PHOENIX — North Carolina rode a wave of momentum into Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion, winners of 10 straight, up to No. 3 in the AP Top 25 and comfortably atop the ACC standings.
The Yellow Jackets and their rowdy fans brought the Tar Heels’ good vibes to a screeching halt, winning 74-73 on Tuesday night on Naithan George’s layup with 7.7 seconds left.
“They’re not easy games to win,” North Carolina guard RJ Davis said.
Road games, particularly in conference play, have always been difficult to win. The home team players are in a comfortable place, have their fans cheering wildly on their side and have the incentive of not wanting to lose on their own court.
Winning on the road has become more difficult this season — with an assist from COVID-19 and the transfer portal.
Through Thursday’s games, AP Top 25 teams were 67-64 against unranked road opponents, the lowest winning percentage (.554) since at least the 2009-10 season. The previous low was .567 last season, according to Sportradar.
Top-10 teams have had the worst of it on the road, going 25-29 against unranked road opponents for a winning percentage of .463. The previous lowest in the past 15 years was .623 in 2020-21.
The worst of the top-10 carnage came in early January, when then-top-ranked Purdue, No. 2 Houston, No. 3 Kansas, No. 5 Tennessee and No. 9 Oklahoma all lost to unranked opponents on the road in a span of a few days.
“It’s hard to win on the road in college basketball. It’s something you don’t ever take for granted,” No. 11 Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “A lot of these power conference teams, you can really tilt your schedule to play a lot of home games or maybe a select neutral or two, and when you go on the road it’s going to be a lot more difficult.”
Early-season underdog wins have had a snowball effect on teams across the country.
The intimidation factor of facing a highly ranked team no longer holds the sway it once did, teams seeing another program beat a ranked team and think: why not us?
“Right now, I think everybody in the country feels any game they play, they can win because those kinds of games have happened through the whole season,” No. 7 Duke coach Jon Scheyer said. “So it creates a belief, it creates togetherness. It doesn’t matter what happens the game before, because there’s that belief that they can still win.”
The transfer portal has made it easier by leveling the hardwood, at least to a certain degree.
With players able to move freely about without having to sit out a season, teams can stock up on talented players who can have an immediate impact. The top teams often get the most sought after transfers, but there’s plenty to go around — from players from high-major teams going to smaller programs to get more playing time to mid-major players wanting to play on a bigger stage.
“With the transfer portal and kids being instantly eligible or transfer twice and get to be eligible when that originally was not the plan, teams now have more experience, have more depth, have more talent across the board,” Lloyd said. “And there’s been a trickle-down effect to some of the other programs that maybe wasn’t there pre-COVID.”
COVID’s biggest impact — at least from a positive standpoint — has been an increase of veteran players across the country. Because the NCAA gave student-athletes an extra year of eligibility following the pandemic, rosters across college basketball are dotted with more mature players who’ve had the opportunity to gain more experience and become further entrenched in their coaches’ systems.
Four years after the start of the pandemic, the sport is filled with players who have been in college basketball five, six, even more years. DeJuan Clayton, a 26-year-old guard at Manhattan, is still hoping to get cleared for an eighth year of eligibility in a career plagued by injuries and the pandemic.
“I think it’s safe to say there’s, with the transfer portal and with the COVID year, there’s probably more parity overall,” Scheyer said. “There’s not as big of a gap in terms of talent and when you think about talent, also experience plays a factor in that.”
The combination has made it even more difficult to win on the road this season.
AP Basketball Writers Aaron Beard and Dave Skretta contributed to this story.
Get poll alerts and updates on the AP Top 25 throughout the season. Sign up here.
AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball