By Ralph D. Russo
Half a mile away from where college basketball's premiere conference tournament is being played, there are no signs that the Atlantic Coast Conference is in town.
The Thai restaurants, bodegas and store-front day care centers on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood are going about Thursday late-morning business as usual.
Get within a couple blocks of the Barclays Center and now there is a clue something is going on: three adults wearing prominent articles of baby blue clothing.
The ACC has brought its showcase event to New York City for the first time. It has not exactly taken over the town, but the tickets are sold out, the basketball has been good and North Carolina will play Duke on Friday night so things are going just fine.
The ACC's attempt to plant a flag in the largest media market in the country and expose its schools to new audiences also has sparked a debate within the conference about how best to balance broadening its reach with sticking to traditions.
For traditionalists, old-guard coaches and many of the conference's hoops-crazy fans, this week has ranged from a nice change of pace to a tolerable inconvenience.
For Commissioner John Swofford, though, this is no experiment.
"We fully expect it to be very successful, as it has been anywhere we've taken the ACC men's basketball tournament," Swofford told the AP earlier this week. "My guess is with our current footprint and the importance of this city both in a tangible and intangible way to the ACC. I would guess New York would be in our rotation for the long-term."
The ACC men's basketball tournament was in Washington last year and will be back in Brooklyn next year. It is scheduled to return to North Carolina in 2019 and 2020.
Asking coaches about what the rotation should look like became an intriguing subplot for the first three days of this week's tournament.
It started with Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim after Wednesday's first game taking a shot at the heart of ACC country, saying bluntly there is "no value" to playing the conference tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina. The city of about 250,000 has hosted the ACC tournament 26 times, more than any site, and is easily accessible to the league's traditional basketball powers: North Carolina, Duke, North Carolina State and Wake Forest.
The 72-year-old Boeheim spent most of his four-decade career coaching in the Big East and playing the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. In four years as part of the ACC, Syracuse has not won a tournament game, including year one in Greensboro.
Boeheim said it was better to play the tournament in big metropolitan areas that can provide benefits in recruiting and more exposure for the schools.
Duke's Mike Krzyzewski rebutted that the ACC tournament became the standard by which all conference tournaments are measured in large part because of the support it gets from the city of Greensboro.
North Carolina's Roy Williams chimed in Thursday.
"I love moving the tournament around," Williams said. "I think it's good. But the Masters was played at Augusta National. Augusta's not a very big town. We keep taking the tournament back there."
Louisville coach and native New Yorker Rick Pitino, no surprise, leaned toward Boeheim's side.
"It really is for the fans. New York is great for the fans. D.C. is great for the fans and so on," Pitino said. "Greensboro was great for an eight-team league on Tobacco Road where all the teams are from, they gather together, and it's one big happy fraternity. But now we've got them out of the fraternity, it needs to be a good environment, and this certainly is a good environment."
Good but different than Greensboro, or even Charlotte, which also has been a frequent host.
"You get to tailgate for the games (in Greensboro)," said North Carolina fan Chris Gore. "It is the show in town."
Gore, 35, made the trip up from Durham this week. He was with a couple of Tar Heel friends exploring the area around Barclays before North Carolina tipped off at noon against Miami on Thursday. He likes that the ACC tournament moves around and didn't mind trading in the tailgating for the Brooklyn bar scene.
Kathy Merritt, a Duke fan from Durham who has been attending the tournament for decades, was not so enthusiastic.
"New York is fantastic and a lot of fun. But it doesn't have the buzz. It doesn't have the energy," said Merritt, who was sporting a Duke blue wig to match her sweatshirt.
Boeheim's confrontational tone left a few athletic directors in the conference choosing to opt out of this week's public discussion about the plusses and minuses of various tournament sites.
Make no mistake: The idea that Greensboro is an outdated host city is not confined to the old Big East coaches in the league. Also, schools outside of North Carolina have traditionally complained that Duke and UNC hold too much sway in the ACC.
And on the other side, the ACC's current stance of keeping its championship events out of North Carolina because of a state law that critics say promotes discrimination makes those who prefer the conference stick to its roots more sensitive about it straying far from home. Those Charlotte (2019) and Greensboro (2020) dates might be changed as soon as this summer if the law does not change.
The opportunity could be there for other cities — maybe a Pittsburgh or Boston? — to jump in.
"I thought the commissioner said it really well when he said that we need to be sort of true to the heritage in the mid-Atlantic and in the northeast corridor and I think that's the nature of the conference now," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said.
In 20 years under Swofford's leadership, the ACC has survived tumultuous times in college sports to emerge as one of the five wealthiest and most powerful conferences. Growth has been the key.
"Our league is 15 schools. It's not eight schools as it once was. It's not nine schools as it was once was. It's not 12 schools as it was for a short while," he said. "It's 15 schools and we need to have a presence in every part of our footprint. And one way to do that is to move our signature event around to those locales."