When Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner Gene Corrigan looked around the Hartford Civic Center on the opening night of last year's inaugural ACC-Big East Challenge, his heart nearly sank.
The building appeared to be half-empty. Corrigan also knew that tickets were not going as quickly as he thought for the next two nights at the Greensboro Coliseum.
"I remember thinking, 'Holy cow, maybe this isn't such a good idea,' " Corrigan recalled last week.
As things turned out, the high-profile matchup between two of the country's most prominent basketball conferences was boffo on the court, if not at the box office. The eight games were split evenly, and all but two went down to the buzzer. One went into overtime.
But some criticism lingered, mostly for the outrageously high ticket prices ($30 a night). So going into this year's event, which will begin tonight at the Richmond Coliseum, some fine-tuning has been done to bring larger crowds and less sniping.
"I was perplexed by it [the lack of crowds] last year," said first-year Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who as associate commissioner under Dave Gavitt was instrumental in putting the ESPN television package together. "A few people have told me that the prices are still too high. If it's too high, we shouldn't play."
Ticket prices at the four sites range from $20 to $25, and sales are going well. Both the doubleheaders at the Capital Centre on Wednesday and the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Thursday are anticipated sellouts. Richmond will come close to its 10,000-seat capacity, and the doubleheader at Syracuse's Carrier Dome will draw around 30,000.
Because of the problems it had last year in Hartford -- in part because the doubleheader wasn't included in the University of Connecticut's season-ticket plan -- the Big East struck a deal whereby Syracuse's estimated 25,000 season-ticket holders will be able to sit in their regular seats, and Georgetown's will be able to get into the game.
No provisions have been made by the ACC for North Carolina, but most seats will be occupied by Tar Heels fans. By going to the largest on-campus arenas in the respective leagues, it seems to ensure that the same situation doesn't arise again.
"As I've said before, they went to their strengths this year," Capital Centre vice president Bob Zurfluh said.
It will help if the games are as good as last year's. While most promise to be competitive, only one can be considered of national significance. Duke and Georgetown will meet in this year's marquee game Wednesday night at 9.
The doubleheaders will be televised on ESPN, with the Maryland-Boston College game tonight on tape delay because of sanctions placed on the Terrapins earlier this year by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Each school received an estimated $200,000 for its appearance last season.
Tranghese tried to deflect some criticism about the concept just being a made-for-television venture put together to fatten the already bulging bank accounts of the two leagues. He pointed out that several schools give up home games, and schools such as Syracuse now are splitting the gate receipts four ways rather than two.
"They're going to take in about 50 percent less than what they normally do," said Tranghese.
Not everyone is thrilled about the ACC-Big East series. While most ACC coaches talk about the positive effects the series has, particularly in terms of exposure, several of their Big East counterparts have the same reservations they had a year ago.
"It's hard, being there's a lot of intensity for a game at this time of year," said Boston College coach Jim O'Brien, whose Eagles were the odd men out last year because the Big East has one more team than the ACC. "I'm not sure it's good for a young team."
Or any Georgetown team. The Hoyas normally tune up for their conference season by playing the likes of Hawaii-Hilo or Southern Indiana, and even last year's victory over North Carolina at the Meadowlands hasn't changed coach John Thompson's distaste for the whole thing.
"I still basically feel that way about the event," Thompson said. "I have a style of preparing my team, and this imposes on it. If something is decided by people for whom I have great respect, I'll go along with it."