Of all the scheduling quirks that have come with the ACC’s growth to a 15-team basketball conference, the one that has arrived for North Carolina is coach Roy Williams’ least favorite: the oft-criticized Saturday-Monday special, with two games in three days.
The Tar Heels on Saturday play at Pittsburgh. And then, two days later, they’re at Virginia on Monday night in a nationally-televised game on what ESPN likes to promote as “Big Monday.” Williams, meanwhile, doesn’t think there’s anything big about it, at least not in the positive sense of the word.
He has often criticized the ACC’s haphazard scheduling approach, which sometimes leaves teams with, say, two games in about two weeks – or, now in the Tar Heels’ case, two games in three days. Williams can take some solace, though: The Saturday-Monday turnarounds have been rarer this season, at least.
The ACC adopted Monday night games when it became a 15-team league before the 2013-14 season. During the first three years of the arrangement – one Williams has bemoaned since its inception – UNC played three sets of Saturday-Monday games in each season.
This season, though, UNC plays only two such sets of games. It defeated Florida State and Syracuse, both at home, earlier in the season in a span of three days. And now comes games at Pitt and at Virginia – the first time in four seasons that UNC is on the road for both Saturday-Monday games.
Williams was asked on Friday whether he had any say over the construction of the league schedule, and whether conference officials might be receptive to his concerns. His answer – “I don’t think we have an avenue to say anything, any time” – came quickly.
Then he thought of mushrooms.
“I think we’re like mushrooms,” Williams said. “Just keep you in the dark and throw the crap on and hope it grows. … That’s the way you make a mushroom grow, (and) that’s what I think we are as coaches. We don’t have a say in anything.”
Williams might say something similar next season. And the season after that. And for however long he’ll have to prepare teams for a Saturday-Monday swing – especially if both games are on the road. The Tar Heels are 14-6 in their 10 sets of Saturday-Monday games.
No ACC team during the past four seasons has played in more Saturday-Monday games, and this season only Virginia, with three such sequences, will face them more often than UNC. Duke, Louisville and Syracuse also play two sets of Saturday-Monday games.
Not coincidentally, UNC, Duke and the others who play in these games most often are also among the most popular teams in the ACC – the ones with the largest followings, and also the ones that deliver the strongest television ratings. They are also the teams best equipped to fare well in the postseason.
In that way, then, the kind of stretch UNC is about to enter could be beneficial come the NCAA tournament, when teams advance through each round by winning two games in three days. If the Tar Heels do that, then by late Monday night they’ll have won the ACC regular season championship.
“For the guys that’s been here, it’s really I think a piece of cake for us,” said Kennedy Meeks, the senior forward, “just because of what we’ve done before. … I think the hardest thing will definitely be for the young guys.
“But it’s no different, really, from AAU, I guess you could say, when you play three games in one day.”
The stakes are higher now. UNC with a victory on Saturday will be playing to secure a double-bye in the ACC tournament. On Monday at Virginia, the Tar Heels could be playing for its second consecutive regular-season league championship.
UNC has faced both of these teams before, and beaten both. Williams acknowledged the benefit of such experience.
“But Saturday-Monday, both on the road, is really difficult,” he said.
No. 8 North Carolina at Pittsburgh
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Petersen Events Center, Pittsburgh
TV/Radio: ACC Network (Dwayne Ballen, Brian Oliver). Internet live-stream: WatchESPN app. Radio: 106.1-WTKK; SiriusXM channel 84