March 3, 2003
Winning on the road is never easy, and it is hard to pinpoint exactly why.
In college basketball today any win on the road is a good win. A win on the road in your conference is a really good win, regardless of whom you play.
Watch the games and you see it everywhere. I don't think anybody questions whether Duke is a better team than St. John's, but somehow St. John's scored the last 12 points to stun Duke in the Garden yesterday. Do you really think the same would have happened at Duke?
If you watched us beat Virginia Tech at home this year but didn't see the game in Blacksburg I'm sure you can't figure out how that team beat us so soundly. But they did the same thing to Villanova and Connecticut at home. Any Villanova fan that attended our first game in Philadelphia is probably amazed that we were able to beat them by ten points in our own building.
Without taking a look at the standings, how many teams in our league do you think have winning records on the road in the conference? Take a guess. Out of 14 teams, exactly 3 (B.C., Pitt and Syracuse) are above .500 on the road in our league. And B.C. is the only team more than one game over, and it is no coincidence that these 3 teams also sit atop their respective divisions.
So it is obviously hard to win on the road, but why so? We went to Georgetown this week on a 3 game winning streak feeling very good about the way we were playing. Georgetown has lost a lot of close games and struggled through a tough year. They had just picked up a good win at Miami (every road win is a good win) and they were still playing for a Big East Tournament trip, so we didn't expect it to be easy. They also have not shot the ball very well as a team so we felt our zone should be pretty effective.
So we go into Georgetown and just play awful. We didn't defend the way we had been, and we couldn't take care of the ball. We gave them way too many easy shots off of our own bad offense, so despite containing Mike Sweetney and doing a decent job on the glass we couldn't get the job done.
Was it because it was a road game? No way. That would be an excuse. As a coach you prepare your team to win games on the road in tough buildings, and the MCI center is not near the top of the list of tough places to play in our league. We try and take a business-trip approach to every one of our road trips, and it has worked for us in the past. Two years ago we set a school record for road wins in the Big East on our way to the NCAA Tournament. You have to establish a tough mentality when you go into somebody else's building that you will execute your game plan no matter what happens - but that is much easier said than done.
We lost the Georgetown game for two reasons - we didn't defend well, and we turned the ball over. Had we played them in Providence with poor defense and a lot of turnovers we would have lost there as well.
But why do so many teams come out and play that way on the road? I can think of 5 significant factors, some of which play a role and some I feel are overrated as factors.
You are supposed to win at home. That's what everyone says, that is what all of our guys hear. You are comfortable because you are in the same building you play in roughly 15 times per year (and for a lot of teams, the building you practice in every day). Whether it is the depth perception of the crowd in the background, the rims are friendlier or you think the rims are friendlier, most teams come out and play with more confidence at home.
The crowd can be a significant factor. Four minutes to go, tie game at Pittsburgh and we are trying to execute our offense in front of 12,500 screaming maniacs and their deafening roar. It isn't easy, and it is something you can't simulate in practice.
You also get a little more juice from the home crowd. When the Dunk is going crazy, our guys have that little extra hop in their step, a little boost of energy. This really can make a difference. I think the crowd also helps give players confidence that they are doing good things, so it ties into the confidence factor. A great home crowd makes a difference.
In general the game of college basketball has gotten younger. More coaching changes every year leads to more kids leaving programs on a yearly basis and new coaches bringing in their own players. Most of the truly great players are in the league as soon as they can get there, so the great college players are very often freshman and sophomores. The 4-year kid, who waits his turn, works hard and continues to improve before starting as a junior and senior is becoming more and more rare.
Winning on the road without juniors and seniors is tough. You cannot teach experience, and as a young player you may not understand the effect of some of the factors we have talked about. As younger players continue to play a more prominent role, even the most talented young players will have trouble winning on the road. It takes some experience to be able to do it.
Very rarely do I think this comes into play. When we played at Texas last year we got bumped onto 4 different flights and arrived in Austin at all different times - some of our guys didn't get in until the day of the game. In those circumstances the travel is a factor.
But most of the time that isn't the case. We arrive the day before and have a regular routine on game day - breakfast, watch tape/scout, shoot around, study hall, pre-game meeting and meal. You can get into a rhythm and focus on the game. Georgetown, for example, had to go to class and probably couldn't have a shoot around. So I don't think the fact that you traveled or spend the day on the road is a significant factor.
However, the road routine does take some getting used to, and I think older players have a better feel for how to deal with airports, plane flights, hotels and everything else on the road.
Another factor that I think is vastly overrated. Our officials are great - the best in the country, I really believe that - and very rarely do they give you home calls. All of our officials are strong enough to make a tough call against the home crowd and the home team. I think home jobs are much more of a factor in the NBA and maybe in cross-sectional college games, but in Big East games on the road I don't think the officials are a factor.
Every time I hear about a "big upset" the first thing I look at is where the game is played. Losing a league game on the road is very rarely an upset. Did you think Rutgers would beat Notre Dame over the weekend? Rutgers actually has a better record at home than Notre Dame does on the road in the Big East. They are playing (for the most part) the same teams, so it really isn't an upset.
Nothing like trying to overcome these factors in a place called Storrs.