Tampa, Fla. The ACC basketball tournament is entertaining and cool and by far the best of its kind. It's a party and a reunion and a fundraiser. It's an opportunity to hit the road with the family or the fellows, call buddies that can't get a ticket and remind them they aren't there.
The tournament is essential for a team such as Florida State that is trying to prove it is worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid and important for a first-year coach such as Sidney Lowe who is trying to turn N.C. State back into a power a victory at a time.
But for North Carolina, the tournament is glorified practice, a dress rehearsal in front of well-dressed fans. The conference tournament is not what the Tar Heels gather to discuss before the season.
"Winning the NCAA tournament is always the goal," says guard-forward Marcus Ginyard. "We sit down and talk about it."
The players do?
"Players, players and coaches," he says. "Why be in this season if you don't want to win the whole thing? Why play?"
You play in the ACC tournament because it's what you've done for 54 seasons. The tournament is as integral to Tobacco Road lore as a David Thompson alley-oop, a Michael Jordan move, a Bobby Hurley pass or a Randolph Childress jumper.
North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams talks after his team's 73-58 victory against Florida State on Friday about playing the same opponents for nine weeks and then, in a three-day span, having to play them again.
He knows his role, however, and says what he is expected to.
"Since we're here, I want to win the sucker," Williams says. "There's no question in my mind I'd like to win it. I'd like the world's largest cocktail party, the Carolina blue people, to have more bragging rights than anybody else."
The cocktail party line will linger as long as Williams does. His obit will someday say: great coach; resurrected the Tar Heel program; beloved by North Carolina fans; and, oh yeah, was dumb enough to call the ACC a four-day "cocktail party."
Williams made the statement in March 2004 before his first ACC tournament as coach. Fans of the tournament were so angry you expected to see them wear BRING BACK DOHERTY T-shirts.
Williams understands the legend of the tournament as well as anybody and, by being candid, he belittled its importance. The coach added to his transgression by losing his first tournament game to Georgia Tech.
The next season, 2004-05, the Tar Heels also lost to Georgia Tech, this time in the second round. They did, however, win their next six games, the last of them against Illinois for the national championship.
The title was North Carolina's first since 1992-93. The Tar Heels didn't win the ACC tournament that season, either. They lost to, all together now, Georgia Tech.
An ACC championship this weekend could mean the difference between a No. 1 and No. 2 seed next week for the Tar Heels.
But even if they fail, the party won't stop. Relax. And enjoy.