DeCock: Greensboro a winning place for Duke, UNC

March 14, 2012 

It isn’t really fair. Once North Carolina and Duke were assigned to the Greensboro subregional, the other teams in their brackets – Creighton and Alabama; Lehigh, Notre Dame and Xavier – must have cursed their fate.

Neither North Carolina nor Duke has ever lost an NCAA tournament game in the Greensboro Coliseum. Not only is it close to home, it’s close to the heart. The Tar Heels’ seniors have played seven games there and the Blue Devils’ nine, more than any arena besides their own.

Even the chairs the players sat in on the benches at last week’s ACC tournament in Atlanta were brought in from Greensboro, with the arena’s web address plastered on them.

It’s their home away from home that isn’t far from home.

“It can give you a little bit of confidence, knowing that you’ve been there and have played well,” Duke guard Seth Curry said. “If you’ve haven’t played well, it can kind of hurt you. Me personally, I’ve had some good games there, so I’m glad to go back.”

Some of the home-court advantage is clearly due to proximity, allowing the two rabid fan bases to converge and drown out lesser followings that have longer distances to travel. But there’s also an advantage in knowing the little things: The path to the court from the locker rooms, the shooting background, where the bathrooms and buses are.

“We’ve played multiple games there – in the NCAA tournament, and last year we played Texas there,” North Carolina senior forward Tyler Zeller said. “It’s one of those places, it’s not home, but it’s almost home. … For me, it’s a big deal knowing how to get to the bus after the games, because I never pay attention before the games.”

Playing in North Carolina is no guarantee, but it has proven extremely fruitful for the two rivals. Duke is 12-0 in NCAA tournament games played in Greensboro and 32-4 in North Carolina. North Carolina is 5-0 in Greensboro and 29-1 in the state.

The ‘1’ is Black Sunday in 1979, when Penn beat North Carolina and St. John’s beat Duke at Reynolds Coliseum in back-to-back games.

“Go back to the movie Hoosiers, it’s still 15 feet to the foul line, 10 feet up,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “It’s not like a golf course where all the doglegs go right or left and it suits your game. … Everybody was talking about what a great advantage it was playing in Raleigh (in 1979). It didn’t work that day.”

But it has never failed in Greensboro, and the last time the teams shared quarters there, they appeared to benefit from the familiar surroundings.

In 2009, North Carolina held off Louisiana State despite a gimpy Ty Lawson and Duke fought back Texas. Who knows how those games turn out on a more neutral court?

The Tar Heels went on to win the national title; Duke lost its next game by 23 to Villanova. Playing in Greensboro may have saved a championship for North Carolina and prevented early exit embarrassment for Duke.

In 2008, when his Louisville team was forced to play North Carolina in Charlotte, after the Tar Heels had played their first two games in Raleigh, Rick Pitino wasn’t impressed with Williams’ nonchalance: “Tell Roy to get on a plane for the first time and let’s play the game at Freedom Hall if he feels that way,” Pitino said.

“I said, ‘Well, still, I don’t think it’s the building in Louisville, either,’ ” Williams said Tuesday. “But I understood what he was saying because we had more fans there and you have more support and it makes you feel better.”

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or (919) 829-8947

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