Author's note: This is an intensely personal look at how I experienced the ACC Tournament. If you're just looking for some fun first-hand pictures and videos of net-cutting, scroll to the bottom...
A Little Background
Living in North Carolina isn't all about the weather. As a kid who grew up living and breathing college basketball, this is a very special place. Within a 30 minute drive, I can be in three different arenas. In any of the three, all I have to do is look up to see one, or several, NCAA championship banners. I could wander around two of them and stumble in to the office of a Hall of Fame coach. All three teams are participants in this year's NCAA Tournament. It is hard to argue with assertion that the triangle region is the beating heart of college hoops.
Like many people of a certain age, I grew up a huge UNC fan. The Jordan-era championship and the cast of players who went on to spectacular college success and pro careers under Coach Smith amazed me. Moreover, UNC was the anti-Duke (see "I Hate Christian Latener" for details why someone might enjoy the anti-Duke). The championship pedigrees of the ACC and its "core" members here on Tobacco Road allow it to lay claim to the best, and most historic conference in college basketball.
As we've discussed on One Foot Down before, I believe Jack Swarbrick achieved a masterful outcome for Notre Dame as he navigated the shifting sands of conference realignment. Maintaining football independence while finding a great cultural and academic fit with the ACC for Notre Dame's other sports is an incredible opportunity for the Irish. Unfortunately, the most visible and influential figure in ACC basketball doesn't look too kindly on the arrangement. Mike Krzyzewski's disdain for Notre Dame's "half-participation" in the ACC is an undercurrent that flows throughout the triangle region. You could see that exposed nerve irritated when OFD had the audacity to question the depth of quality in the conference this season.
There's no understating the local pride at stake in the ACC Tournament. Since its inception in 1954, the ACC tournament has never gone more than two years without being contested in the state of North Carolina. The Greensboro Coliseum has hosted the championship 5 of the last 6 seasons. Either Duke or UNC has played in the finals of each of those 5 tournaments (actually, every title game since 1996). The expansion and inclusion of the former Big East schools, primarily seen as a football decision, has caused some heartburn among Carolina-based ACC traditionalists. They lament the migration of the tournament outside the state of North Carolina for the next 3 seasons. It will be 5 years until the tournament returns to Greensboro in 2020. For those not up to speed on NC geography, Greensboro is about a 35-40 minute drive from Duke and UNC's campuses, whereas Charlotte is about 75 minutes away and considered a wholly different location.
In the 2013-14 season, Notre Dame's presence in the ACC Tournament was a non issue for ACC traditionalists. The absence of Jerian Grant and the inability for that team to defend effectively led to a 6-12 league record and a mere layover-length stay in Greensboro at the ACC tournament. This season, of course, Mike Brey and his Fighting Irish squad wrote an entirely different story. Notre Dame barnstormed through the ACC to build a 7-2 record on the road, including wins in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. Notre Dame also scored its second straight home victory over the vaunted Blue Devils in 2015. Despite a 14-4 conference record and one of the biggest year-to-year turnarounds in ACC history, the Irish were little more than an afterthought in the media coverage of this year's ACC Tournament. Duke had shown the Irish a "true taste" of their fate during their visit to Durham, and many felt that would certainly continue in this subsequent trip to North Carolina.
My Greensboro Experience
All of this history and perspective was designed as background and scene-setting for what is now going to transition into a very personal story of one man's journey to be part of this great ACC Tournament tradition and see his school turn in a historical performance. As a college basketball nut, I chose to attend a football school and fall in love with a plucky basketball program with a sparse history of success -- a program who's signature accomplishment was stopping someone else's streak when I was about 6 months old. My love for Notre Dame basketball has been well documented in OFD posts and within my Twitter blabbering. Over 3 magical days in March, I got to express that love in the sacred heart of the ACC: the tournament in Greensboro.
When the Irish secured a top 4 position, I managed to cancel the vacation day I had planned for the Wednesday of the tournament and was able to watch Wednesday's games from home. For Thursday, two friends: one a fellow ND alum that we don't hold his Flanner history against, and another huge ND fan jumped in the car and headed to Greensboro after work. With it being a school night and a tip sometime after 9PM, we decided to leave the our sons at home. Since we couldn't leave until almost 6PM, our plan was to get there during the Duke/NCSt game and find cheap tickets on the streets. Knowing the arena would likely empty out after the preceding game in the session, we were confident we could dramatically improve our seats during the Irish game vs. Miami. No more than 5 minutes after finding parking, we found ticket scalpers with ample supply. In fact, we found a Virginia fan who mistakenly scalped tickets for the late Thursday session thinking they were semi-finals tickets for Friday night. His mistake netted us 3 seats for $20 each in the lower level. We hustled in and caught the last 10 minutes of the Duke blowout in seats that were on the Virginia/Pitt border in the seating chart. Twenty minutes after the end of that game, the Irish took the floor vs. Miami and we watched the 20 minute clinic Mike Brey's team put in the first half from this view:
Seats for tonight. pic.twitter.com/1y3E9Y04Rm— JoeSchu (@JoeSchuOFD) March 13, 2015
For the second half, we joined some friends who'd received AMAZING seats at mid-court in the Virginia section. Since 99% of the Wahoo fans had left the building, there was no problem sitting 5 rows up behind the benches.
Second half seat upgrades pic.twitter.com/6XGlzvwNOj— JoeSchu (@JoeSchuOFD) March 13, 2015
As Miami made their run, I can't tell you how many times I said, "I'm going back to the old seats." For all the shirt popping and puffed out chests of the first half, the second half was a tangle of stress and dread, but the Irish did what this version of the Irish do: they took the punch and fought back to get the job done. On the way out of the arena, the very cordial and accommodating Greensboro Coliseum staff thanked us for coming and also chortled, "Tomorrow night won't be so fun or easy."
As great as that victory was, the overwhelming sense around the area was that Duke's preordained destiny was to raise an ACC banner and set the order straight in the league. The Irish were simply cannon fodder and would be haunted by the 30 point "embarrassment" in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Notre Dame "was lucky" in their first two trips to the area, and the luck of the Irish had finally worn out. We made it back home around 1:30 Friday morning and I went to bed with a wide smile after 2AM.
All the local media were abuzz with the opportunity for a Duke/UNC final and even ESPN perpetuated the narrative that Mike Brey's squad was merely an afterthought in the ACC picture:
So how does this 3 team semi-final thing work ESPN? pic.twitter.com/IKgeiICTwo— JoeSchu (@JoeSchuOFD) March 13, 2015
Since the semi-finals were played on a Friday, my friend and I decided to bring our sons to experience the tournament. At 12 and 11, we knew this was an incredible opportunity for both of them. We packed them both up in the car about an hour before the tip of the UNC/UVa game, assuming we could repeat Thursday's game plan and score scalped tickets after tip of the first game. Since tickets were going for about $100 on StubHub, we figured we wouldn't have a problem. Unfortunately, that was a bad miscalculation. As we made the 45'ish minute drive over, prices on StubHub soared to over $200 as supply dwindled. We quickly parked and tried to make our way to where we purchased tickets Thursday night, only to have the scalpers laugh us away. We made our way around the coliseum twice looking for scalped seats and even made a desperate attempt at the box office to look for unclaimed seats. We found none, and we were warned not to buy scalped seats for section 125 because they had an issue earlier in the evening with counterfeit tickets. It didn't matter what our price ceiling was, we weren't seeing that game live. You would think that in a tournament format where 10 of the schools were already sent home, there would be good secondary ticket supply, but with the allure of 2 local schools fighting it out to create the 3rd edition of their storied rivalry this season, tickets were in high demand.
Sadly, we resigned ourselves to not getting in the building and quickly texted spouses to fire up DVR's as we raced home and made it back shortly before tip. I elected to watch the game on the local RayCom rendition as opposed to ESPN. As a local Irish fan, you had the option of Duke alum Mike Giminski providing color commentary or Duke alum Jay Bilas. From the comfort of my couch, I saw one of the most inspiring and tough-minded Notre Dame basketball performances I'd ever seen. Honestly, I didn't move an inch from tip to finish for fear of jinxing that magical run. At midnight, only my dog and I were still awake as I dropped to my knees in joy as the Irish defeated Duke to earn a place in the ACC Tournament finals against North Carolina. Once again, I hit the sack after a victory beer around 2AM with a broad smile on my face.
While beating Duke pissed off a small percentage of local basketball fans, it partially pleased the largest segment of the North Carolina population: UNC fans. While facing their blood rivals for the title was somewhat preferable, if the Irish were willing to play patsy to their title dreams, that suited them just fine. Besides, they could take revenge for ND's "lucky" victory in January.
Knowing tickets would be in high demand, I began scouring StubHub and Craigslist around seven Saturday morning. We weren't missing this game. By eight, I had arranged a deal locally for 2 seats and raced across town to pick them up. My son wasn't even up yet, so when I got home with 2 tickets in hand, he was watching the TiVo'ed replay of the Duke victory. I snuck up behind him and held these up:
Hell yes. pic.twitter.com/edHEiwRjUR— JoeSchu (@JoeSchuOFD) March 14, 2015
His response was a huge smile, and an "OH YEAH!" Both of us lounged around on the cold, grey, rainy afternoon waiting for our opportunity to witness Irish basketball history that evening. Ty has been a pretty fortunate kid. His attendance at Irish athletic events includes a win over Duke in men's soccer, the Irish defeating Syracuse in football in NYC, along with trips to the Dean Dome and PNC Center this basketball season. The sun finally started to poke out that afternoon, and we picked up our friends around 5:30 and headed for Greensboro.
Once we parked, we knew we were in for a dramatically different atmosphere. In our previous trips to ND games in the area, there were a fair number of Irish fans. Tonight, we were in a distinct minority. Even the very friendly officers helping people cross over to the coliseum were saying "Go Heels" to the fans around us. We figured it would be 50:1 in favor of UNC fans over ND fans. That number was closer to 250:1. Moreover, the atmosphere felt different than the cordial welcome we'd received as road fans at the Dean Dome. Whether it was the raised stakes or the tournament had drawn a different section of the UNC fan base, it was pretty clear the Irish were about as welcome at this final as a fart in church. Despite that, we made out way around the ACC fan fest and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the ACC at its finest:
I expected 50:1. More like 150:1 for UNC pic.twitter.com/691TDRG5IC— JoeSchu (@JoeSchuOFD) March 14, 2015
ACC Fan Fest. pic.twitter.com/fwcNcsHleK— JoeSchu (@JoeSchuOFD) March 14, 2015
With that, we made out way to our seats. The atmosphere inside the arena was no different than outside. It was clear to all, this was yet another ACC road game for the Notre Dame Road Dawgs. Here was our view for the night:
Tonight's view from above. pic.twitter.com/RCQKWQKgdH— JoeSchu (@JoeSchuOFD) March 14, 2015
We had the good fortune of having a pocket of Irish fans a few rows back, and a very nice family of Duke fans immediately behind us. They were very welcoming and said how happy they were for Coach Brey, given his Duke roots. I managed to be as diplomatic and cordial as I could when the conversation came to the relative value of Kevin White as an AD. To each their own. The Duke "neutrals" were heavily in favor of the Irish on the evening.
Alstein did a phenomenal job reporting on the game in our OFD recap, so I won't attempt to rehash that here. In fact, I'm not sure I could. Any vision of myself as a basketball observer or analyst went out the window as the emotions of that game went back and forth. It was nearly impossible to be rational or dispassionate about what unfolded Saturday night in the Greensboro Coliseum. The momentum swings and runs within the title game were valleys and crescendos across the entire spectrum of emotions. The only thing I'll say about the live experience of the game was that Jerian Grant had one of the quietest 24 point, 10 assist performances I have ever seen. There were times he just didn't look 100% "on," but his late FT's were so clutch and his defense late in the game was very disruptive. During the emotional ebbs and flows of the game, Vasturia seemed to deliver numerous "Oh thank GOD!" moments. It is wonderful to see his contributions start to be recognized.
By far, the most incredibly surprising event of the entire experience was seeing UNC fans head for the aisles with their team down only 9 points with 1:10 remaining in the game. We turned to the Duke fans behind us and asked what in the world they were doing. With so much insane basketball history at the college level and Paige making everything he looked at, how could they possibly be leaving? Non-UNC fans in the area tend to give Tar Heel fans a hard time about a perceived sense of entitlement and the rate with which they seem to abandon ship on their team and coach. The steady stream of light blue towards the exits provided some pretty concrete evidence. As an ND fan, no way did I feel that game was secure, and had the tables been turned, I'd have been glued to my seat. It struck me as crazy, but I guess they wanted to beat traffic.
Poor Ty had to suffer his Dad's paranoia as I sweated out the final few minutes and celebrated Grant's FT's. Ty showed far more confidence than I could muster. I guess that comes with never having seen the Irish go down. We were on our feet jumping for joy at the final buzzer (excuse me, it is getting a little dusty in my office as I type this), and we watched the confetti cannons fire in honor of The University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish Men's Basketball Team.
We soaked that in for a few short minutes before joining another ND fan and his son making a bee-line for the lower level to get a closer look at the trophy presentation and net cutting. In my 23 years of following this team, they've never snipped a single strand of a net - we were going to enjoy every second of it.
First, we were treated to the announcement of the players and presentation of the ACC Tournament Championship trophy.
Of course, then we enjoyed the overwhelming presence of Irish contributors on the all-tournament selections, along with Jerian Grant's place among ACC legends as the tournament's most outstanding player.
Then it was on to the next phase of the dream sequence. This tweet really summed up our emotions accurately:
Cut some damn nets pic.twitter.com/C8Sk9agNVQ— JoeSchu (@JoeSchuOFD) March 15, 2015
I'm going to let you soak some of this in...
DJ & Father Jenkins
To their credit, the Greensboro Coliseum fed a nice stream of outstanding party music during the ceremonies. We were getting down to a little Uptown Funk and other fun selections as we reveled in victory. Of course, as the dust settled, we were treated to our favorite tune:
After that, the players finally started to filter off the floor towards the locker room. Thanks to some great positioning, we were able to snap a few more fun pictures. For men that had every right to run out of there and get back to their locker room for an epic celebration, each was incredibly gracious and willingly posed for some of the best pictures I've ever taken.
If you haven't had a chance to be around any of these young men, but you're a fan of the Irish, rest assured you're supporting an incredibly classy and personable group of guys.
Of course, on the way out, it was our turn for some #ShirtsAndHats:
I'm not even sure how to wrap this whole thing up. I think it is because I never want it to end. I'm almost sad we don't have another week to soak this in before the next task is laid before us. The cruel calendar gave them only 24 hours to revel in this title before turning the page to Selection Sunday. It almost felt unkind to these men and their historic accomplishment. Mike Brey led his team into the belly of the beast. They aspired to win the most coveted conference title in the land, and they wanted to take it right from the heart of college basketball.
They were dismissed, discounted, and written off before they even began. I mean no respect to ACC traditionalists and those who follow the triangle teams. They have the tradition and earned every bit of their success. Notre Dame is a football school from Indiana with an odd membership agreement. No one outside Mike Brey's locker room expected this, and other than the few rows of parents and dignitaries behind their bench and a smattering of us around the coliseum, no one wanted them to achieve their goal. As a reward for their mental and physical tenacity and resiliency, they will hang Notre Dame's first ever conference title banner, a banner from the most significant conference in college basketball, from the rafters of Purcell Pavillon.
However, between now and then, there's the business of winning 6 more games and busting out the scissors to cut up some more nets. Once you have a taste...