I was introduced to the ACC Tournament when I was 12 years old.

March 1971. South Carolina vs. North Carolina. Joyce outjumping Dedmon. Owens laying it at the buzzer to give the Gamecocks the win.

The atmosphere of the crowd was electric. The emotion on the court was contagious. Even through the television.

I was hooked immediately.

That game is among the reasons I eventually went to USC (the real one). It’s also the reason I fell in love with the ACC Tournament.

I attended my first one in 1980 as a fan on a ticket I got from my brother, who was working for the Georgia Tech student newspaper at the time. I’ve covered 30 of them as a member of the media since.

It’s still one of my favorite weeks of the year, even though it’s no longer the event it once was.
Roy Williams famously likened the ACC Tournament to “a big cocktail party.”

And at the time, it was.

There were only 7, 8 or 9 teams in the league, all of whom played each other twice during the regular season. Everyone knew everyone else. There was a feeling of familiarity.

Not anymore.

In 2004-05, the league finally expanded to double-digit teams. It didn’t stop. With expansion to 15 – soon to be 18 – teams spread out from sea to shining sea, Ol’ Roy’s cocktail party has become more like an antiseptic corporate convention. The kind in which coworkers who see each other once or twice every year get together in a centrally located hotel ballroom to exchange ideas on how to increase sales.

And now, not everyone in the conference is going to be invited to attend.

Among the items decided at the ACC’s annual winter meetings in Charlotte this week was a plan to restructure the tournament format in advance of this summer’s arrival of California, Stanford and SMU.

There were any number of options the league’s leadership could have chosen. Among them, is a creative idea put forth by Luke DeCock of the Raleigh News & Observer.

It calls for the bottom 8 teams in the regular season standings to be divided into 2 4-team pods. They’d hold their own mini-tournaments on Monday and Tuesday, with the 2 survivors earning spots in the main 12-team bracket.

Instead, they decided to stick with the cumbersome 15-team status quo. The only change is that the bottom 3 teams don’t have to bother showing up just to say they were there.

Sounds reasonable in theory.

In practice?

Just wait until the volcanic eruption of outrage that takes place the first time a traditional ACC team with a fan base that cares – one like, say, NC State – gets left out in the cold.

If the league was going to eliminate teams, it might as well have gone all the way and get rid of 3 more and return the tournament to a more compact 12-team, 4-day affair.

Or better yet, it could have just done away with the tournament altogether.

Have 1 last farewell celebration for it this year in Washington, DC. An actual cocktail party, if you will. Bring back all the heroes from the past to share their stories, say goodbye and send the Tournament off in style.

Laettner, Sampson, Del Negro and Ford.

Skywalker, Wally Wonderful and Big Game James.

Even John Roche, the smooth South Carolina guard whose smooth jumper and cocky attitude helped kindle the passion of a certain impressionable young fan.

Such a drastic move wouldn’t be popular with everyone. And it would inevitably be met with sadness from nostalgic “Get off my lawn” old guys like myself. The reality is that most would barely miss it.

The automatic NCAA bid to the winner is nothing more than ceremonial. More times than not, teams end up playing their way out of the field – as Wake Forest did in 2022 and Clemson did last year – than into it.

Maybe the conference championship concept still makes sense for 1-bid leagues looking to gain a little national exposure on an ESPN network. At this point, the ACC’s version of the tournament has become little more than a money grab.

Eliminating it would solve numerous logistical and aesthetic issues, not the least of which is the embarrassing optics of 3 opening round games between double-digit seeds being played in a nearly empty arena.

It would also give the league’s teams 2 extra nonconference games before the start of league play to bulk up their NET rankings by wiping the floor up with the Detroit Mercys, Mississippi Valley States and Colorado School of Mines’ of the world.

The ACC wasn’t the first conference to stage a postseason tournament. It was, however, the conference whose tournament popularized the idea and spawned a multitude of copycats.

It’s part of the league’s fabric and history. It’s the reason many of us fell in love with the ACC and is the source of memories that live on forever.

Unfortunately, that league doesn’t exist anymore.

One by one, the ACC’s customs and traditions have been cast aside and replaced. Come June 1, it won’t be the Atlantic Coast Conference anymore. It will become the “All Coast Conference.”

Change is never easy. But at a certain point, it’s necessary.

For the ACC Tournament, that time is now. Whether the league’s leadership wants to admit it or not.