Over the next four days, Washington's MCI Center will host a competition that players past and present call as important as any in college basketball, one whose intensity coaches say is rivaled only by that of the Final Four, one that has been confined to North Carolina for all but seven years since 1954.
Washington, get ready for the ACC basketball tournament.
Maryland, led by Buck Williams, right, denies Virginia and Ralph Sampson, left, an ACC title in 1981.
"There is no bigger event in college basketball," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said.
The Washington area is hosting the nation's signature conference tournament for the first time since 1987 and just the fourth time ever. No other conference event consistently features the convergence of elite players, coaches and loyal fans -- a sensory overload of basketball crammed into less than 100 hours -- and this year's collection of talent is thought to be among the best ever.
With such elite competition on hand -- and with high stakes for the majority of the league's teams with regard to NCAA tournament invitations and seedings -- the atmosphere at MCI Center this weekend promises to be particularly charged. A fan once told North Carolina Coach Roy Williams that the only way to deal with the mounting tension of watching the games was to "take out a big pocket knife and cut a hole right in front of you, so you can see through all the intensity."
"The only thing I can compare it to," Wake Forest Coach Skip Prosser said of the feeling, "is like a Final Four."
To some, it's even bigger than that.
When Dereck Whittenburg's last-second air ball was caught and dunked by Lorenzo Charles, North Carolina State had pulled off one of the game's biggest upsets, a 54-52 shocker over Houston to win the 1983 national title. The final sequence of that game -- and then-Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano's ensuing celebratory dash around the court -- has been replayed countless times in the past 22 years. Yet Whittenburg, now the coach at Fordham, says the national title gets second billing in certain basketball-crazed locales.
"People in ACC country know how special the ACC title is," he said. " When I go to the South, they mention the  ACC tournament title first."
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a member of Duke's 1986 ACC tournament title team, recalled teammate Mark Alarie telling the team after the ACC final that if the Blue Devils had lost it would have ruined their season.
"In a way, it's better" than Duke's 1986 Final Four appearance, Bilas said. "It's a lot of the best teams in the country. That was considered the gospel -- winning the ACC tournament . . . if nobody came to the games, it would still be the best thing going because of the teams."
To win the ACC title, schools sometimes must beat three nationally ranked opponents on consecutive days, as Maryland did last season in its unlikely run as the sixth seed. Said Terrapins junior Nik Caner-Medley: "Either you have a championship, like last year, or, like the year before, it's like, 'What just happened? We just lost.' It happens so fast. That's how it's different from the NCAA tournament."
Changes in Attitudes
Like everything in college basketball, the perception of the ACC tournament has changed over the years.
The competitiveness was arguably the fiercest before 1975, when only the winner of the league tournament earned a bid to the NCAA tournament. The 1974 final, in which North Carolina State beat Maryland 103-100 in overtime, is widely considered one of the best games in the history of the sport, at least in part because of the stakes. The loss denied the Terps, who had just four other losses and were ranked fourth in the nation, a spot in the NCAA tournament.