Every year around this time, the college basketball season begins to pick up steam. College football is over, so those fans of college sports can turn their attention from football to basketball, but the main reason is the schedules become more regular with the start of conference season. Sure, there are still some big non-conference tilts left on the slate (North Carolina visits Arizona on January 27), but for the most part, it is time for the nitty gritty, nail-biting action of conference play.
Also every year around this time, fans must re-learn how difficult it is to win a road basketball game at the college level. For many of us, this means overcoming the feeling we had during football season that the favored team should win all games, regardless of the location. In college football, teams that are significantly favored rarely seem to lose to lesser opponents, even on the road. When is the last time you can recall a team like this year’s Ohio State losing to a team like Northwestern in Chicago? Sure, there are close calls (Florida nearly lost to South Carolina), and there are upsets, but few college football weekends rival any given weekend during basketball’s conference season.
Just this past week, national championship contenders Wisconsin and Kansas beat high quality opponents in their own gyms in the middle of the week (Ohio State and Oklahoma State, respectively), only to have to eek out wins on the road against far lesser opponents on the weekend (Northwestern and Iowa State, respectively). Top-ranked North Carolina was not so lucky in its weekend road test when it fell to unranked Virginia Tech, even though they beat up on Virginia earlier in the week.
Perhaps the best indication of this home-neutral-road phenomenon is the Butler Bulldogs. As a team from the Horizon League, they were generally overlooked in the preseason as contenders for, well, much of anything. In fact, they were so convinced that they would not be playing in New York during the semifinals and finals of the preseason NIT that they booked a home game for the night after the finals. However, with their veteran leadership (two seniors and a junior lead them in scoring), they reeled off wins over Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee, and Gonzaga — all nationally touted teams, and all on neutral courts to win the preseason NIT. That sounds like the type of team that would lose to the University of Illinois-Chicago, a 6-10 team, right? But, sure enough, this past Wednesday night, that same Butler team that beat all those national powers in November fell in Chicago against UIC.
My point is this: as fans, we need to make sure we recalibrate ourselves and recognize both the high value of a conference road win (regardless of the margin or the perceived quality of the opponent) and the relatively low probability that our favorite teams will win any specific road game, let alone all of them.