The General Assembly has unintentionally delivered a lesson for basketball fans on just how much we’ve been taking for granted in North Carolina.
Coaches will tell you it’s not the crowd or the arena that can beat you, but rather the team you play. Or, rather than worry about externalities, guard first and foremost against beating yourself.
Yet we know, intuitively and empirically, that it does make a difference where a game is played. North Carolina’s ACC programs have benefited greatly across the years from holding championship tournaments within the state’s borders. More NCAA tournament games by far have been played in North Carolina than in any other state. Dozens more. Nor is it even close when it comes to hosting ACC tournaments.
But intransigence over repealing House Bill 2, which blocks local anti-discrimination ordinances and which critics say countenances discrimination against the LGBTQ community, already has cost the state money and prestige, and denied a pair of ACC squads an easier NCAA path in 2017. No later than mid-April, if the law hasn’t changed, North Carolina teams will be deprived of a significant postseason edge in bidding that could fix NCAA venues elsewhere through 2022.
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“This shouldn’t just be about athletic events, that’s the most important thing,” Roy Williams said at the Smith Center last week. “This should be about what’s right and wrong, and what we have now is wrong,”
Recharging after a pair of wins in the South Regional at Greenville, S.C., the North Carolina coach was responding to a question about the law’s effect on the state’s future ability to host tournament games in multiple sports. “I don’t think it should be just because of athletic events,” he continued. “I’m in that world. I see student-athletes walking these halls that are in that world. It’s wrong to deny them opportunities to play at home. We’ve had some tremendous wins for us, Duke, State, everybody having the home crowd with us. Duke paid the price (on March 19 in a loss to South Carolina) because they had a very significant road crowd.
“But the biggest thing is,” he added, channeling the social justice consciousness of his mentor, Dean Smith, “it’s just not right.”
We might not be able to exactly quantify the impact of playing at home, but we can assuredly measure the benefits.
Since the ACC was founded for the 1954 season, its men’s teams have won 63.3 percent of their home games in league competition. This past year the portion of victories on home floors rose to 68.8 percent, best since 2003. Leading the way were Florida State and North Carolina, undefeated at Tallahassee and Chapel Hill, respectively, in and beyond the conference. They were among eight ACC men’s teams since 2010 that enjoyed unblemished home records against all comers, led by Duke in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014.
Homecourt advantage readily extends beyond a team’s accustomed playing floor when facing out-of-state opponents. This truth led to regular complaints, regularly dismissed, from former Maryland coach Gary Williams, famous for griping that “We’re up there in Alaska at Maryland,” which makes sense if you don’t think too much about it. Williams and his College Park predecessors considered it a distinct disadvantage for other teams in the league to routinely play the ACC tournament in North Carolina – 26 times in Greensboro, 13 in Raleigh, 11 in Charlotte. Never mind that all three of Maryland’s three conference titles were secured at North Carolina arenas.
Meanwhile, Duke, N.C. State, UNC and Wake Forest combined to win 41 ACC tournaments in North Carolina. Surely those squads were talented and deserving champions. Still, it’s difficult to argue that playing so often in friendly confines, with the crowd like a passionate wind at your back, might not tip a balance now and again in closely fought contests.
Certainly any North Carolina school prefers competing within the state, where since 1951 there have been a record 251 NCAA tournament games played. This year would have been the 40th in the past half-century in which North Carolina hosted at least one round of NCAA competition. The way the field was seeded, Duke and UNC were destined for friendly Greensboro, which with 63 previous NCAA games ranks 10th nationally. Instead, thanks to the boycott spurred by passage of HB2, the pair of high seeds were banished to Greenville.
Meanwhile, Wake Forest, an 11th seed, was sent to Dayton, Ohio, where First Four competition raised that state’s total to 190 NCAA games hosted, a distant second. The NCAA tournament appearance was Wake’s 23rd, the game its 51st.
Remarkably, and perhaps reflected in the Demon Deacons’ middling 28-23 NCAA record and single Final Four appearance 55 years ago, Wake has only played nine times in five regionals within easy reach of its fans. Seeded fourth or higher, it was sent to a North Carolina venue once in seven trips. That can’t have helped the Deacs’ cause, not when the slightest lag in focus or intensity can make all the difference, and one stumble means elimination.
Between 2005 and 2016 Roy Williams’ North Carolina clubs played and won 16 NCAA tournament games in the state, nearly twice as many as Wake was awarded since its initial trip in 1939. Both of Williams’ national championship squads played NCAA games within the state, as did six of the 10 other ACC teams from North Carolina that won titles: N.C. State in 1974; UNC in 1982 and 1993; and Duke in 1992, 2001 and 2015.
Energy from fans
N.C. State never left the Piedmont in 1974, with two games each in Raleigh and Greensboro. Included was a double-overtime, come-from-behind Final Four win over defending champ UCLA in Greensboro before a roaring, supportive crowd. Then there was North Carolina’s NCAA title run in 1982, nearly derailed in the first round against James Madison.
“Certainly we had a homecourt advantage being in Charlotte, there’s no question about that,” Jimmy Black, the point guard on the ’82 UNC squad, recalls of the 52-50 victory. “That’s practically a home game, there’s so many Carolina fans in Charlotte. Sometimes you can get extra energy from the fans, and in particular from a defensive standpoint. Offensively I think it could be a detriment because you get so excited that you’re rushing, but defensively I think it can lift you tremendously.”
Without that lift from fans in Charlotte – a city tied for third nationally with 92 NCAA games to its credit, with more slated for 2018 prior to enactment of HB2 – or the urgings of Wolfpack fans in Greensboro eight years earlier, the history of ACC and college basketball might look quite different. Given the narrow margins by which those cliffhangers were decided, had the games been played in, say, Greenville instead of Greensboro, or Chicago instead of Charlotte, the results easily could have shifted. David Thompson, Tom Burleson and company might not have interrupted the Bruins’ string of seven straight titles; freshman Michael Jordan might not have birthed a legend by hitting a jumper to secure Dean Smith’s first NCAA championship.
Who knows? Maybe after five more years without postseason games to attend within North Carolina’s borders, we’ll find better things to do. Like vote.