By the time North Carolina’s game at Michigan finally ended on Nov. 28, it was almost midnight.
The game, which started at 9:30 p.m on a Wednesday, ended in a 84-67 loss for the Tar Heels, which at the time was their worst defeat of the season. After the game, the usually jubilant players showered and dressed in silence. They conducted brief media interviews in the locker room, grabbed their bags, and loaded onto the team bus for the 30-minute drive to the airport in Detroit. It was below freezing that night and a light snow was falling.
When the team landed at RDU International Airport, it was after 3 a.m. on Thursday. They took another bus to campus, and when they finally got into their beds after the long trip, it was almost 4 a.m.
UNC freshman wing Nassir Little had Spanish class at 9:05 a.m. If he wanted to eat breakfast and still make it to class on time, he had to wake up at 7:40 a.m. His class was on the other side of campus from his dorm at Dey Hall and he had to catch the bus. It was an eight-minute ride to class.
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Little could have slept in a little bit and skipped breakfast or gone to class full, but on less than four hours of sleep. But he chose food.
“Bruh, that day was rough,” Little said. “That day hurt me.”
Little said he could barely stay awake in his classes. He doesn’t remember much of what he learned that day.
“I was there, but I wasn’t there,” Little said.
This is the life of college basketball players when they play 9 p.m. games. For marquee programs like North Carolina, it comes with the territory, the price of prominence. In this week’s ACC tournament in Charlotte, four games will start at 8:30 p.m. or later. If sixth-seeded Syracuse were to advance all the way to the finals, it would play in all four of those late games. During the NCAA tournament, games can start as late as 10 p.m.
UNC has already played six games this season that have started at 9 p.m. or later. Three have been away games — two, fortunately for them, in the Triangle — and three have been home games.
The Tar Heels are not alone. Kentucky played six games this season that started at 9 p.m. or later, Duke played five and N.C. State played three. Among the teams in the top 10 of the Associated Press top-25 poll, UNC and Kentucky have played the most.
“As a student-athlete, we’re not professionals,” Little said. “Some guys got class at 8 a.m. the next day.”
UNC freshman Coby White said the worst he remembers was after the 9 p.m. game at N.C. State on Jan. 8, when students were just coming back from winter break and still getting back in the routine of going to class early in the morning.
The players did not get back to campus until after midnight, White said. In class with a few of his teammates, he said one of the group had to tap the rest to keep them awake.
Coaches are not fans either. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said late games make it tough for players athletically. He said it’s common to see a fluctuation in the performance throughout the season during a late game.
He noted Duke’s game against Louisville on Feb. 12, which started at 9 p.m. Duke trailed Louisville by as many as 23 points late in the second half before storming back for an improbable 71-69 win.
“They were great and we just weren’t there,” Krzyzewski said. “We were there mentally but not emotionally, and somehow (Javin) DeLaurier and (Jordan) Goldwire kind of ignited us, and we were very fortunate to win.”
N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said if he had a choice, he would have his team play at 7 p.m. on weeknights. UNC coach Roy Williams said 9 p.m. games are tough on his coaches, who grade film after every game.
“If I was the head honcho of the NCAA and make any rule I’d make, we’d do away with 9 o’clock games, because I just think it puts us on the road too late at night, and a little bit of hardship for the players, coaches and everything,” Williams said. “But at the same time we need that TV money. It’s what drives it.”
Scheduling games is a joint effort between the ACC and its television partners, said Paul Brazeau, the ACC’s senior associate commissioner.
Most ACC game times are decided prior to the season when the schedule is made. A few weekend games are listed as “to be determined” giving TV broadcasters a choice of which teams play late.
The main factor is often the appeal of the teams playing. UNC and Duke, which have national brands, are often among those teams.
Brazeau said the ACC is aware that 9 p.m. games are not ideal and it tries to limit each team to no more than three 9 p.m. conference games when creating the schedule. He said they also try to factor in location and weather. In other words, the ACC is less likely to schedule a 9 p.m. game in Syracuse in February when severe weather and travel issues are more likely, Brazeau said.
The August launch of the ACC Network is likely to increase the number of late starts with the need for games to fill open time slots and the need to draw a national audience to the network, outside the Eastern time zone.
“We’re not wanting more 9s,” Brazeau said. “There may be some more, but again, you try to spread those, so a particular home team doesn’t have an inordinate amount of 9s at home.”
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who has been an outspoken critic of the NCAA, said schools are responsible for the scheduling of late games.
“They are selling their game to television,” Bilas said. “Coaches make this mistake too. They say we liked it better in the old days. But in the old days, coaches made $50,000 to $60,000 a year. The sale of media rights have become the biggest influence in this becoming a multi-billion dollar business.”
The new ACC Network is projected to bring in at least $10 million annually per ACC team. For future players, that could mean more late nights and longer days.
“It is what it is,” Little said. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to come ready to play, but I’m not a fan of them.”