The best rivalry in college basketball: Images capture Duke-Carolina intensity
Sometimes news doesn’t seem much like, well, news. Announcements such as a local team’s home-and-home football series against an out-of-state opponent years from now barely register. We note the fact and move on, trusting we’ll still be around when the information seems to make a difference.
The reaction was much the same when the ACC released the bare-bones outline of the upcoming 2018-19 men’s basketball schedule: Remind me later.
We knew the details would gain meaning once we matched the who and where released by the conference with the when, which won’t come until late summer. By then all the juggling to fit TV demands, avoid exam periods, and arrange nonconference opponents will be calculated into the mix.
But history already told us more about the schedule than we realized as we first perused each team’s 18 league contests – a pair of home-and-home ACC “rival” games, unchanged from year to year; the two“repeats,” opponents also faced home-and home; five home-only matchups; and five away-only contests. In 2019-20 the league shifts to 20 internecine head-knockers. That brings us closer to the late, lamented round-robin with six home-and-homes (two rivals, four repeats) compared with eight one-way matchups.
Dean Smith once described basketball as “such a home court sport.” Yet look at recent schedules, or next year’s, and it’s clear that playing at home doesn’t matter so much as whose home serves as host.
Early last season, as seemingly every year, observers were agog over the primacy of home teams. Three games into the league schedule, home teams were 17-3. Five games in they had three wins for every loss. No wonder trend-spotters saw a rise in internal parity, declaring it’s harder than ever to win on the road in the ACC.
Actually, it wasn’t. Collectively, ACC squads actually did worse at home by year’s end than in the two previous seasons. Since the ACC expanded in 2014, squads playing on their own court posted a cumulative .6296 winning percentage, below the league’s 65-year average. In three of the post-expansion seasons, including ’18, home teams failed to match or exceed the ACC’s historical .633 success rate.
All of which means visitors saw a corresponding uptick in their chances of winning. But not by much. Just four ACC clubs had winning road records in 2018. Only Virginia at 9-0 was dominant. The other three visitors with more victories than defeats – Duke, Miami and Virginia Tech -- went 5-4. Among the Hokies’ road wins was an overtime triumph at Charlottesville that scotched UVa’s aspirations for an undefeated ACC regular season.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh was winless at home and away, one of six different squads shut out on the road over the past four seasons. A pair of programs suffered breakdowns on every road trip in two of the past four years -- Wake Forest under Danny Manning (2015, 2016) and Boston College led by Jim Christian (2016, 2017). Both avoided that feckless fate again last season with wins at Pitt’s once-inhospitable Petersen Events Center.
Since 2014, the Eagles had a marginally better road record than Wake. BC notched the also-rans’ biggest victory in recent years by shocking Syracuse in overtime at the Carrier Dome in 2014, ending the Orange’s 25-game winning streak in their debut ACC season. Wake likewise had one win over a first-division club, beating Virginia Tech at Blacksburg in 2017. Since expansion, the Demon Deacons posted a .467 league home winning percentage, nearly double BC’s success rate.
Key to discerning a team’s prospects is how frequently it plays at venues where the host seldom stumbles. We tend to assume Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium is the ACC toughest court. Turns out Cameron, where the Blue Devils won all but 6 of 45 ACC games since 2014, ranks second in difficulty to Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers are 40-5 (.889) at JPJ in the five years following expansion, going 9-0 in both 2014 and 2016.
Those who visit UVa this coming season without a compensatory chance to get even on their home floors are BC, Clemson, UNC, N.C. State and Syracuse. The Eagles and Tigers also play at Chapel Hill -- where the Tar Heels boast the third-best home record over the past five seasons -- without a balancing return engagement.
Syracuse compensates for any road woes with a big annual boost from having BC and Pitt as its enduring designated rivals. Jim Boeheim’s clubs enjoyed 10 home games already, and two more to come, against those schools, which combined for a single top-five ACC finish over the past half-decade. The Eagles haven’t ended a season higher than 13th in the post-expansion era; since Kevin Stallings took over at Pittsburgh the Panthers were 14th and 15th in the standings.
Notre Dame, hurt by a key academic suspension in ’14 and by injuries last season, still matched Syracuse for the fifth-best home record in ACC play since joining the league. The Fighting Irish finished in the ACC’s top five in the three seasons they had all hands on deck.
Mike Brey’s club benefits from an Orange-like safety net thanks to rivals Boston College and Georgia Tech. Neither has achieved a single-digit finish in the ACC standings since 2013.
The ACC’s newest coaches arguably have the most forgiving ’19 road schedules. Louisville and Chris Mack, the league’s third import from Xavier after Wake’s Bob Staak (1986-89) and Skip Prosser (2002-07), are alone in sidestepping the league’s three most challenging venues. Pitt and newcomer Jeff Capel, recently arrived from Durham, avoid two, Duke and Carolina. (Mack also inherits a .750 winning edge at home since the Cardinals replaced Maryland in 2015.)
By contrast Florida State, the conference’s only undefeated home team in 2017, Georgia Tech and Miami, undefeated at Coral Gables in 2016, each pay unrequited visits to two of the three demonstrably toughest ACC courts.
“Depending on what color glasses you want to wear, you can argue the schedule to death,” offers a voice of experience, Paul Brazeau, the ACC’s senior associate commissioner for men’s basketball. Even neutral, historically-based analysis offers conditional clarity since personnel changes can instantly convert reasoned projections to truths as insubstantial as smoke.
ACC team home records since 2014 expansion
* Joined for 2015 season.