I have a confession to make.
I wasn’t standing in the risers for the most recent basketball game against Maryland
Shocking, I know. Because I recently started doing statistical work for the JV basketball team, I have been unable to stand in line outside the Dean Dome for hours prior to games in order to secure a spot in the front of the student section. The JV statistical crew is basically the underground foundation of the totem pole in terms of the basketball hierarchy at UNC, but fortunately, the program is still kind enough to provide me with tickets behind the scorer’s table.
Cheering outside the student section for the past couple of games has provided me with a number of new experiences and allows me to share what I feel is a unique perspective on the entire Dean Dome crowd, including the student section. With the big win over Maryland this Saturday, it seemed pertinent and reasonable to examine the Smith Center through the lens of that game, which I will do below.
The atmosphere at tip-off was, save contests against Duke, the loudest I have ever heard the Dean Dome. Reggie Bullock’s torrid start got everyone fired up immediately. The diehards and the students, knowing this game was a must-win to stay competitive in the ACC and to build on the great victory against Florida State, quickly recognized the significance of the early lead. At first, the loudness of the arena was focused in the defensive half (which features the risers), as a few enterprising individuals with white boards and dry-erase markers at the front of the crowd were coordinating students. Eventually, their energy spread throughout the building and infected even casual fans. For the first time since moving out of the student section, I didn’t have to worry about blocking anyone’s view when I stood up to cheer because everyone behind me was standing, too.
ESPN identified the most important aspects in creating a home-court advantage in college basketball in a recent article, with the biggest factor being the proximity of student seating to the court. The signs, chants, and overall volume of fans play a big role in intimidating an opponent, and it is generally understood that students are more apt to get loud and create a daunting atmosphere. UNC has traditionally struggled with what former Florida State guard Sam Cassell called “a wine and cheese crowd,” as the wealthy alumni that can afford the seats near the court do not usually cheer very loudly. It was truly a different story on Saturday, as many of the alumni that typically remain seated and casually watch the game imbibed some of the intensity of the students and contributed to the raucous environment. The “Taaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrr…Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeelllllllllls” chants were louder; the distracting noises on defense were more persistent; celebrations after big buckets were more emphatic.
Can the fans really have an impact on the game, though? It sure seemed that way. Roy’s boys were the most aggressive I’ve seen this year on the defensive end, attacking Maryland with physical play that forced fifteen turnovers in the first half, including five straight at the outset of the game. Perhaps the Heels have finally figured out how to play defense, or maybe the main rotation players were worried that the hustle of Jackson Simmons was going to cut into their playing time if they didn’t pick things up. Personally, I’d like to think that the fans inspired everyone to work a little bit harder. Whatever the motivation, Carolina was doing all the little things they hadn’t in the losses they suffered earlier this year: Boxing out to prevent second chance opportunities, sprinting back on defense to limit easy transition baskets, pressuring ballhandlers to force turnovers, closing out on three-point shooters. Even if it didn’t necessarily help UNC, the volume in the building certainly hurt the Terrapins. From my vantage point near the Maryland bench, I could see Mark Turgeon struggling to communicate with his players; at one point, he and all of his assistants were shouting at Alex Len to attack the hoop, but Len, all the way on the other end of the floor, couldn’t hear and settled for a jumper. The poor communication definitely played a role in the Tar Heels’ hot start and ultimately could have been the difference in the game. The importance of the fans in the way the game played out should not be underestimated.
For as good as the Heels played in the first half, they were equally mediocre in the second, scoring just twenty points after the intermission. The fan intensity died down to some degree, understandable with the seemingly insurmountable lead that UNC had built prior to the break, but not ideal. Carolina did enough to win a key conference game at home, though, which is the important thing given the struggles and growing pains this team has faced early in the season. What happens during the rest of the year will depend on whether the Tar Heels play up to their potential as they did in the first half against Maryland, or if they revert back to the underachieving squad that showed up after halftime. The fans inside the Dean Dome will likely follow suit.
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