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Al Featherston On ACC Home Court Advantages!

Al Featherston is sponsored by the Bleu Poupon Society, in memory of Mrs. H.
The final line of the 1939 film classic “The Wizard of Oz” is delivered by
Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale. The young Kansas farm girl clutches that
“mangy little dog” to her chest and exclaims. “Oh, Auntie Em, there’s no
place like home.”

It’s clear that Dorothy was a Jayhawk basketball fan who knew that Coach
Phog Allen’s powerhouse teams were far more dangerous in Hoch Auditorium
than in hostile venues such as Gallagher Hall at Oklahoma A&M, where the
fearsome Hank Iba (a.k.a. the Wicked Witch of the West) held sway. Dorothy
would have been a mature young woman in 1955, when Kansas replaced Hoch with
the massive Allen Fieldhouse – a 16,000 seat facility that made “home” an
even more inviting place for the the Jayhawk faithful.

Of course, even a brainless Scarecrow knows that the homecourt advantage is
a mighty weapon in sports, especially in basketball. Coming into this
season, the 12 ACC basketball teams were a combined 3,128-972 on their
current homecourts – a winning percentage of 76.3. While that includes a lot
of non-conference patsies, in the 53 ACC seasons (with perfectly balanced
schedules in 50 of those 53 years), league teams have compiled a combined
1,919-1,115 homecourt record – a winning percentage of 63.2.

Clearly, the general truth of Gale’s declaration is indisputable: “There’s
no place like home.”

But not all homes are alike. Most knowledgeable basketball fans would
concede that Cameron Indoor Stadium confers more of a homecourt advantage
than, say, the Leon County Civic Center or that Lawrence Joel Coliseum is a
more fearsome place to play than the BankUnited Center in Miami. Reynolds
Coliseum gave N.C. State far more of a homecourt boost than the Pack has
gotten from the Pig Palace (the RBC Center). And what did North Carolina
give up by moving from tiny, intimidating Carmichael Auditorium to the home
of the “wine and cheese” crowds at the Smith Center?

How do you measure the impact of a homecourt?

It’s not as simple as looking at winning percentages. As one coach told me
several years ago, the scariest thing about visiting Cameron was not the
crowd, but the talented team that Mike Krzyzewski put on the floor.
Naturally, the best teams are going to have the best homecourt winning

But those same teams also have the best ROAD winning percentages. A few
years ago, I did a study for the Herald-Sun to measure home/road
differentials. But I found that those numbers favored the bad teams – poor
teams get more help from playing at home than good teams do. My study seemed
to indicate that Clemson had the best homecourt advantage in the ACC, but
that was merely a function of the fact that the Tiger teams of that era
simply couldn’t win on the road.

I did a quick update of that study this week and came across a curious
fact. In the last two seasons in ACC games, every ACC team has had a better
scoring differential at home than on the road ... every team but one –
Clemson in 2005 was outscored by 40 points on the road and 50 points at

I’m sure that’s just a statistical fluke and not hard evidence that
Littlejohn suddenly offers the worst homecourt advantage in the ACC. For
what it’s worth, I compared the home and road ACC records of the nine teams
that were in the league over the last three seasons and came up with the


1. Virginia +11 (14-10 home; 3-21 road)
(tie) Florida State + 11 (15-9 home; 4-20 road)

3. Maryland + 8 (15-9 home; 7-17 road)

4. Wake Forest +7 (15-9 home; 8-16 road)
(tie) Georgia Tech +7 (14-10 home; 7-17 road)
(tie) Clemson +7 (11-12 home; 4-20 road)

7. Duke + 4 (21-3 home; 17-7 road)
(tie) North Carolina +4 (19-5 home; 15-9 road)

9. N.C. State +2 (15-4 home; 13-11 road)

For the record: Virginia Tech is +4 and Miami +2 in two seasons; Boston
College was +1 in its first ACC season.

The breakdown runs exactly opposite of what my judgment about the various
homecourts would be. I strongly believe that Virginia’s University Hall (the
Cavs’ homecourt for this study) and FSU’s LCCC were the two WORST ACC
homecourts. And, yet, by won-loss differential, they seem to have provided
their home teams with the biggest boost over the last three years.

If we compare the point differential at home and on the road over the last
two years (I’m simply too lazy to go back any further), we see:

1. Virginia +203 at home

2. Maryland +183 at home

3. Wake +164 at home

4. Miami +135 at home

5. Georgia Tech +122 at home

6. Duke +108 at home

*7. Clemson +100 at home

8. Florida State +82 at home

9. UNC +49 at home

10. N.C. State +47 at home

(tie) Virginia Tech +47 at home

Note: BC was +17 in its one season

*Clemson had the remarkable split -- +110 in 2006; -10 in 2005.

Again, we are led to the statistical conclusion that Virginia just moved
out of the most advantageous homecourt in the ACC. But I’m convinced that
the statistical evidence is wrong. I simply refuse to believe that
University Hall was in any way a significant advantage to the Cavaliers. I
think what we’re seeing is just a short-term example of the phenomena that
poor teams almost always show a bigger gap between their home and road
performances than good teams.
Virginia basketball is far better off in the new John Paul Jones Arena. I
believe that, but I can’t prove it.


The legend that Eddie Cameron sketched a rough design of Duke Indoor
Stadium – the arena that would later bear his name – on a matchbook is well
known, although I’ve never believed it. If you’ve ever visited The Palestra
in Philadelphia, it’s quite obvious that Duke’s arena is an improved copy of
that facility. And the fact that Duke Indoor Stadium was designed by Horace
Trumbauer’s Philadelphia architectural firm tends to support my belief that
Duke’s arena was inspired by The Palestra.

The actual design work was done by a young black architect named Julian
Abele, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who had studied at the Ecole
des Beaux Arts in Paris.

The facility that Abele gave Duke was a wonder at that time. Built in just
over a year at a cost of $400,000, Duke Indoor Stadium was the largest
basketball arena in the South – indeed, the largest south of its godfather,
The Palestra. It was so large that Trumbauer reportedly told his Duke
clients that it was too big – and suggested they scale back from
approximately 9,000 seats to about 6,000.

That still would have been larger than any other Tobacco Road basketball

UNC was at the same time building the 4,000-seat Woollen Gym to replace the
aging Tin Can; N.C. State played in the 3,500-seat Thompson Gym; tiny Gore
Gym in Wake Forest – which held an undersized 90-foot court – barely seated
2,200 fans.

As it turned out, Duke put 8,000 people in the stands for the Jan. 6, 1940
opener against Princeton. While that was just a bit short of capacity, it
was evidence of the explosion of basketball interest that would come.

The impressive new arena clearly gave the Duke basketball program a boost
in the 1940s. Before it was built, Cameron’s teams had enjoyed some solid
success – he won one Southern Conference title and played in the conference
finals four other times. After moving from Card Gym to Duke Indoor Stadium,
the Blue Devils would win four of the next seven Southern Conference titles
and play in the finals 11 times in 13 years.
Duke’s reign as the region’s basketball power would be cut short after
World War II by the arrival in Raleigh of the charismatic Everett Case – a
former Indiana high school coach who very much understood the importance of
the home court.

In the days just before Pearl Harbor, N.C. State officials made a conscious
decision to pursue basketball excellence. They believed they could never
compete with Duke and North Carolina in football. So the plan was to
overshadow their rivals in basketball, an increasingly popular sport – that
popularity thanks in large part to the enthusiasm generated by Duke’s new

N.C. State planned a new arena that would be almost a carbon copy of Duke
Indoor Stadium. The school had actually just received shipment of the steel
beams that would form the arena’s frame in the weeks before the Japanese
attacked Pearl Harbor and plunged us into war. One bright Wolfpack supporter
convinced school officials to go ahead and put up the newly arrived frames,
even though construction would have to wait until after the war. The fear
was that if the frames were not used, they would be appropriated for the
military ... but once erected, they would be immune to confiscation.
So throughout World War II, the bare steel frames of what would become
Reynolds Coliseum stood below the railroad tracks on N.C. State’s West
Raleigh campus, waiting for the day when peace would allow the Pack to
pursue its dreams of basketball glory.

That day finally came in the spring of 1946, when N.C. State hired newly
discharged Lt. Commander Everett Case to revitalize its program. Case, who
had won four state titles in Indiana (and twice landed on probation), took
one look at the plans for N.C. State’s new arena and demanded changes. His
Indiana prep experience was that the school with the biggest facility gets
to host the playoffs. He wanted an arena that would be bigger than Duke
Indoor Stadium.

The only problem was that N.C. State didn’t have the money to start from
scratch. Those steel beams that had been in place more than four years
limited the width of the new arena. Case’s solution was to extend both
ends – creating a 12,400-seat monstrosity than boasted a handful of
wonderful sidecourt seats, but far more seats in the distant end zones.
But Case got exactly what he wanted. The Southern Conference Tournament,
which was played at Duke from 1947-50, moved 25 miles to Raleigh in 1951.
When the new ACC staged its first tournament in 1954, it was played in
Reynolds ... and remained there through 1966.

The first basket in Reynolds was scored by Vic Bubas – the same Indiana
native who would lead Duke to basketball glory in the 1960s. Case used
Reynolds as a tool to dominate the Southern Conference from 1947-53 and the
ACC in its early years. He won nine of 10 conference titles in that span
(seven Southern; three ACC) and lost the 10th by one point to Wake Forest in
the finals of the 1953 Southern Conference Tournament.

[By the way, when you hear commentators refer to Duke’s current streak of
seven ACC titles in eight seasons as “unprecedented”, keep Case’s streak in
mind. There only reason it isn’t recognized is that the ACC broke off from
the Southern Conference after 1953 and his streak includes titles in two
different leagues].

As a 40-year veteran of ACC basketball, I can say with certainty that
Reynolds Coliseum was a far more intimidating place to play than the
eight-year-old RBC Center. Recent N.C. State players, who were given a taste
of Reynolds in that school’s annual “Heritage Game”, agree. I remember
talking to Julius Hodge after a victory over North Carolina A&T in Reynolds,
which drew a crowd of about 8,000 – well under capacity.

“I wish we could play all our games here,” Hodge said. “The noise level [at
the RBC Center] doesn’t compare with this place.”

The RBC has several problems. To begin with, it’s located off campus – too
far off campus for students to walk. It’s managed by the hockey team that
shares the facility and its design is a compromise to accommodate both
basketball and ice hockey.

But the biggest problem is distribution of student seating.

Let’s go back to Cameron for a moment. What makes Duke’s arena so electric
are the deep rows of students that surround the court. The original design
called for 5,000 permanent seats in the balcony and 3,800 bleacher seats on
the lower level. The 1987-88 re-design increased the bleacher seating to
just over 4,000 (mainly by turning most of the bleacher seats into standing

N.C. State used to have a similar arrangement in Reynolds. As a result, the
Wolfpack arena was every bit as loud and every bit as intimidating as
Cameron ever was. UNC’s Carmichael Auditorium was different – one entire
side of the arena and one end zone were given to the students, while the
other half of the arena belonged to the boosters. The result was very close
to what Duke achieved in Cameron and N.C. State achieved in Raleigh. Truly,
that was an era when all three Triangle schools boasted terrific homecourts.
Unfortunately, UNC had to make some tough sacrifices to finance the Smith
Center. One of the sacrifices was student seating. Big Donors were
guaranteed the best seats and students where shunted into narrow corridors
that stared behind the benches or in the end zones and climbed up to the
distant rafters.

It was Florida State’s Sam Cassell who famously characterized the Smith
Center crowd as “cheese and wine fans” (his actual quote) ... a funny line
that soon morphed into the “wine and cheese” label that has haunted UNC to
this day.

Let me say that throughout the 1990s, the label was well deserved. Oh, the
Tar Heel fans could rouse themselves when hated Duke visited. For one game,
the atmosphere would be terrific. And I’m sure that on most other nights,
the students and the middle-class fans did their best to generate
enthusiasm, but the fat cats who occupied the prime seats tended to insolate
the game from the real fans.

I can remember one January night in the mid 1990s when UNC was playing
Virginia in a not-very-special game. I noticed four elderly women seated in
the first row across from the benches, all intently reading magazines as the
action played out just a few feet in front of them. I tried to get our
photographer to shoot a picture of what I thought perfectly characterized
the problems with the Smith Center.

Matt Doherty, for all his problems at UNC, did his best to change the
homecourt atmosphere during his brief tenure as head coach. He was helped by
an incident in Bill Guthridge’s last season. Due to a heavy snowfall that
prevent many ticketed fans from reaching the arena for a game with Maryland,
UNC officials opened the doors to any student and allowed open seating. The
Smith Center was barely half full, but with students surrounding the court,
the place was electric – the crowd helping unranked UNC upset the No. 22

The atmosphere at that game seemed to convince some of the powers at UNC
that with a few changes, the Smith Center could be as good a homecourt as
any in the league. It hasn’t been easy to effect change. Those boosters who
contributed the big money to build the arena weren’t anxious to give up
their prime seats. But first Doherty, then Roy Williams have worked
patiently to change the seating arrangements and to give students a better
location for their seats – and hence a louder voice at gametime.
Their efforts have paid off. While the Smith Center still lacks the
consistency of a Cameron crowd, it’s no longer fair to use the “wine and
cheese” label. Even for ordinary games, the crowd is involved. And at its
best, when 20,000 fans start roaring for their Heels, the Smith Center is a
special place.

N.C. State is still struggling to achieve that atmosphere at the RBC
Center. I give the designers credit – they surrounded the court with five or
six rows of students. But it’s just not enough, especially with the rest of
the student seating allotted in the end zones. I’m not sure what the minimum
number of student rows are required for what I’d call “The Cameron effect”
but I know that there aren’t enough rows in the RBC Center.
I haven’t seen a game in the new John Paul Jones Arena, so I can’t compare
the atmosphere there with what I got used to at University Hall. I would
suggest that Maryland made a very successful transition from Cole Field
House (which always resembled an aircraft hanger) to the Comcast Center.


A look at the early results in the ACC this season confirms the value of
the homecourt.

After Sunday’s games, the 12 league teams are a healthy 69-3 at home,
compared to 9-11 in true road games and 11-9 on neutral courts. It’s also
worth noting that the home team has won all four ACC games played so far.
I would argue that the youth of the league makes the homecourt advantage
even more important than normal. Let’s take a look at the ACC’s four
youngest teams:

(has started at least two freshmen in every game; four freshmen, three
sophomores and a junior in the rotation): The Devils have sputtered at home,
but are 7-0 and have survived poor performances against Holy Cross, the
second half against Indiana and in the first half against Georgetown. In two
games away from Cameron, Duke has posted its best win to date (over 9-1 Air
Force) and its only loss (to Marquette). Those two games were played on a
neutral court in Kansas City.

(has started at least two freshmen in every game and has five freshmen,
four sophomores and two seniors in its 11-man rotation): The Heels are 5-0
at home with four lopsided wins and an impressive victory over Ohio State.
UNC is 3-1 in three neutral court games, including a loss to Gonzaga and a
lackluster win over Tennessee in New York and a tough, come-from-behind
battle against Winthrop in Charlotte.

(starts three freshmen most games, along with a soph): The
Jackets are an impressive 4-0 at home and a fairly impressive 2-1 in three
games in Hawaii, including victories over Purdue and Memphis and a loss to
No. 1 UCLA. But two real road games are a different story – the Jackets
looked terrible in a loss at mediocre Miami and not much better in a loss at

(two freshmen starters and five freshmen in the playing
rotation). Interesting that the Deacons handled Vanderbilt fairly easily in
Winston-Salem – the same Vandy team than beat up on Georgia Tech in
Nashville. Is Wake better than the Jackets or is that merely proof of the
impact of the homecourt? Well, a look at Wake Forest’s overall results would
seem to indicate the latter – 4-1 at home, losing only a one-point game to
Georgia; 1-3 on the road, winning in overtime at Bucknell, losing by
lopsided margins at Air Force and DePaul, losing a close one at Virginia

So overall, the ACC’s four most youthful teams are 20-1 at home; 6-3 on
neutral courts and 1-5 on the road ... which is about what you’d expect.
The interesting stat is that neither UNC nor Duke has yet played a true
road game. The Blue Devils won’t hit the road until visiting Georgia Tech on
Jan. 10, while UNC’s first road game is Dec. 22 in St. Louis on Dec. 22 --
a homecoming game for Tyler Hansborough.

Coach Krzyzewski has caught a lot of flack – both from his critics and
from some Duke fans – for his scheduling philosophy. In recent years, he’s
minimized non-conference road games, replacing them with neutral court
games, usually in big cities. K is on record as saying that he believes such
games are better preparation for the NCAA Tournament (which is usually
played in large, neutral arenas). When a critics points out that tough road
games can help develop a team, Krzyzewski answers that his teams get plenty
of tough road games in the ACC.

That seems like a fair response, although if there’s a flaw in his
reasoning, it would seem to be that without a tough road game or two in
December, the Devils might not be ready for their first couple of ACC road
games. Of course, K might counter that Duke has won its ACC road opener in
each of the last four seasons, so that doesn’t seem to be too big a problem.
And one more interesting aside. It seems Coach K is not the only coach
coming around to the avoidance of non-conference road games. In the last two
years, Duke has or will go on the road:

  • At Indiana
  • At UNC Greensboro
  • At Georgetown
  • At Temple
  • At St. John’s

In contrast, over the same two years, UNC’s Roy Williams has gone on the

road to play:

  • At Kentucky
  • At Southern Cal
  • At St. Louis
  • At Arizona

Hmmm, considering that the Tar Heels have actually played one less
non-conference road game than the Blue Devils in the two most recent
seasons, it appears that the two heavyweights have adopted a similar
scheduling philosophy.

It’s probably a smart philosophy, at least this season, when both teams are
so young. Too many tough tests can shatter the confidence of a budding team.
Is that happening to Wake Forest now? The security of the homecourt offers a
young team the chance to develop its confidence and grow.
But the time will come when those kids will have to test what they’ve
learned in front of a tough opponent and a hostile crowd. That’s ultimately
how they’ll be judged. A string of early season victories at home, while
gratifying, do not make a season.

While Dorothy’s mantra was “There’s no place like home,” we remember the
plucky farm girl because she had the courage to go on the (Yellow Brick)
road and take on the Wicked Witch in her own castle and kick butt.
When any of our young teams accomplish something similar away in such a
hostile venue, then I’ll be impressed.