Justin Jackson grew up outside Houston, and he thinks he’s been to NRG Stadium once, for a football game. That’s only natural, because as always, the Final Four will be played in a stadium built for another sport.
“It’ll be just like playing at Syracuse, which is kind of fitting I guess,” Jackson, the North Carolina forward said Tuesday. “You’ve got to get used to the depth perception, probably, so it’s good we’ll get there early and have practice in there.”
The opponent is actually the only real similarity with Syracuse, because the stadium is bigger and the court is elevated and on the 50-yard line. It’s substantially different from ACC games at the Carrier Dome, and dramatically different from the rest of the NCAA tournament.
Last weekend’s NCAA regionals featured high-quality basketball and high-stakes drama, perhaps no coincidence since all four venues were conventional basketball/hockey arenas instead of domes, which too often hosted regionals in the past. The NCAA wisely relaxed its bidding requirements for regionals a few years ago and was rewarded this spring.
Unavoidably, the Final Four will always be played in buildings that would often serve better as blimp hangars than basketball venues. (Although those standards have been modestly eased as well, bringing San Antonio’s Alamodome back into consideration.)
At least Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium was designed with basketball in mind. When full during last year’s Final Four, it could actually pass for a large basketball arena, the best of the converted football stadiums. Houston’s NRG Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans, has a reputation for being one of the worst, and there are numbers that bear out what statistician Ken Pomeroy calls “The NRG Effect.”
Extrapolating data Pomeroy compiled of college basketball games played there yields an average negative effect on 3-point shooting of about 4 percentage points. That’s including both the full stadium and the funky setup used for the 2015 regional with giant black curtains in the end zones.
Based on the very limited sample of the three games of the 2011 Final Four, the negative 3-point shooting effect of the maximum-capacity Final Four configuration could be as high as 9.2 percentage points – a significant impact, given the national 3-point average is 34.7 percent.
This could be an advantage for the Tar Heels, who rely on 3-pointers dramatically less than the other three Final Four teams: 19.9 percent of their offense compared to 33.4 percent for Villanova, 36.5 percent for Syracuse and 38.9 percent for Oklahoma.
That’s potentially an advantage of 3-4 points for North Carolina against Syracuse, or 2-3 points against Villanova or Oklahoma.
(It actually would be slightly smaller than that, since these basic calculations do not account for offensive rebounding, which would presumably turn some missed 3s into two-point baskets or free throws. Teams could also shoot fewer 3-pointers, although the lack of positive reinforcement did not deter the 2011 combatants from continuing to fire away.)
“It might possibly give us a slight advantage because we get so many of our points at the basket, and it’s easier to make a layup in a different environment than a 3, I guess,” North Carolina guard Marcus Paige said. “Since we get so many of our points around the basket and get a lot of dunks and easy transition baskets and stuff like that, that should help us.”
Still, at this point in the season, any advantage is a big advantage. Psychologically speaking, the Tar Heels are used to it. They went 0-for-7 from 3-point range in the second half against Notre Dame and still increased their lead on the Irish by nine. The Tar Heels’ biggest problem may be if the unusual environs throw off their lob-tossing instead of their 3-point shooting, because they get so many easy points at the rim.
Either way, there figures to be some sort of decrease in quality from the regionals, where half the teams shot better than 45 percent and seven teams shot better than 50 percent. Playing basketball in basketball arenas encourages that. Playing basketball in football stadiums does not. It just may hurt the Tar Heels less than the other three teams.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock
Saturday’s games (TBS)
Villanova vs. Oklahoma, 6:09
North Carolina vs. Syracuse, 8:49