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ACC tournament has never truly been Maryland's party

For years, the Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament has had a distinctly North Carolina flavor, characterized by barbecue joints, sweet tea, Waffle House restaurants and southern drawls.

As familiar as Maryland became with Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum, the Terps — who play there Thursday against Florida State in their final ACC tournament before departing for the Big Ten — could never quite shake the sense that they were guests at somebody else's party.

Maryland had its share of tournament success — winning titles in 1958, 1984 and 2004 — and its fans developed cherished road-trip traditions often involving golf, drinking, barbecued ribs, or all three.

But the Terps, who are 47-56 in the tournament since it began 60 years ago, sometimes felt diminished in a sea of Carolina or Duke blue.

"It was always like we were the visiting team," said former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell, citing the proximity of Wake Forest, Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State, all within a 75-minute drive from Greensboro, which has hosted the tournament more than any other city.

Driesell's teams lost five straight tournament championship games — each one to a North Carolina-based school — before finally prevailing over Duke in 1984. Driesell couldn't help but notice that the crowds weren't excited about his team. It was as if the non-North Carolina schools were preliminary concert acts, and the Dukes, North Carolinas and North Carolina States were the headliners.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked several years ago what he thought about playing in Greensboro, about 60 miles from the Duke campus in Durham.

"It's been the best place to have it," Krzyzewski said. "It's a place — a neutral site. It's where our conference offices are."

But Maryland never considered Greensboro — or Charlotte, N.C., where the tournament has been held eight times since 1990 — neutral territory.

"It was a Carolina crowd. I always felt that," said Joe Harrington, an assistant coach under Driesell and Gary Williams and a teammate of Williams' at Maryland in the 1960s.

When one North Carolina school was eliminated in the tournament, Harrington said, its fans would often sell their remaining tickets to local residents rooting for other teams in the state.

Including this year, the tournament has been held in North Carolina 19 times since 1990 and outside the state five times.

Maryland lobbied for years to bring the tournament north. The games did come to the Washington, D.C., area in 1976, 1981, 1987 and 2005. When it was held in downtown Washington for the first time in 2005, the Terps lost the opening game of the tournament to Clemson.

In November, the ACC announced that the 2016 tournament will be held at the Verizon Center in Washington, a 25-minute drive from Maryland's campus. Since the Terps will be in the Big Ten by then, some have wondered whether the ACC is trying intentionally to make the school feel left out. The conference remains in a legal battle with Maryland over the legality of a $52 million exit fee it says the school must pay for leaving for the Big Ten, effective in July.

The conference said in November that it selected Verizon Center because it has first-class amenities and an established track record in hosting big events, and because Washington is "an appealing tourist destination." ACC officials indicated this week that the possibility of returning to Washington was considered before Maryland made its decision in November 2012 to leave for the Big Ten.

The Big Ten's men's basketball tournament, which began in 1998, has either been held in Chicago or Indianapolis throughout its history.

Next season, the ACC tournament will return to Greensboro minus the Terps. Maryland's absence will surely sadden some longtime fans who have grown fond of making annual March treks south — even if outnumbered by the local schools' supporters.

"I've been to every one since 1972 except for this year. I am so beside myself that they're leaving the ACC," said Bob Mitchell, a former Board of Regents member who once headed a team support group called FOG (Friends of Gary) that was named for Williams, who retired in 2011.

For years, Mitchell said he and his friends would eat barbecue at the same Greensboro restaurant between the Friday afternoon and evening sessions . There would be balloons with the colors of the ACC schools.

Mitchell dined at "Waffle House" so often in Greensboro that he and his friends nicknamed it "The House."

"I love to hate Carolina and I love to hate Duke," he said. "I have no idea what my feelings will be when we play Nebraska and Iowa."

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said he understands this is a nostalgic time for fans. Turgeon, who came from Texas A&M in 2011, was attracted to Maryland partly because of the ACC. Turgeon decorated his office a few years ago with the logos of the ACC's schools and the phrase "Premier College Basketball Conference in the Nation" in block lettering on one of the walls.

The Terps knocked Duke out of last season's ACC tournament in the quarterfinals. As expected, Maryland fans were outnumbered by Duke backers in Greensboro. But as the game wound down, North Carolina's fans — in the arena because the Tar Heels were playing in the next game — joined in applauding the underdog Terps.

"[The final ACC tournament is] going to be sad for a lot of people," Turgeon said. "Life just moves on. Hopefully we can go down and represent Maryland well in this tournament and then we'll have to move on."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sunjeffbarker

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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