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Don’t worry about the UNC fan, rejoice in the Dean Dome

In the past, UNC’s spacious home court has been criticized for being inert. Now, it’s riling opposing coaches up, and the Heels are undefeated at home.

Louisville v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

We’ve all heard the jokes, starting 26 years ago when Florida State guard Sam Cassell described UNC alumni at the Dean Smith Center as a “cheese and wine crowd, kind of laid back.” Of course, that description’s been misquoted more often than not since it was first made, and it’s silly anyways, because the Dean Dome doesn’t sell alcohol. Nevertheless, for over a quarter century, the reputation has persisted: the Dean Dome is filled with apathetic fans, usually has a lot of empty seats, has a horribly distributed student section (I didn’t say they were wrong) and generally doesn’t intimidate opposing teams. After the historic home-court advantage of Carmichael Arena, it’s been a bit of a sore spot for Heels fans young and old, and every time UNC gets upset by a much less talented team at home, it gets brought up again. Roy Williams even mentions it from time to time, especially at times preceding big home games.

You might have noticed that these complaints have, by and large, have disappeared this year. Coach Williams mentioned how much louder he thought Indiana’s crowd was than his usual home crowd after the team’s loss at Assembly Hall, but since then, he’s actually praised the crowd multiple times. Not coincidentally, UNC also hasn’t lost a home game all season. And, shockingly, opposing coaches have started getting frustrated with UNC’s newfound home court advantage.

It started when King Rice and Monmouth came to town. After the Heels hung triple digits on the Hawks, Rice made sure in his press conference to express his disappointment that the UNC audience dared to be excited about hitting a scoring milestone. Opinions have been... mixed on that subject, but I think we can all agree that this is supposed to be a fan debate. For a coach to get involved in it makes it seem like he was rattled.

Now, we have news of Rick Pitino needing to be restrained from a UNC fan after being provoked by an insult. And, before we go further, let’s head this off: The fan in question almost definitely said nothing more than “Pitino, you suck!” This tweet has been making some rounds in Louisville circles:

And even though it might make the incident seem more plausible, it’s absolute nonsense. Shall I count the ways?

1. This is three-level hearsay: A fan telling us what a UNC student allegedly told him that he/she heard. There’s a lot that could get lost or be misheard there.

2. The account has pretty much no credibility. On its own, that’s not an issue, but when put next to the numerous verified sources that have reported that it was “Pitino, you suck,” (sorry, “S-U-C-K,”) it doesn’t really hold up.

3. Most of the UNC student section isn’t really near where the altercation took place. The part that is, additionally, is right on top of the band, so nobody sits there unless they want their eardrums bleeding. That “a UNC student” told JasonTheLouisvillian what was said is dubious.

4. Pitino said in his postgame conference that the remark was directed at him. Had this tweet been accurate, I have no doubt that Pitino would’ve drawn attention to it. In today’s world, I don’t think he would have let racism go unaddressed. Also, he drew special attention to the fan in question being “a grown man” and “a coward.” It’s plausible to me that Pitino was frustrated by his team’s inability to take advantage of a team that started out shooting 3-18 from the field, and got set off by this fan’s perceived invulnerability.

I’m not going to say it’s impossible that a UNC fan shouted something racist about a player with an Arabic name, far from it, but the truth is, that isn’t the story here. The story is that a UNC fan, combined with UNC’s play, rattled a Hall of Fame coach.

I was at the Smith Center on Wednesday night, having been assigned a seat among the dreaded alumni. As a senior at UNC, I’ve been to several home games. In the past, I’ve seen and heard crowd noise fade away almost completely as soon as the action moves away from the UNC bench, where student seating predominantly lies. I was prepared for a night of being forced to sit down by the people behind me, and mentally readied myself to contain all vocal bursts of excitement inside my body. To my surprise, though, our side of the arena pulled its weight. They stood up and made noise when they sensed that their team might be in danger, or might be on the cusp of running away with the game. They booed bad calls and missed calls, loudly, when they saw them. They even joined in on an “airball” chant! And finally, it was a middle-aged man in the traditional alumni seating who pushed Pitino over the edge, as innocuous as his insult might have been. Pitino clearly came to UNC expecting to be pampered. As he said post-game, “It always reminded me of a class place, but they’re getting like some of the other places now.” (He’d backtrack later and say “That was just one guy, that doesn’t change that this is a classy place.”) That’s a heavily sugarcoated way of saying “I didn’t expect to be insulted here, like I am other places.” He underestimated the Dean Dome, and he, just like every comer to Chapel Hill this season, lost.

Look, jeering your opponent is never and should never be considered a good look (unless you’re eight miles down Tobacco Road, I guess), but it’s not really a story, either. Part of the job description of being a coach in the NCAA is dealing with abuse from both fans and opposition. We’ve all seen the attacks on Roy Williams’ character over the years by other fanbases, and a sizeable portion of UNC’s own fanbase has consistently questioned his coaching ability even as he maintains excellence year after year. A little more worrying is that the fan tried to “get in [Pitino’s] face” when saying it, but security dealt with that appropriately by removing the fan from his seat, and Pitino has almost certainly still experienced worse. The bigger story by far is that the Dean Smith Center is finally antagonizing its visitors. Right now, opponents who come to the Dean Dome aren’t getting a tea party. They’re getting a fight.

After years of being considered oversized for a college basketball court, too cavernous to support the kind of raucous atmosphere that a college basketball team deserves, the Dean Dome has started to become what those who built it were hopefully envisioning: an arena that combines the magnitude of a college basketball powerhouse with the reckless abandon of a college experience. When 6,000 people filling a stadium get loud, it’s effective, but you can see the end of it. When it’s more than 20,000 people shouting in unison, it’s a whole different beast; the sound becomes endless. Could the Smith Center be improved? Undoubtedly. The student seating is still painfully limiting, and the “cheese and wine” crowd hasn’t totally disappeared yet. But by and large, what used to be thought of as an empty cave has been filled, and the Dean Dome has become one of the best home-courts in America.