CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A lot has been said in recent years about how the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament doesn't have the same feel to it as in the old days, when one team advanced and the rest put their basketballs away for the season.
But this year, there is a distinctly different feel. Not only doesn't the tournament have the same import as in the ACC's heyday, but it also probably has less significance than it has had even in recent years. And the biggest difference -- one fewer team -- was quite noticeable yesterday.
For the first time since Georgia Tech joined the ACC in 1980, there are only seven teams in the tournament. With Maryland unable to attend because of probation terms imposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, top-seeded Duke will get a bye when the tournament starts today.
If this were a tennis match, it would advantage, Blue Devils.
"We have to be careful how we use the bye," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after his team clinched the regular-season title, as well as the bye, with a victory over North Carolina on Sunday in Chapel Hill.
"We are used to playing every two or three days, and now we won't play until Saturday."
While the Blue Devils wait for tomorrow, the opening round begins with fourth seed North Carolina State (18-9, 8-6) playing fifth seed Georgia Tech (16-11, 6-8) at 2 p.m.; the No. 2 seed Tar Heels (22-5, 10-4) taking on No. 7 Clemson (12-15, 2-12) at 7 p.m.; and third seed Wake Forest (18-9, 8-6) meeting sixth seed Virginia (20-10, 6-8) in the last game.
Though yesterday's practice session was strangely quiet -- the Terps were absent for obvious reasons, Duke is expected to arrive today, and North Carolina never comes until right before tip-off -- things could heat up when the tournament starts.
Then again, they might not.
For one thing, the top six seeds are virtually assured of bids to the NCAA tournament. Even though the Cavaliers come in reeling from six defeats in their last seven ACC games, they still have won enough to get in. And, barring three straight upsets, the last-place Tigers are headed back to Clemson.
"We aren't playing as well as we did at some points earlier in the season," said first-year Virginia coach Jeff Jones. "But looking at the films from the past few weeks and earlier in the season, there's not a whole lot of difference other than shooting the basketball."
Some shooting -- mostly outside -- is expected in today's opener between the Wolfpack and the Yellow Jackets. The game features the ACC's two top scorers in North Carolina State senior Rodney Monroe and Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson, as well as the all-time NCAA assist leader in the Wolfpack's Chris Corchiani.
It is the most interesting opening-round matchup, though the Wolfpack won both regular-season meetings. But Jones called it "the game," and, considering the offensive prowess and
defensive lapses of the Wolfpack and defending champion Yellow Jackets, it could be just that.
Even though the Terrapins aren't playing, Maryland has sold about 1,600 tickets to the tournament, said ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan.
Maryland coach Gary Williams was expected to attend last night's senior banquet along with Terps seniors Matt Roe and Cedric Lewis, but he was going out recruiting today. "I don't want people coming up telling me how they feel sorry for us," Williams said.
If there's someone to feel sorry for, it's Clemson center Dale Davis. A year ago, he was an all-ACC player and a potential lottery pick in the NBA draft. After a less-than-stellar senior year, Davis probably will have one more game to show that he is worthy of being a No. 1 draft pick.
"In life, there are some things you can't control," said Clemson coach Cliff Ellis. "Sometimes there time for roses, and sometimes there's time for stinkweed."
For Maryland, it's pure stinkweed.
For Duke, it could be roses.
In the eight seasons between the time South Carolina left the ACC and Georgia Tech joined, the team with the first-round bye won the championship five times. Overall, the regular-season champion has won six of nine ACC tournaments with the benefit of a first-round bye.
A championship Sunday could give the Blue Devils something even more important -- a top seed in either the East or Southeast regional of the NCAA tournament. "We have to be able to use the bye to our advantage," Krzyzewski said. "We have to be able to capture the emotion of the tournament."