As the final seconds ticked off the clock at Littlejohn Coliseum on Tuesday, and as it finally set in that North Carolina would lose 82-78 to Clemson, something else became apparent inside the arena.
Nobody – not spunky upstarts, not the traditional ACC powerhouses, not even the reigning national champions – should feel good about taking a conference road trip.
Now, you may be thinking, “Duh, of course not.” Given the chance, would any team choose to play in a hostile environment and be smothered with boos rather than enjoy the luxuries (and crowd) that comes with playing at home? Again, obviously not.
But this season, the difficulty of ACC road games feels magnified. And that’s because when you look at the numbers, it is.
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ACC teams are 22-43 on the road in conference play this season. In other words, for about every one road win, you also lose two. That’s not just a bad feeling. That’s a quantifiable trend.
UNC’s loss to Clemson was just the latest example. Some of this season’s more dramatic upsets – like Duke losing at Boston College and N.C. State, for example – have come when ACC teams travel, which speaks to the competitiveness of the league overall. With the margins of victory so small, even a rogue crowd can make the difference between wins and losses.
And while you may expect ACC road games to always be a trial for the traveling team, that isn’t the case. During the 2014-2015 season, road teams won about 43.7 percent of conference games. Maybe that’s an anomaly, considering only two ACC teams (North Carolina and Duke) finished with winning conference road records the very next season, but it does lend some perspective to just how unbalanced the schedule has been in 2017-2018.
But why does that matter in the grand scheme of things? Well, it’s a helpful indicator for where the rest of the season is likely heading.
Start with Virginia, the only undefeated team in conference play this season at 9-0 (4-0 in away games). It’s been an impressive streak, including perhaps the win of the season over Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, but the schedule is back-loaded. In the span of 10 days, the Cavaliers will travel to Syracuse, to Florida State and to Miami, with just one home game squeezed in there.
Those three teams’ combined home record in the conference is 9-3. Virginia has been better than advertised to start the year, but that’s a daunting three games for any team. If ever there was a time for cracks to show in coach Tony Bennett’s vaunted defense, that would be the time.
Even Duke, the only other team in the conference with a winning road record (3-2), has struggled in away games. And the Blue Devils still must travel to North Carolina, to Clemson and to Virginia Tech? If Boston College and N.C. State, two middle-of-the-pack teams standings-wise, were troublesome, then you can only imagine what this end-of-the-year stretch might look like.
Aside from what to expect from the league’s better teams, this road barometer is also interesting when you factor in potential postseason games. Will the selection committee look favorably or not at Syracuse, whose only road win in conference play was against Pitt (8-14 overall, 0-9 ACC)? Or what about Boston College, which is 0-4 in conference road play but has home wins against Duke and Florida State?
Ultimately, any grander conclusions must wait until later in conference play – there is, after all, the entire month of February left.
But if there’s anything to be gleaned from the first month of ACC play, it’s this: Teams with NCAA tournament aspirations have to protect home court. They have to play their best in front of their students, their fans, in their building. And if not?
Well, good luck on the road. You’ll need it.