First person: At home on the road
The news that Carolina will return to Indiana’s Assembly Hall as part of this fall’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge gives the Tar Heels an opportunity to return to one of the most hostile environments they’ve faced in the Roy Williams era.
The Hoosiers weren’t very good when Carolina traveled there on Dec. 1, 2004, but they were plenty angry. Two years earlier, Sean May had picked the Tar Heels over the hometown Hoosiers, and the sellout crowd responded with the most ferocious road atmosphere of the season—yes, that includes all the ACC arenas where the Tar Heels played.
Carolina won the game, 70-63, an early indicator of the toughness possessed by the eventual national champions.
Unlike some other schools, Williams has always been willing to play true road games as part of his nonconference schedule. The Tar Heels have played 22 such games--which doesn't count games like Rutgers in Madison Square Garden, Texas in Arlington, or Valpo in Chicago--during his nine seasons in Chapel Hill. They're 15-7 in those games, which might deserve some of the credit for Carolina's stellar ACC road record (Williams's ACC road winning percentage is .667, tied for the best mark in league history) during that same stretch. By the time the Tar Heels venture into the first conference foe's gym, they've already been through a road test.
In addition to Bloomington, here's the five other toughest nonconference road environments the Tar Heels have faced in the Williams era:
Illinois, Nov. 30, 2010. It probably helps that the Tar Heels never seem to play well here. But I believe the Orange Crush is the best student section in the country. They don’t get the publicity of some others, but on Carolina’s trip in 2010 they were loud, creative (actually creative, not creative-20-years-ago) and even managed to do it without being profane.
Detroit, April 6, 2009. OK, this wasn’t an official road game, but there were more Spartan fans at the game than if it had been played in East Lansing. 72,922 fans packed into Ford Field, and the vast majority were wearing green. The biggest pregame storyline was what a Spartans win could do for Detroit morale and the economy. As Roy Williams noted the day before the game, “If you would tell me that if Michigan State wins, it's going to satisfy the nation's economy, then I'd say, `Let's stay poor for a little while longer.’” The big crowd could have been a major help for Tom Izzo’s team, but because of the Carolina blitzkrieg from the opening tip, they never had a chance.
Kentucky, multiple trips. When it’s loud, it’s really loud. When it’s quiet, it’s really quiet. Student seating is only in the end zones, and sometimes the fans along the sidelines can be a bit sleepy (where have I heard this before?).
Saint Louis, multiple trips. Carolina has actually played five games in St. Louis in the Williams era, and the one with the most friendly crowd was the one that counted as a road game. That one was Tyler Hansbrough’s home game during the 2007 season, when the Tar Heels whipped the Billikens, 69-48. Much tougher were NCAA Tournament games in 2005 and 2012. In ’05, the Edward Jones Dome was overwhelmingly pro-Illinois for the national championship game. And in 2012, the combined efforts of Kansas and NC State fans drowned out a small but vocal group of Tar Heels in the regional final.
It’s popular around NCAA Tournament time for some observers to complain that Carolina sometimes gets the benefit of playing early-round games near home. Those same observers don’t usually mention that Williams has won his two national titles in front of virtual road crowds.
UC Santa Barbara, Nov. 21, 2008. It’s always tricky to include this type of team in a list like this, because Carolina always gets the very best of a road crowd. But on this night, the Thunderdome had one of the best student sections I have ever seen. They were led by “The Phantom,” a student who would emerge from the stands at each timeout to lead a new set of cheers. The acoustics of the low wooden roof helped the sellout crowd of 6,000 made much more noise than you would expect.