As you look at North Carolina’s 2018-19 men’s basketball schedule, something curious jumps off the page about the first two games. The Tar Heels are beginning their season by playing back-to-back true non-conference road games – against Wofford (who won in the Smith Center last year) and Elon.
“What is Roy Williams thinking?” you ask yourself. “Major programs like Carolina don’t have to take road games. They can get anyone they want to come to Chapel Hill.”
Here’s the thing: playing away from home in the non-conference part of the schedule actually isn’t a strange phenomenon or outlier for Coach Williams and the Tar Heels.
But just how does Carolina’s scheduling stack up against programs of a similar ilk?
Why go on the road?
Of the country’s historically successful major college basketball programs, most only venture away from home when they absolutely have to. Some coaches will argue that conference and NCAA Tournament games are all played on a neutral court, so it’s pointless to schedule true non-conference road games.
To only look ahead to postseason tournaments, however, is to miss the mark. Half of the regular season conference match-ups are true road games. The results of these games play a huge factor in conference seeding, which ultimately helps determine a team’s seed in the NCAA Tournament. To fail to test your team on the road in the non-conference portion of the schedule is to set them up for failure when they go on the road in conference games.
To determine how the Tar Heels compare to other programs in this metric, I examined the 10 winningest programs of all time. I looked at the past 10 schedules for each of these programs (from the 2009-2010 season through the upcoming 2018-2019 season) to determine which teams were willing to go prove themselves outside the friendly confines of their home gym. To be included, a team had to have been in a BCS / Power 5 conference for each of those 10 seasons. This stipulation ruled out Temple (#5), St. John’s (#9), BYU (#12) and Utah (#14).
The list is therefore whittled down to these 10 (in order of all-time wins):
- Kentucky (#1 | 2,263 wins)
- Kansas (#2 | 2,248)
- UNC (#3 | 2,232)
- Duke (#4 | 2,144)
- Syracuse (#6 | 1,884)
- UCLA (#7 | 1,870)
- Notre Dame (#8 | 1,866)
- Louisville (#10 | 1,825)
- Indiana (#11 | 1,817)
- Arizona (#14 | 1,796)
Which teams are willing to consistently schedule true regular season non-conference road games?
What do the schedules reveal?
After studying each program, one team stands out above the rest. Below is the total number of true non-conference road games each of the programs scheduled during the 10-year period evaluated (from most to least):
- North Carolina – 24
- Arizona – 19
- Louisville – 17
- Kansas – 16
- Kentucky – 13
- Indiana – 11
- Syracuse – 10
- Duke – 9
- UCLA – 9
- Notre Dame – 7
Additionally, there are interesting takeaways concerning these blue-bloods and their scheduling of true non-conference road games (or lack thereof) strewn throughout the research.
In the 10-year span…
- Carolina is the only team of the 10 to have multiple true non-conference road games in each of the 10 seasons.
- Carolina is the only team to amass more than 20 true non-conference road games.
- Carolina has four seasons (including each of the last three) with three true non-conference road games. No other team on the list has more than one.
- In five of the 10 seasons evaluated, Duke and Notre Dame have scheduled precisely 0 (ZERO!!) true non-conference road games.
- For the past eight years, Duke has only voluntarily scheduled two true non-conference road games. Those were both at Madison Square Garden, which only technically counts as St. John’s second home arena.
- Notre Dame has by far the most putrid total of true non-conference road games with seven. Of those seven, only four were voluntary. The other three are all Big 10 / ACC road games.
Last season, I wrote a piece about Carolina’s road success in conference games over the previous seven years. Prior to last year’s 4-5 conference road record, the Heels had recorded seven straight seasons of a winning conference road record. Meanwhile, the rest of the conference fell miserably short of that level of success.
Think that type of achievement is pure happenstance? Think again. The road to success in conference road games is paved in the non-conference portion of the schedule. By exposing his team to hostile road environments early in the season, Roy Williams is preparing them to succeed away from home when it matters most – on the road in the country’s most difficult conference. The road to success is a road less traveled.
For reference, below is a table with each team’s true non-conference road games over the past 10 years: