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Mike Wise

Differences Between North and South

By Mike Wise
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page E17

Rashad McCants curled around the pick with a chance to tie the score for North Carolina. Most of the crowd at the brightly lit MCI Center was standing and breathless. From the floor, you could see the concern on the faces in the upper bowl.

Everyone says MCI Center is not Greensboro Coliseum, that the arena has a new, antiseptic feel, as if the hardwood had just been lacquered and the marquee attached to the facade. It does not feel like ACC country, the argument goes.

Duke players, from left, Shelden Williams, J.J. Redick, Shavlik Randolph and Lee Melchionni converge on Washington for their ACC tournament run. (Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)

"It belongs in Greensboro," said Mike Patrick, who announces the tournament for ESPN. "Something about it just fits. I'm a traditionalist. It worked wonderful in Atlanta, but Greensboro seems right."

Yet for most of the Georgia Tech-North Carolina game, the building percolated and gave the fans all any ACC tournament could offer, including a taut finish. When McCants's good look from the left wing came up short and Tech could breathe after a 78-75 victory, there was no missing ambiance, no shortchanged sentiment. The masses had seen a tremendous game in an area that last hosted the tournament in 1987.

Meantime, four hours' drive north earlier this week, the Big East rolled on.

The bowels of Madison Square Garden do not smell good; maybe they never have. If the lighting on the floor is dim, the stands are almost in the dark. The roar of the crowd seems to come from nowhere. And when the Garden roars -- as it did for Connecticut-Syracuse on Friday night in the Big East semifinals -- it is the most throaty, emotional sound in American sports.

Georgetown felt the force Thursday night, nearly knocking off U-Conn. before falling in the final seconds. For all the tradition of the city game -- all the grit and resolve and physical play that has come to embody the games at the Garden -- there was almost a sense of melancholy at the Big East this year. Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, DePaul and South Florida come aboard next season, while Boston College moves to the ACC.

Northeastern rivalries are diluted, the halcyon days of St. John's-Georgetown and 'Nova-'Cuse committed to memory. The Garden is still the Garden, a special venue for any 19- or 20-year-old to play in. But it's not the same.

The ACC in D.C. The end of the Big East as we know it.

They call this progress in college basketball. Financial reality. Good business.

Maybe for the Big East. But having the ACC in Washington was not some great moneymaking boon.

Duke and North Carolina State dueled late yesterday afternoon -- J.J. Redick was his surreal self, erupting for 35 points in Duke's 76-69 win. Their legions were as loud as they possibly could be four hours from home. The attendance was maxed out, the scalpers made good profit and the people who run the event were genuinely pleased with Washington as a host. But the chances of the tournament returning are slim. For one, the next five years are already contracted (Greensboro in 2006 and 2010, Tampa in 2007, Charlotte in 2008 and Atlanta in 2009). Also, an MCI sellout, even with the extra seats, is 20,301. That's a good 4,000 less than Greensboro Coliseum and about half of what the Georgia Dome packs in.

John Swofford, the ACC commissioner, was asked whether the tournament might return to the District.

"Hard to say, but this experience has been positive," Swofford said. "There's some concern when you lose seats. But this tournament seems to transcend where it's held. It will get serious consideration, but the biggest issue for the future is the size issue."

Of the differences, Swofford added: "When you're in Greensboro, it dominates the landscape. It takes over the city. When it comes to D.C., there are a lot of very important things going on other than a basketball tournament. We were worried about getting lost, but we haven't."

Rough translation: Enjoy today's championship game, because the ACC tournament is not coming back.

In New York on Friday, West Virginia and Villanova played what, execution-wise, was one of the most flawless college games of the season. They shot well, defended like nails and the game was only decided when a St. Bonaventure refugee, Mike Gansey, was fouled on an offensive rebound and converted both free throws for the Mountaineers with two-tenths of a second remaining.

With all due respect to the bumping and grinding in the ACC, no university could match the physical play of Connecticut-Syracuse. The Orange ran away with the game, bodying up the Huskies like few teams this season. Hakim Warrick was as dynamic and spectacular as any great ACC player. The teams combined for 18 blocked shots.

In the dying days of the old tournament last night, West Virginia was trying to become the first team in Big East history to win four games for the title.

The ACC was beyond comparable. Will Bynum was brilliant against Carolina, pulling up from outside, knifing inside, finishing with a career-high 35 points. The notion of him and Redick taking turns from the perimeter this afternoon is tantalizing. Never before have two players scored 35 apiece in the same ACC tournament.

There is still a Legends Department in both conferences. In the Big East, you've got Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim. In the ACC, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Gary Williams are Hall of Famers. Three national titles for the north. Four for the south. Mostly, through, the two greatest conferences in college basketball are undergoing a sea of change amid two more wild tournaments.

For what it's worth, MCI Center was a bit more sterile and spacious. It smelled much better.

As for resilience, strawberries on the knees and drama, it's about even.

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