It’s no secret that many high major Division I basketball coaches shy away from playing on the road in the non-conference portion of their schedule.
Sure, many will play “away” from home but not actually on campus at another school in a hostile environment. These teams will often play at a neutral site. The rationale for these coaches is that conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament aren’t played at an opposing team’s gym, but rather at one of these neutral sites (to be fair, some mid- and low-major conferences do play their conference tournaments at campus sites). This is sound logic and indeed good preparation for playing in a tournament setting.
That said, let’s process some more logic. Think back to the games that lead up to the postseason. That’s right: the conference regular season. Exactly half of those games are played in a true road environment. If your team is in a conference with a 20-game slate and you lose 80 percent of your road games, that’s automatically eight losses (not counting losses at home or in the non-conference season).
When a coach chooses not to be prepare their team to play in a true road environment through their non-conference scheduling choices, they aren’t preparing them for the atmosphere of half of their conference games. If you don’t fare well in half your conference games, your ability to make one of those tournaments, where you play on a neutral court, will be in serious jeopardy. At the very least, struggling on the road will hurt a team’s NCAA Tournament seeding.
So why not take a shot and play a few non-conference games away from home in a true road environment?
Would you like to know who actually does do that? Or should I (sadly) say, who actually did do that?
Let’s take the previous 10 college basketball seasons for example (not counting 2020-21 because, well, COVID-19). Of the top-10 winningest Division I programs of all time in that time span, three off them (Duke, Notre Dame, and UCLA) have played fewer than 10 road games. In fact, Duke hasn’t even played a true non-conference road game in five of the past 10 seasons (and two of the seasons in which they did were ACC / Big Ten games they were assigned to play).
Of the remaining seven all-time winningest teams, five of them (Kentucky, Kansas, Syracuse, Indiana, and Illinois) have played between 10 and 14 true non-conference road games in the past decade.
One team, Arizona, has played in the 15-19 range.
And that leaves just one:
North Carolina. UNC is the only one of the top 10 winningest all-time Division I men’s basketball programs to play at least 20 true non-conference road games in the last decade. 24 to be exact. They are the only school on this list to play multiple games in this category.
Sometimes Carolina plays big brands like Gonzaga (2019-20) or Tennessee (2017-18) on the road. Sometimes they play smaller schools like Elon or Wofford (both in 2018-19). These are all games that Roy Williams chose to play. They weren’t mandated by the ACC / Big Ten Challenge. He wanted his team to have those experiences.
So now the question is: Will Hubert Davis carry on the Roy Williams tradition of scheduling multiple true non-conference road games each season.
Before we answer that question, let’s acknowledge what a difficult proposition that type of scheduling is, now that the ACC schedule has ballooned to 20 games.
That said, I firmly believe Coach Davis will carry on with the same type of bold scheduling strategy that Coach Williams employed. Coach Davis made no effort to hide his affinity for Coach Williams and all that he did. Perhaps in the long-term, he changes course in terms of scheduling. But in the short term, while Coach Davis is still working to get his feet up under him, I don’t see him abandoning the current scheduling methods. He’s a competitor and he wants to have his team battle-tested and ready.
Carolina does already have a true non-conference road game on the books already for 2021-22. The Tar Heels signed a 2-for-1 deal with College of Charleston a few years ago and this is the year to visit Charleston for the game. Obviously, that game was scheduled well in advance of Coach Davis’ ascension to head coach, but he certainly had some say in game scheduling.
The Tar Heels will most likely be at home for the ACC / Big Ten Challenge this year. That said, Coach Davis will have to actively work to schedule another true non-conference road game to keep the streak of multiple games of that variety every season alive.
Given his competitive nature, affinity for Coach Williams, and desire for his team to be battle-tested, it’s a safe bet that we will continue to see the Tar Heels on the road at another team’s campus during the non-conference portion of the season.
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