North Carolina's Kendall Marshall (5) drives on Duke's Tyler Thornton (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, March 3, 2012. North Carolina won 88-70. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
ATLANTA -- Welcome to the Blue Devil-Tar Heel Invitational.
Sure, the official name is the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, but Duke and North Carolina have turned college basketball's hallowed postseason shindig into nothing more than an exclusive showcase for the Big Two.
The ACC's powerhouse programs have divvied up 14 of the last 15 tournament titles, with Duke winning 10 of them.
From all indications, it will be more of the same when this year's tournament begins today in Atlanta.
No. 4 North Carolina (27-4, 14-2 ACC) captured the regular-season title, routing sixth-ranked Duke (26-5, 13-3) at Cameron Indoor Stadium last weekend to clinch the championship. But the Blue Devils have been the king of the tournament, winning three in a row and 19 times overall -- two more than the Tar Heels.
"It does get a little repetitive," said Boston College's Ryan Anderson, only a freshman but not so young he doesn't know how things usually work in the ACC.
Maryland is the lone team outside of Tobacco Road's power couple to win the tournament since 1997, knocking off the Blue Devils in the championship game eight long years ago.
"Everybody is trying to win," North Carolina State forward Scott Wood said. "I don't think we just gave it to them 14 of the last 15 years. But those are really good teams and they play really well this time of year."
In some ways, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is greater than ever, with numerous ACC schools in a state of transition. Four coaches are finishing up their debut seasons. Three others are in Year 2 of their regimes. All have a lot of catching-up to do.
Only one school, No. 17 Florida State (21-9, 12-4), stayed anywhere close to the pace set by the two perennial front-runners. No one else had more than nine conference wins, and the bottom half of the league was especially dreadful, with major rebuilding jobs everywhere you look. Boston College, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech are headed for losing seasons, while Clemson and Maryland are barely above .500.
The disparity is starting to hurt at the box office. Average attendance dipped to 9,632 per game, the first time it's been less than 10,000 since the 1988-89 season. In a sign that even the ACC tournament isn't the must-have ticket it once was, this year's event will be played at 19,445-seat Philips Arena rather than the cavernous Georgia Dome right next door, where it was held the last two times Atlanta served as host.
"It's going to take a serious commitment from everyone else involved with these other schools to say, "We're tired of this,"' said Boston College coach Steve Donahue.
Beyond the top three, Virginia (22-8, 9-7) is the only other ACC school that seems assured of an NCAA bid. North Carolina State (20-11, 9-7) and Miami (18-11, 9-7) are most definitely on the bubble, needing at least another win and maybe two to nudge their way into the field of 68.
The Wolfpack will open against Boston College (9-21, 4-12), while the Hurricanes are paired with hometown Georgia Tech (11-19, 4-12), which struggled mightily in Brian Gregory's first season as coach but should at least be familiar with the surroundings. The Yellow Jackets used Philips Arena as a temporary home while their campus arena underwent a massive renovation.
The other first-day matchups: Maryland (16-14, 6-10) vs. Wake Forest (13-17, 4-12) and Clemson (16-14, 8-8) vs. Virginia Tech (15-16, 4-12).
North Carolina State is trying to put aside what the selection committee might do and focus on the game at hand, though first-year coach Mark Gottfried conceded it's a lot more nerve-racking than his previous job as a broadcaster.
"This is a lot worse," he quipped. "Now that I'm coaching, I'll probably throw up all day long."
N.C. State swept the season series with the Eagles, featuring the league's only lineup with all five starters averaging in double figures. This has already been a comeback season for the Wolfpack, who posted their best record in the ACC since 2006. Still, there's work to do to lock up their first NCAA bid in six years.
"If I had my choice, I would put us in," Wood said. "I'm pretty sure my family would put us in. But, unfortunately, it doesn't work that way."
There is no such fretting at North Carolina and Duke, which are more concerned about improving their positioning for the NCAAs. If either of those teams cuts down the nets in Atlanta, there's a very strong chance of picking up an additional reward: a No. 1 seed.
"We've put ourselves in a great position," 7-footer Tyler Zeller said. "We have a great chance of being a 1 or a 2. It's something where we do want to go and have a good showing to get the best seed possible and the easiest route. I mean, none of the routes are easy, but I think if you get a 1 seed, that first game is easier than if you're a 2 seed. It does mean something."
The Tar Heels want to do some front-running in Atlanta. At last year's ACC tournament, they rallied from 19 down in the second half to beat Miami in the quarterfinals. They were down 14 to Clemson in the semifinals before pulling out an overtime win. By then, they had nothing left, falling behind again in the championship game and losing to Duke in a rout, 75-58.
"We don't need to put ourselves in those situations," Kendall Marshall said. "If we come out and play for 40 minutes, then we don't have to wait for the last 6-to-8 minutes of the game to expend energy just trying to get back into it."
Florida State appears to have the best chance of ending the dominance of the Big Two. The Seminoles handed North Carolina its worst loss of the season, 90-57 in Tallahassee, and knocked off Duke on Michael Snaer's buzzer-beating 3-pointer in Durham.
Then again, the Seminoles have have never won the ACC tournament. In fact, they've gone out the last two years in the quarterfinals as a No. 3 seed, the same spot they hold this time.
"We definitely want to get that out from under us," Snaer said. "We're tired of losing that first game."
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, N.C., contributed to this report.
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