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Basketball Madness Charges Into City

Conference Tourney Back After 2 Decades

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page A01

Ed Taylor grew up in a small North Carolina town, nothing but tobacco and cornfields, and like most people he knew, he went to N.C. State University because he liked the basketball team. He still drives from his home in Alexandria back to Raleigh for games every chance he gets. Now a little bit of home is coming to him, and today he'll need only to head downtown to try to land tickets.

Starting at noon, the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, usually in Taylor's home state, will be played in Washington for the first time in nearly 20 years.

The Florida State dance team gears up for the ACC tournament, which starts Thursday at MCI Center. It will be the first time in nearly 20 years the tournament will be held here. (Sarah L. Voisin - The Washington Post)

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To start things off, college basketball fans filled the Dream nightclub downtown last night for a pre-tournament party, with plenty of team colors on display around the dance floor.

The ACC has long been a hotbed of college basketball, and nowhere does it generate such all-consuming passion as in North Carolina. Each March, when tournament time comes, teachers from Raleigh to Winston-Salem -- the 100 or so mile stretch known as "Tobacco Road" -- bring TVs into classrooms, and grandmothers talk smack about the teams.

Now all that intensity is hitting MCI Center for four days.

Not that the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia don't have thousands of crazy fans; season tickets for Terrapins games have been sold out for several years. But in North Carolina, the schools are close together, the rivalries run deep and people aren't distracted by the Washington Redskins or a new major league baseball team.

Three ACC teams are ranked in the top five nationally: Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest, all Tobacco Road schools.

"If you grew up in North Carolina, ever since you can walk, you know your favorite team," UNC fan Elizabeth Thomasson, 23, said.

While bragging rights come with winning the ACC postseason championship, each of the 11 schools competing in Washington this week has something else at stake: a bid in the 65-team NCAA tournament, better known as March Madness, which begins next week.

The best of the ACC are jostling for NCAA tournament position. But five others -- including Maryland's Terrapins, who have gained an NCAA bid for 11 straight years -- likely need to win one or more games in the conference tournament to earn a spot in the national contest. (U-Md. opens the ACC action against Clemson.)

And three others, including U-Va., which plays tonight against the University of Miami, probably would need to win the whole thing to earn the right to compete for the national title.

Moving north to host the ACC tournament in U-Md.'s back yard makes sense, many fans said -- especially because the conference just added Virginia Tech, Miami and, next year, Boston College. Although the decision to bring the tournament to MCI Center was made before the expansion, it furthers the goal of broadening the fan base.

So this week, Washingtonians can expect to see Clemson University orange flags fluttering from cars, Florida State dance team members shaking garnet-and-gold pompoms, kids wearing Virginia Tech turkeys on their heads and grown men making N.C. State University wolf shadow-puppets with their hands and howling.

In offices, people will be checking scores online while pretending to work. And crowds will lurk around MCI Center, pouncing on fans of teams that just lost, trying to buy their tickets.

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