Luke DeCock

January 13, 2014

DeCock: Unexpected basketball struggles may leave empty NCAA seats

More than 80 percent of tickets have been sold for the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend at Raleigh’s PNC Arena, but what happens if neither Duke nor North Carolina earns the right to stay close to home?

What if they held an NCAA tournament subregional in the heart of Tobacco Road and no one came?

N.C. State is hosting one this year at Raleigh’s PNC Arena, but it’s starting to look like the impossible is possible, the unthinkable thinkable: A North Carolina subregional without a North Carolina team.

While more than 80 percent of the tickets are already sold, many to Duke and North Carolina fans who expected their teams to stay close to home, neither team has earned that position at this point. (N.C. State is prohibited from playing NCAA games on its home floor.)

This will be the ninth time in the past 11 years one of the eight opening-weekend sites is in North Carolina because, simply, it’s good business for the NCAA.

Since going to the “pod” system in 2002, which gives geographic priority to teams seeded in the top four, there’s been at least one and often two North Carolina teams in that group. From the NCAA’s perspective, that means guaranteed ticket demand in Greensboro and Charlotte and Winston-Salem and Raleigh.

Which is, once again, the case. It’s the basketball that isn’t going according to plan.

“Raleigh has an excellent track record as an NCAA tournament site, with sellouts in both 2004 and 2008, and I’m confident we will sell out again in 2014, as this region’s passion for college basketball is unmatched,” Scott Dupree, the executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, wrote in an email Monday. “But when you bid for the NCAA tournament, you go into it knowing that there are no guarantees in regard to the participating teams. That’s out of our control.”

There’s so much basketball still to be played, and so much could still change, but both Duke and North Carolina appear to be outside looking in after one of the most horrific weekends in the history of North Carolina basketball.

For the first time since the 1996 ACC tournament, the three Triangle ACC teams lost on the same day – North Carolina at Syracuse, Duke at Clemson and N.C. State to Virginia on Saturday, with the Tar Heels and Wolfpack setting new lows offensively. The last time Wake Forest lost on the same day as well remains unclear, but it has been at least 1944-45 since the Big Four went 0-4.

N.C. Central lost to Florida A&M. East Carolina lost to Old Dominion. UNC Wilmington lost to Towson. Only a Campbell win against Longwood averted a shutout in the eastern half of the state. The 18 Division I teams in North Carolina went a combined 6-11 during the weekend (UNC Greensboro was idle). Duly inspired, the Carolina Panthers went out and lost Sunday to end their season.

Ticket sales won’t be a concern in Raleigh. Only about 3,000 remain two months out. But if the Blue Devils wind up in Spokane and the Tar Heels are sent to St. Louis (with Kansas, presumably), and Pittsburgh and Baylor end up in Raleigh, just to name two possibilities, they might as well move it over to Reynolds Coliseum and give it a retro vibe.

“N.C. State does a magnificent job of marketing and hosting this event, and it’s going to be an excellent NCAA site with exciting games,” Dupree wrote. “Regardless of which teams are here, it’s still March Madness.”

(Which brings to mind 2008, the last time Raleigh hosted, when Davidson and Steph Curry ended up stealing the show.)

Still, the idea of a North Carolina site without a North Carolina team was unthinkable only a few weeks ago. Thanks to the combined struggles of Duke and North Carolina, it’s not only thinkable, it’s very possible.

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