Home, sweet home can be misery for visitors
AP Sports Writer
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Eighty-two miles and a sea of orange. That’s what former Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson remembers on the way to Oklahoma State.
“I can remember vividly driving the 82 miles from Norman to Stillwater, getting to Gallagher-Iba Arena and there would be a gantlet of students we’d have to walk through just for shootaround,” said Sampson, who spent 14 years as a head coach with the Sooners and Indiana. “And that was at 11:30 in the morning. The game wasn’t until eight o’clock.”
Fact is, there’s no place like home in college basketball.
Like Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse, which has a 94.4 percent winning percentage at home since 2001-02. Or Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the Cameron Crazies have helped the Blue Devils win 93.5 percent of their games in that span.
Four more programs – Gonzaga, Utah State, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh – have won 92 percent or more of their home games over the last nine years.
Nevada, which plays Utah State in the Western Athletic Conference, is 117-25 at home (82.4 percent) since 2001-02.
“It’s a way of life here,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who has a 111-7 home record since taking over in 2003. “No matter who you play, when you play them, you’re going to have 16,000 people there.”
It’s all part of the atmosphere at Kansas, where a sign warns, “Pay Heed, All Who Enter: Beware of the Phog.” Championship banners hang above and legends like Wilt Chamberlain, Danny Manning and Paul Pierce are honored, too. There’s the “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk” chant that floats out before the game and again over opponents in the closing moments of a loss.
Since coach Bo Ryan came to Wisconsin in 2001, they’ve gone 133-11 at home. The Kohl Center opened just a dozen years ago and doesn’t have the history of other college basketball landmarks, but two overhanging balconies keep even the highest seats close to the court.
Wisconsin’s loss to Illinois on Tuesday night snapped a 51-game winning streak against unranked Big Ten opponents – something not lost on Illini coach Bruce Weber.
“It’s just amazing what Bo has done here,” Weber said. “The arena is great. The fans are great, but it’s Bo and the system and the players.”
Loud crowds are just the start of a successful home court.
Since 2001-02, the home team in a BCS conference school has won more than 76 percent of its games overall and 64 percent in conference tilts. To compare, NBA teams win about 60 percent of their home games.
“It’s amazing how successful everybody is at home,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Everybody just seems to be a little better.”
Besides cramped, unfamiliar locker rooms and hostile crowds, the odds can start tilting toward the home team long before the game.
“Pittsburgh,” said Hakim Warrick, whose Syracuse team lost there in 2003 en route to an NCAA championship. “We were always on little prop planes and going through the mountains and all that. And the airport is like on a mountain out of nowhere.”
While at Oklahoma, Sampson’s pregame problems included unwanted phone calls to his players in their hotel rooms and earlier-than-expected wake up times.
“Missouri fans were creative. They’d come in, find out what floor our kids were on and they’d come pull the fire alarm,” Sampson said. “I can remember having to leave the hotel and stand outside in 20-degree weather because the fire alarm went off.”
Often, the venue itself has quirks.
Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym, designed as a combination gymnasium and concert hall, has benches to the end of the court. Visiting players can’t see and rarely can hear instructions from the bench for the first 20 minutes.
“In the first half, you’re going the opposite way, so it’s so hard to communicate with the coach,” said Jodie Meeks, a former Kentucky standout whose teams lost all three times he played there. “You’re playing on a stage.”
Andrew Bogut, a star at Utah before becoming the No. 1 pick in the NBA in 2005, hated the noise playing at University Arena in New Mexico, known as The Pit because it was built 37 feet into the ground.
“There were 15, 16, 17,000 fans. It was very, very loud,” Bogut said. “For me, that’s one of the toughest in the nation.”
On the other side, nothing beats the support from the home fans.
Elton Brand had never been to Cameron before he began playing for Duke, but he loved the small setting for the 9,300 fans and their famously distracting antics.
Some fans dressed up like characters in the Wizard of Oz when Roy Williams made his debut there as North Carolina’s head coach to let the former leader of the Jayhawks know he wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Another time, a fan taunted a hefty opposing player with a fast food meal dangling from a fishing pole until security stopped it.
“(If) someone got into trouble with drugs, they’d pass like a huge marijuana joint through the crowd,” said Brand, now with the Philadelphia 76ers. “They really did their homework on guys when they came in.”
But just exactly where is the toughest place to play in the nation?
“That’s easy,” Sampson said. “It’s wherever our rival was.”
AP Sports Writers John Marshall in Kansas City, Dan Gelston in Philadelphia, Teresa Walker in Nashville and Aaron Beard in Raleigh, N.C. contributed to this report.