GREENSBORO, N.C.—This week marked the one-year anniversary of when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports in the U.S., and as we’ve seen the world of sports develop over the last 365 days, I found myself back where I was when it all started: the ACC men’s basketball tournament.
On March 12, 2020, I was halfway on my trek from Durham to Greensboro for Duke’s opening-round matchup against N.C. State when breaking news forced me to stop immediately in a nearby Olive Garden parking lot to see that the 2020 ACC tournament was cancelled.
One year later, while most games were played and a champion was eventually crowned in Georgia Tech, the conference’s league tournament was more or less experiencing the same issues, with Duke and Virginia both having to withdraw for a positive COVID-19 test within the program.
This year marked the 28th time that the Greensboro Coliseum hosted the ACC men’s basketball tournament, twice as many as any other venue. The conference allowed a couple thousand fans to attend at limited capacity, but as someone who grew up attending every ACC tournament in the Gate City, I couldn’t help but notice the strange, eerie feeling that encapsulated the week of games.
For the first time since the 1970s, the ACC champion had to win just two games to take home the crown due to the two game cancellations from the top-seeded Cavaliers and Duke. There just didn’t seem like there was the same level of satisfaction once the tournament was down to a final two, knowing that some teams had exited the bracket at the hands of a virus, rather than another team.
With the abrupt end to Duke's season and North Carolina falling to Florida State in the semifinals, this was the first championship game since 1996 that featured neither the Blue Devils nor Tar Heels. With two non-local teams and limited crowds, Saturday night’s championship matchup between the Yellow Jackets and Seminoles felt like an opening-round game would in usual times. Sloppy play plagued both sides as Georgia Tech shot 5-for-23 from 3-point range and Florida State turned the ball over 25 times. Championship-deciding plays were made in front of a quiet crowd, and it felt like anything but the conference’s biggest stage.
The ACC tournament is usually an event in which great atmospheres attract fans at every game, though this year many fans just stayed for their team’s matchups before exiting the arena. When two rivals happen to play in different games of the same sessions of the tournament, you can normally find, for example, North Carolina fans joining the Louisville faithful to root against Duke before the Tar Heels played in their game. However, most moments at the 2021 tournament were filled with individual voices instead of a roaring crowd.
And perhaps my favorite part of the ACC tournament was nowhere to be found: the hunt for tickets to the following day’s game after your team seals another postseason win. An empty concourse was the setting after every game this week, but usually it’s a treat to watch masses of fans flock to the designated section of the losing team after every game, trying to buy tickets to the next session off of despondent fans heading home unhappy.
The unusually empty environment gave me a chance to reflect on the historical significance of the Greensboro Coliseum. ACC legends like Michael Jordan, Len Bias, Tim Duncan, J.J. Redick and David Thompson have dominated in the Coliseum since its inception in 1959, and the same seams that once held the thousands of fans who watched them now sat mostly empty. When the ACC tournament returns to Greensboro in 2023, we can all hope that the same old crowds will be present.
The Blue Devils finally got a chance to play in front of a supportive, pro-Duke crowd this week in Greensboro, and the ACC deserves much credit for pulling off a successful event. However, the empty, cavernous halls of the historic Greensboro Coliseum at the 2021 ACC Tournament served as a sobering reminder of how much has changed in a year and how far we've come from the college basketball atmosphere we all miss so dearly.
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