They are the face-painted, bare-chested, sign-waving, smart-mouthed crazies who set the manic mood for college basketball and help preserve what little remains of that fine line delineating the amateur game from the pros. But where are they -- actual college students -- on this biggest weekend of ACC basketball?
They're a scant commodity at MCI Center, accounting for, at best, 10 percent of the thousands who have flocked to Washington for the 52nd annual ACC tournament.
Maryland freshman Chris Walter waves his sign during Terrapins' loss to Clemson on Thursday.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
_____ ACC Tournament _____ • In what could be his last game coaching Virginia, Pete Gillen, pictured, and the Cavaliers lose to Duke, 76-64.
• Michael Wilbon: There's evidence that tells us the ACC is the best league right now.
• Georgia Tech pulls away to oust Virginia Tech, 73-54.
• North Carolina survives a scare from Clemson and escapes, 88-81.
• Playing without Chris Paul, Wake Forest falls to N.C. State, 81-65.
• On Basketball: Expectations may be the most difficult thing coaches and their players face.
• Full-Court Press: News and notes
__ Saturday's Schedule __ • UNC vs. Georgia Tech, 1:30 p.m.
• N.C. State vs. Duke, 4 p.m.
__ Friday's Results __ • North Carolina 88, Clemson 81
• Georgia Tech 73, Virginia Tech 54
• N.C. State 81, Wake Forest 65
• Duke 76, Virginia 64
_____ Thursday's Results _____ • Clemson 84, Maryland 72
• N.C. State 70, Florida State 54
• Virginia 66, Miami 65
__ Multimedia __ • Video: Post's Matt Rennie talks about Maryland's loss, Virginia's win.
_____ On Our Site _____ • Friday's photos
• Images from Maryland's loss to Clemson, a defeat that likely keeps the Terps out of the NCAAs for the first time since '93.
• Talk about Maryland's loss.
• ACC in D.C.: Dan Steinberg reports from the ACC tournament.
• Where to go: Check out the best places to watch all the action.
• An interactive guide to the hot spots around the MCI Center.
__ Tournament Preview Section __ • The MCI Center plays host to the ACC tournament, considered by some to be the biggest event in college basketball.
• John Feinstein: The tradition of the ACC tournament is what makes it so special.
• Bracket and schedule
• Although he is one of the ACC's best players, Tar Heels freshman Marvin Williams remains humble.
• News Graphic: Freshman who might play big roles this week.
• The improved play of center Eric Williams gives the Demon Deacons a potent inside-outside game.
• Lee Melchionni has taken advantage of increased playing time and given Duke a major boost.
• News Graphic: Tournament information, map and records.
_____ Team Capsules _____ • Clemson
• Florida State
• Georgia Tech
• North Carolina
• North Carolina State
• Virginia Tech
• Wake Forest
It's not for lack of interest, as North Carolina sophomore Matt Brooks will testify. It's simply a longstanding practice in the ACC, as old as the glorious tournament itself, to use the season-ending event as a fundraiser to reward loyal alumni -- even if it means virtually shutting out the students who have cheered on the teams all season.
Roughly 90 percent of tournament tickets are set aside for the schools' most generous boosters, who earn the right to buy the $325, four-day book of tickets by donating tens of thousands to their respective athletic departments over a lifetime. Some portion of the rest -- typically no more than 100 tickets per school -- is sold to the students.
"It definitely brings the excitement down," said Brooks, 19, of the low number of students on hand. "In terms of standing up and screaming your lungs out, a 75-year-old alumnus doesn't do that like students do! That's just the way it is. They could try, and there are some that I know back in Chapel Hill that do. But it's just not the same."
So clad head to toe in Carolina blue -- from powder-blue wig, blue-painted face and blue jersey and shorts -- Brooks poured every fiber of his gyrating being into compensating for the staid crowd during yesterday's tougher-than-expected quarterfinal against Clemson, bobbing up and down like a pogo stick, flailing his arms and pleading for his beloved Tar Heels to pull out the come-from-behind victory.
ACC tournament tickets were especially scarce this year, given the league's expansion from nine to 11 schools and the fact that MCI Center holds about 4,000 fewer seats than Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum, last season's host. That meant each school's allotment was cut by about 500, but schools could distribute those tickets however they chose.
"This tournament really from the very beginning had a lot to do with fundraising at the individual institutions," ACC Commissioner John Swofford said. "People were willing to give to the scholarship program in order to have the opportunity to buy ACC tournament tickets."
Duke set aside 10 percent of its allotment (roughly 194 tickets) for students. According to Jack Winters, director of the Iron Dukes -- Duke's athletic fundraising arm -- only 47 students signed up to buy them.
"It's not a large number because of spring break and the cost," Winters said.
At Wake Forest, 89 students bought tickets, according to sophomore Andrew D'Epagnier, 20, public relations chairman of the Screamin' Demons student boosters. And they were among the most vocal fans on hand for the Clemson-North Carolina game, cheering wildly for Clemson and shouting down the Tar Heels, whom they regard as standing in the Deacons' way of a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.
"C.P.'s better!" they jeered every time North Carolina's Raymond Felton went to the free throw line, declaring that Wake Forest's Chris Paul, rather than Felton, was the best point guard in the country. "C.P.'s better!"
The day before, Maryland freshman Chris Walter did his part to breathe life into an otherwise passive arena. He wore a tuxedo and sported a Maryland state flag as a cummerbund to complement his hand-lettered sign, which read: "Maryland! Take Me To The Big Dance!"
Walter was by far the loudest among the contingent of Maryland students who had purchased their tournament tickets through a campus lottery, with priority going to those who had accumulated the most "loyalty points" by attending regular season basketball games. And every time Maryland fell farther behind, Walter cranked up his voice.
"Take a shot! Let's go, boys!" he hollered.
And as Maryland whittled away at the deficit, he yelled "RALLY CAPS!" As if on cue, the students around him flipped their baseball caps inside out, bills skyward, and readjusted them for an extra measure of good luck.
"The students are trying, and I think we're doing an all-right job," Walter said. "As long as we're louder than everybody, and our team knows we're here."
One section away, the Maryland boosters whose donations paved their way into MCI Center, took a more passive approach to their team's slide. They talked on cell phones, skimmed the newspaper, chatted with their neighbors and occasionally rolled their eyes in disgust. One man suddenly stood, but it was only to stretch his back while those around him sat, arms folded across their chest, as if waiting to be entertained.
Walter surveyed the dejected boosters to his left.
"It's rare to get them up on their feet, even at home games," he said. "I guess some of 'em can't stand for 40 minutes."