. Johnson has a philosophical bearing and an openness that you don't see in most athletes, who often spout banalities until everyone leaves. Larkin still has the excitement of youth on him, and he seems happy to speak with the media, smiling through every interview.
Conveniently, they were the best players in a win over Georgia Tech, providing a second-half spark to carry the Canes to victory after an obscenely poor first half that ended with Miami trailing, 20-19.
"The first half was nasty, man," Johnson said. "Shots that we normally make were not falling. I felt like if I brought energy to the team, which I think I did, I knew guys would start doing little things."
Larkin, who came up with several steals to spark the second-half run, echoed the need for energy. "Yeah, as the point guard you're always the first man to guard the ball on defense, so I just started to turn up the intensity," he said. "Coach didn't start me in the second half. I think he was trying to say, 'You're better than what you're doing right now, you're not playing hard enough.' I definitely got the message."
That coach, Jim Larranaga, is unique among his peers for the fact that he rarely yells and screams. Instead, he's just as likely to hold a conversation with a player, or laugh at a bad call instead of fuming and stomping.
"He's calm, man," Johnson said with a laugh. "I'm used to cussing. He talks to you and tells you, 'Don't worry about this, don't worry about that.'" I asked which method of coaching he preferred. "I'll roll with whatever, man, but I don't know, I like the cussing thing, too. That gets me going, when they tell me, 'You ain't this, you ain't that.' But I'm cool with either one, though."
Larkin's takeaway was simpler: "You gotta get the message when he sends it to you."
Both players were taking electricity currents on their legs to prevent cramping, so their thigh muscles were twitching as we spoke. ("Come here, trainer," Larkin yelled when I asked about it. "What's this doing for us?") Like NC State, they're probably one win away from clinching a tournament berth, and like State, they have to do it against a stolid defensive team, Florida State. Both stressed the need to be patient and get the Seminole big men in foul trouble. They're the calmest team I've seen, a reflection of their coach, but they know the price of a loss is high.
There was some talk that Tech might have an advantage playing in front of their home fans in Atlanta, but that clearly did not materialize. The Yellow Jackets scored just 36 points for the game, a season low, and finished out a poor season 4-13 in conference. This was coach Brian Gregory's first season, but he didn't have the talent to make a splash like fellow ACC newcomers Gottfried and Larranaga. The path ahead is hazy for Gregory, who came from Dayton, and he finds himself at the helm of a program in disarray. It's far too early to speculate, but Dana O'Neil was not wrong last summer to phrase the problem this way: It's not whether Georgia Tech made the right decision, but whether Gregory did.
After a relatively easy win over Wake, Maryland finds itself having to face North Carolina, one of the best teams in the country. And the question is, how will they keep Tyler Zeller and John Henson off the offensive glass and away from the free throw line? They did neither in an earlier loss, and Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon was furious with the foul disparity in Chapel Hill. But it's a common problem for all teams against the Tar Heels.
After the win, Terps big men Ashton Pankey and James Padgett both stressed the need to control the boards. When I asked how this was possible, since team after team has failed in exactly that task against Carolina, the best Padgett could offer was that he had to hit them first after the shot went up. He also spoke about teams' inability to get to the line against the Heels.
"I think it's about being afraid to get their shot blocked," he said. "So instead of going into the body, they lean away. It's an ego thing. But you gotta go into their face and try to get fouled. They're going to block some shots, they're long, so don't worry about that."
The main thing I noticed about Wake, one of the country's saddest programs, is that at the press conference, coach Jeff Bzdelik spoke in the halted, strained cadence of an actor playing a tragic scene in a bad movie. At every moment, as each pause brought forth another difficult burst of words, I kept expecting him to collapse in tears. In the quotes below, the italics denote where the crying seemed imminent.
"Let's, uh, first give Maryland
a lot of credit, they came out and
hit us hard. Second half, uh
they just wore on us
our last game here, we had zero points on the bench, and in today's game, we just had offensive points from three players
they just wore on us, it took its toll on us
you have the ball game."
Confession: I've been sick as a pup all week, so I fell asleep after the first session and only got back to the arena after Virginia Tech had won. Immediately after coming off the shuttle, I watched a college-aged girl speak with a security guard. "I'm supposed to be on the Virginia Tech bus," she said. "Did they leave without me?"
The guard pointed her in the direction of the team. "Oh, there's my dad!" she said. I followed her, and she led me to Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, holding court in the hallway in front of the media. He put his arm around her and continued speaking without missing a beat. Tech plays Duke tonight, and his essential message was that Virginia Tech was a team starting to believe they could beat anyone. (They almost took down Duke at Cameron recently, missing a shot to win the game and finally losing in overtime.)
And he knows they'll have to; after being on the bubble and failing to make the tournament for each of the past four years, Greenberg's Hokies are safe from heartbreak this season. The only way in is through the ACC tournament, and it would be just like them to get close before breaking his heart again.
I hope you'll forgive me, but I have nothing on Clemson. They wear orange uniforms.
The tournament started yesterday, but then again, it starts today. The big guns take the court in Atlanta hoping to improve their seeding for the Dance, and teams like State and Miami will experience sweet triumph or the cruel dashing of all hope by the end of the day. The championship of basketball's most famous conference hangs in the balance.