ATLANTA (AP) -North Carolina and Duke stayed away. Having been through this so many times before, neither school felt it necessary to show up a day early at the Georgia Dome.
Wake Forest saw it differently.
The other member of the Big Three took the court Wednesday night in a largely empty building, looking for any little edge that might make a difference in what figures to be a brutal Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
``I wanted them to be in this atmosphere,'' coach Dino Gaudio said. ``It's always good to get 'em in the arena for the first time.''
The ACC tournament tips off Thursday at a football stadium in downtown Atlanta, where things figure to be a bit unusual in the stands.
Not since 1966 had the league put tickets up for sale to the general public, but there were still seats available on the eve of the opening game. Blame the sour economy and a huge venue (more than 30,000 seats) for taking a toll.
It sure has nothing to do with the quality of the competition.
wn outright, but the Tar Heels can hardly coast to another championship. There's all sorts of potential challengers standing in the way, most notably the eight-ranked Demon Deacons and No. 9 Duke.
Don't forget 17th-ranked Clemson, one of three ACC teams that didn't lose outside the conference. Or No. 22 Florida State, showing it's more than just a football school. Heck, even last-place Georgia Tech thinks it has a chance, especially playing in its hometown.
``We have the talent,'' Yellow Jackets forward Gani Lawal said. ``I'm excited just thinking about it.''
Wake Forest has plenty of reasons to be excited. The youthful Demon Deacons rely heavily on two sophomores, guard Jeff Teague and forward James Johnson, and freshman forward Al-Farouq Aminu. The trio has matured quickly and certainly believes it can keep up with such tournament-tested teams as North Carolina and Duke.
``They have the experience of playing in the ACC and the NCAAs,'' Aminu said. ``We're a young team eager to prove ourselves.''
The Demon Deacons (24-5, 11-5) defeated both North Carolina and Duke at home during the regular season, and closed by winning six of their last seven after a three-week slump that accounted for all but one of their losses.
ghting for their lives.''
Miami is one of those teams. The Hurricanes (18-11, 7-9) play one of four opening-round games on Thursday, knowing they likely need at least one win in Atlanta, maybe two, to assure themselves of an NCAA bid. The No. 9 seed will face eighth-seeded Virginia Tech (17-13, 7-9).
``It's like a cliff,'' senior forward Jimmy Graham said. ``People are falling off left and right. The next two or three days will show whether we'll be standing on the cliff or falling off.''
North Carolina coach Roy Williams has downplayed the importance of winning the ACC tournament. He knows there will be far more important games in the weeks ahead for a team that is largely playing to lock up a top seed from the NCAA selection committee.
``The ACC tournament is the granddaddy of all tournaments. I love it when I get there. I love the pageantry of it,'' Williams said. ``But in today's times, it's not what it was 30 years ago.''
He compared 2005, when North Carolina won the NCAA championship after losing in the ACC tournament, to the last two years. The Tar Heels have won two straight conference tournaments, but were knocked off in the NCAAs each time.
``Now which year do you think ol' Roy was feeling better or criticized less?'' Williams said. ``It upsets some of the die-hards and some of the old faithful, but it's not what it used to be.''
ore conservative with ACC player of the year Ty Lawson, whose right big toe was badly swollen after last Sunday's regular-season finale against Duke. Williams will want Lawson to be fully healthy when the Tar Heels begin their run for a national title, which everyone penciled them in for as soon as reigning national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough decided to return to school for another season.
Lawson was seen limping around the Smith Center earlier in the week. He has been wearing a protective wrap on his toe and keeping it iced.
``If I can play, I definitely will play, even if it's a little bit of pain,'' the speedy point guard said. ``But the big picture is the NCAA tournament.''
The other first-round games: sixth-seeded Boston College (21-10, 9-7) vs. No. 11 Virginia (10-17, 4-12); seventh-seeded Maryland (18-12, 7-9) vs. No. 11 North Carolina State (16-13, 6-10); and fifth-seeded Clemson (23-7, 9-7) vs. No. 12 Georgia Tech (11-18, 2-14).
The 7-11 matchup could be the most intriguing. N.C. State clearly remembers Greivis Vasquez knocking down a meaningless, unguarded 3-pointer at the buzzer of Maryland's 71-60 win in Raleigh. The flamboyant Venezuelan makes no apologies for his shot, which was his retort to a crowd that heckled him mercilessly throughout the game.
``That's the way I am,'' Vasquez said. ``Bring it on.''

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