You’ve heard it, I’ve heard it, as Carolina fans, we know the feeling: if there is an NCAA Tournament game to be played in North Carolina, UNC HAS to get there, otherwise they won’t win. The fact that Carolina hasn’t lost an NCAA game in the state since 1979 has helped bolster this idea, and in those nearly forty years, fans have always felt a little uneasy when the Tar Heels can’t play in their home state.
Trying to boil it down to the idea that Carolina HAS to play in North Carolina is way too simplistic. In short, when there’s the opportunity to play in North Carolina it should absolutely be the goal, but not because it’s in North Carolina.
Confused? I’ll explain.
North Carolina in North Carolina
The problem with a myth is that it has some basis in fact, even if it’s the wrong fact. Since the NCAA expanded to 64 in 1985 and all the way up to 2002, the only way you got a chance to play in your preferred spot was to be the best of up to eight teams in a sub-regional, or a top seed in the regional. So, one subregional would be a 1/16, 8/9, 4/13 and 5/12 and the other would be 2/15, 7/10, 6/11, and 3/14. So, in a situation where you’d have two teams trying for the same location (like, say Carolina and Duke), only one team can take that spot and the other team would have to find the spot closer.
This means that in order to play in North Carolina during this time span, the Tar Heels would have had to have been a really good team: Meaning at the very least one of the top eight in the country and likely in the top four. Keep in mind, this was also during a time when players at all levels stayed longer and the parity in college basketball was no where near what it is now. With that in mind, how did Carolina do in the NCAA’s during this span?
NCAA History 1985-2001
A couple of notes: yes, they did a round in Chapel Hill prior to the NCAA ruling that a home team can’t play a round on their home court. Unfortunately, Duke was the better team that year, predictably leading to what had to be the most poorly attended subregional for a team so close to its home base. Second, 1997 was a year where the NCAA acknowledged that two teams from the triangle were strong enough to deserve home games, and actually had Charlotte as another regional option. Duke ended up getting that spot as a two seed that year.
So during this time span Carolina played 62 NCAA Tournament games. Only eight games ended up being played in North Carolina, or 13% of their total NCAA Games. As you can see, there were nine other potential times they could have played in North Carolina, but for one reason or the other they didn’t get there. Yes, Carolina was 8-0 in those years they played in the Tar Heel State, but only one of those years yielded a National Title. Note in 1991, 1995, and 2000, Carolina advanced all the way to the Final Four without playing a single game in North Carolina. Their record in non-North Carolina games is a remarkable 39-15 during this span.
This alone helps disprove the myth, but that’s only part of the story. After many years of Carolina and Duke battling for one North Carolina spot, the NCAA brought forth the current pod system. Now, there was some flexibility as the best team of a four team pod would get geographical priority. There’s still no guarantee, such as this year when you have Virginia, Duke, and Carolina who are good enough to deserve a spot there. That said, your odds increased.
How has Carolina fared in this setup, you ask?
NCAA Since 2002
48 NCAA games to date, a total record in North Carolina of 16-0, and a non-NC record of 22-10. At first glance, this table certainly seems to help the argument that playing in North Carolina helps the Tar Heels. The Heels have made thirteen NCAA Tournaments since the pod system was introduced, and in seven of them Carolina played in their home state, with 2008 giving them the chance to play both rounds there. They have yet to lose in any of those chances.
But it’s not that simple. Fourteen of those sixteen wins came in the first and second rounds, with only two coming in the regional rounds. In all of those rounds, Carolina was a one seed with 2011 being the lone exception. This means that the rounds played in North Carolina saw UNC facing the weakest possible opponent the NCAA could give them. Even in 2008 they were a one seed which meant they never played a higher seeded team en route to the Final Four.
So what about the six years that they didn’t play in North Carolina? Last year obviously stands out, as they rode from Greenville, SC all the way to Phoenix, Arizona to cut down the nets. In the other year with no North Carolina round, Carolina was deemed to be an eighth seed that coincidentally lined up with Kansas as the one, in Kansas City. That’s also the year that the NCAA now says there’s no champ, for what it’s worth. In the other four, Carolina was a six, three, six, and four seed. Unsurprisingly, in their two times as a six seed, they lost to the three seeds. Their loss as a three seed had them go down to that year’s Cinderella, George Mason, and their four seed saw them advance to the Sweet 16 where they lost to the one seed, Wisconsin.
It would stand to reason, therefore, that Carolina’s lack of success outside of North Carolina has more to do with their seeding and competition and less about where they physically play. In every year but 2005, their demise came at the hands of a higher seeded opponent, and that one upset ended up making the Final Four. Each time they performed to seed, and in retrospect there was only one year, 2015, where they were good enough to be under consideration to play in North Carolina but missed out due to better squads. They still made the Sweet 16.
Why Charlotte is still a goal
I’m not going to lie, I dug into most of this last year because I needed to talk myself down from the idea of Greensboro being pulled away as a site. I realized after doing that work that it really was more about the team than the site, and the feeling was validated after they cut down the nets. It proved that Carolina absolutely can thrive playing in a venue outside of their home state.
But they still should aim to play in Charlotte this season.
It’s tough to ignore that 16-0 inside the state, and if there were any season where a lower ranked team can come up to bite them, it’s this one. Any edge you can gain, however slight, could be the difference in a close game. You saw that last year as Carolina faced a more hostile crowd than would be expected in their second round game and had to gut out the win against Arkansas, while Duke faced a REALLY hostile crowd against South Carolina and lost in an upset.
The reason for this issue is simple: the further from home the team plays, the harder it is for local fans and alumni to get tickets. You don’t see this so much in the first round, but in second when four teams have lost and look to unload their ticket books. Playing in Charlotte, Greensboro, and Raleigh, means fans don’t have plan for planes and hotel rooms. Take it from someone who is going to Brooklyn this week, that adds up quickly. So, a lack of local fans means fans of other teams snap up the books, and turns a neutral court into a road game as they love nothing more than seeing a higher seed go down.
Playing a tough game on the road is nothing new to this version of Carolina, as Roy Williams has been really good about scheduling tough games away from Chapel Hill this season. Still, you’d rather have a crowd rooting for you, and just because they have experience doesn’t mean it’s good experience. This year was the first that Carolina posted a losing ACC road record in eight seasons, and despite the head-scratching losses, the Tar Heels are still far better at home than on the road.
There’s also the effect on the team: traveling by bus a short distance instead of having to deal with a plane, being able to go to class for one more day and practicing at home instead of having to modify the schedule, those little things. There’s an additional x-factor this year in that Williams also scheduled a “road” game against Davidson in Charlotte. Thus, this team has a familiarity with the arena, which helps for the comfort level of adjusting to the quirks of a building.
Mostly, though, playing in Charlotte in a year where Virginia is a lock to play there and Duke has a strong case to be there right now means that you are going to be a high seed and playing against weaker competition. This reduces the chance for an upset. So, while NCAA success doesn’t require a stopover in North Carolina, it sure doesn’t hurt, either.
What is needed for Charlotte
Carolina enters the ACC Tournament with the strongest schedule according to both the RPI and BPI. Using the NCAA’s newly defined quadrant system, Carolina has more Q1 wins than any other team, 11, and has played an astounding 18 Q1 games. Even as they enter Brooklyn as the ACC’s sixth seed, they are seen in the two/three area right now.
Virginia is taking spot one in Charlotte, no matter what they do in Brooklyn, because 17-1 in the ACC and winning the league by four games locks you into a one seed. Thus, their main competition for the other spot is Duke. The Blue Devils finished two wins better in conference, but only have ten Q1 games total, holding a 6-4 record. They don’t have any Q3 losses, which Carolina currently holds with their Wofford defeat, and the teams are 1-1 against each other.
The bracket sets up to where a third and tie-breaking game is possible on Friday night, assuming both teams can get there. As all of the games in Brooklyn are on a neutral court, any game against a 1-50 RPI team will be a Q1 game. What would the committee do if Carolina goes, say, 3-1 including another win over the Devils and has a team sheet that has a 14-8 record in Q1? Would that be enough to reward them with Charlotte and tell other teams that they are serious about quality of competition, or would it take winning the whole thing?
One thing is clear: to even have a chance, Carolina needs to go on a run similar to 2015, where as the five seed they almost pulled out a tournament title before succumbing to Notre Dame in the final. Otherwise, they’ll be playing rounds 1 and 2...who knows? The next closest arenas would be Nashville and Pittsburgh, but with Villanova, Xavier, Cincinnati, Tennessee, and Auburn all highly ranked this year, there’s no telling where they’ll end up. Remember, a projection from a few weeks ago had them playing all the way in Dallas.
This team, more than others, needs the benefit of playing in Charlotte. Anywhere else increases the chance for a strong first and second round opponent to trip them up. Should they go somewhere else, it’ll be as that pod’s top seed which usually means success for Roy Williams’ teams, but they won’t have the benefit of the intangibles.
As if you needed another reason to root for the team this week.