Monday, January 09, 2006

There's No Place Like Home in the ACC & Big Ten

In today’s world, traveling can bring numerous hassles.  Airport security lines are long, freeways are congested, and zeppelin service is appallingly limited.  Leaving home is especially treacherous thus far during conference basketball play in the ACC and Big Ten.  In these leagues, home is where the victory is.



In the ACC, the home team won the first ten conference matchups before Duke routed Wake Forest in Winston-Salem Sunday night.  The Deacons were hampered by the Blue Devils’ accuracy from three-point land, as well as by having a mascot with a bow tie on his chin.  Seriously, why does the Demon Deacon have a bow tie on his chin?  Normal deacons wear their ties in the typical spot – do the demonic ones just have to be different?  If any Wake Forest fans are reading, please clear up this mystery for me.



Similarly, home teams are 9-1 in Big Ten conference play.  As in the ACC, the only road winner was the overwhelming preseason favorite - Northwestern???  Really?  Someone’s messing with me – I need to check this out.  (Pause for “Jeopardy!” theme music).  Okay, it’s actually true!  The Wildcats defeated Minnesota 57-49 in Minneapolis.  With the Vikings’ season completed, another team stepped up to embarrass Twin Cities sports fans.



No team exemplified the power of the home court more than Illinois.  On Thursday, the sixth-ranked Illini knocked off #7 Michigan State 60-50 in Champaign.  Illinois guard Dee Brown looked like a national player of the year candidate with a career-high 34 points.  In Iowa on Saturday, Brown played like Dee, the sarcastic sister from “What’s Happening!!” – managing a mere six points on 2-13 shooting in a 63-48 defeat.  The ghost of Rerun shed a tear as the Illini fell from the ranks of the unbeaten.



Other highly-ranked teams found the road to be unkind over the weekend.  Michigan State stumbled again on Sunday – this time at Wisconsin.  #11 Boston College dropped to 0-2 as a new ACC member with a loss at Georgia Tech.  Still not used to its new conference, the Eagles originally traveled to Georgetown before scrambling to Atlanta in time for tip-off.  #14 Maryland succumbed 84-70 at Miami, due largely to dominating performances from Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade.



#13 North Carolina State was hoping to be different on Saturday.  The Wolfpack was in the unaccustomed position of being higher-ranked than hated rival, #25 North Carolina.  The Pack left Chapel Hill in a much more familiar state – on the losing end.  The Tar Heels scored the last 13 points in an 82-69 victory.  UNC’s proficiency from the foul line was key.  The Heels converted 26 of 28 free throw attempts, with freshman star Tyler Hansbrough hitting all 14 of his tries.  As a result, Wolfpack head coach Herb Sendek plans to devote extra practice time to improving his team’s free throw defense.



Surprisingly, this trend was almost disrupted early as Virginia Tech nearly shocked Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 4.  Leading by 11 points with under five minutes remaining, Duke almost collapsed as Mike Krzyzewski believed in his American Express commercials a little too much.  During time-outs, he was heard screaming to his team, “Don’t ask me what to do – I don’t think of myself as a basketball coach!!!”  Only Sean Dockery’s 40-foot buzzer beater saved the Blue Devils from a stunning one-point defeat.  As consolation for the Hokies, Marcus Vick won a halftime “Step on the Most Guys” contest over Christian Laettner.



It remains to be seen whether the road woes in these powerhouse conferences will continue.  On Tuesday, nationally-ranked Wisconsin and North Carolina travel to unranked Minnesota and Virginia Tech, respectively.  Although favored, Badgers coach Bo Ryan and Tar Heel leader Roy Williams should take no chances.  They should leave the road jerseys at home “by mistake” and have their players suit up in the home whites.