It was only a few years ago that the sporting world looked at Atlantic Coast Conference basketball with alarm, if not indignation. Some strange folks down there, everyone agreed. If coaching in the ACC was the first sign of insanity, as Al McGuire suggested, the ACC Tournament surely was the second.
The ACC was a pioneer in making regular seasons almost meaningless. Before the NBA and NHL invited every team still breathing into the playoffs - and long before wild cards infected the NFL - the ACC was giving lessons in greed. you played a dozen or so games that meant next to nothing, because only the winner of the three-day tournament went to the NCAA playoffs.
That's what most of semi-amateur hoops thought - until it suddenly became obvious that while the ACC format might be unfair, to the players as well as to the customers, it brought in a whole lot more than grits to the treasury.
Now the Big Eight has a tournament; the ECAC has a tournament; the Metro Seven has a tournament. Even the Southwest Conference, where hardly anyone cared for basketball until a month or so ago, has a tournament.
And the ACC is charging into unchartered territory once again, with an experiment generally regarded as ill-advised but that probably will be useful in all postseason tournaments once every conference sees the overwhelming advantages of three-man officiating in crews.
Using non-ACC officials for the ACC Tournament that begins this afternoon in Greensboro, N.C., is a good idea - but one whose time has not yet come. At the moment, there is much more negative than positive about the move, beginning with the fact that it tends to both cheapen the tournament and embarrass a group of ACC officials that gets enough grief already.
All season the ACC has operated with three-man crews. Now all of a sudden, in its showcase event, it switches to two-man crews. And the conference gives the casuel fan the impression that its official are incompetent by revealing the use of non-ACC officials so late.
Any system that puts less pressure on officials is to be embraced. And the colleges are moving in the direction by trying to eliminate split crews in as many situations as possible during the season and switching officials from their natural regions during NCAA Tournament.
Familiarity breeds more contempt than ACC officials need in the ACC Tournament. So a switch with, say the Big Eight, certainly would seem to benefit everyone concerned, because the coaches can devote their energies entirely to the game rather than trying to invent ways to intimidate a man over whom they have some control.
By not arranging some sort of switch before the season and then making certain everyone understood the reasons, the ACC has been callous toward its officials - and the ones who called a technical against the league recently are entirely correct.
Why the need to switch from the clearly useful three-man crews to two-man crews without having a significant tournament for the ACC officials to work? To get the teams ready for the regionals? Regular-season intersectional games ought to have served that purpose.
What all this will re-emphasize is that three officials are better than two, a fact other conferences already are beginning to realize, and that the best officials in the ACC are as good as any throughout the country.
But North Carolina seems to have most of the advantages regardless of who officiates the games. It has the best coach, Dean Smith, the best player, Phil Ford, the deepest bench, even with Rich Yonakor unable to play, and the most luck at the moment.
The luck involves the pairings. The one team that seems capable of beating Carolina - before the Saturday final - is Wake Forest. But Wake is highly vulnerable to muscular Virginia.
Maryland drew the one team it well could beat, North Carolina State, which also has too many free-lance instincts for its own good all too often. Duke has the easiest route to the final - and a Saturday showdown against Carolina should assure an NCAA berth regardless of the outcome.
It is fashionable to believe Duke will win the tournament, but the choice here is Carolina, with the winner the favorite to win the Eastern Regional unless the NCAA makes the proper move andpoints either Notre Dame or Marquette this way.