Hometown games still a priority for UNC

May, 30, 2012
5/30/12
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Nonconference scheduling is becoming more of a puzzle, what with the increase in league games and some foes pushing for neutral sites.

But one piece North Carolina coach Roy Williams is determined not to give up: hometown games for the Tar Heel basketball players who want them.

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesRoy Williams says he still tries to make hometown games a priority when scheduling nonconference matchups.
“It’s something we look forward to doing,’’ Williams said earlier this week. “Different kids, it means more to. Sean May was really looking forward to going back to Indiana … but he was very disappointed in the reception he got there. And then you’ve got Tyler Hansbrough, we took him up to St. Louis, and he was really excited about it. And the reception he got was just off the charts.

“... People they grew up with, people in their families, friends, you can’t always get tickets for everybody that you want, not even for home games. So I think playing it on the road and taking it into their area, there are people that are close to them from when they were younger that have a much better chance of getting to the game. It’s always been important to me.”

The UNC tradition of taking players back home began with coach Dean Smith, and Williams, an assistant on Smith's staff, continued it when he became head coach at Kansas.

Another complication in scheduling such games, however, has been the rise in players leaving early for the pros.

“I remember [when I was at Kansas] scheduling and playing in Oakland against Oregon," Williams said. "Looking around, that game was for Drew Gooden to take him back home, and all of a sudden, you couldn’t find Gooden, because he was already in the NBA. So that’s a little bit of the problem, too.”

To try to get around that, Williams and UNC senior associate athletic director Larry Gallo have tried to schedule more “go home” games earlier in Tar Heels’ careers. (The St. Louis trip took place during Hansbrough’s sophomore season in 2006-07, for example; and the Tar Heels played at Evansville when Tyler Zeller was a junior in 2010-11.)

Players who grew up near ACC schools don’t have special games scheduled because they’re competing near home during conference play anyway. (Forward John Henson fit into this category, Williams said, since he moved to Tampa in high school, and the Tar Heels played at two Florida schools, Miami and Florida State, in league competition.)

And for some players, like Iowa native Harrison Barnes, a road trip back home isn’t a priority. So hometown games aren’t scheduled.

“There was no one that Harrison -- because we talked about it a few times -- there was no one that jumped out at him that he wanted to play,’’ Williams said of Barnes, who left after his sophomore season and is expected to be one of four UNC first-round draft picks in June.

Added Gallo: “Coach Williams always talks to the individual player, asks what he wants, because he doesn’t want to put undue pressure on him. He makes sure it's something the player wants to do.”

Currently, there are no hometown games scheduled for next season. Williams said he has talked to redshirt junior Leslie McDonald about taking him back home to Memphis, and Williams has had some discussions with the Tigers, “but nothing is set in concrete.”

Other possible future destinations, judging by the incoming freshman class, include Iowa (Marcus Paige) and Wisconsin (J.P. Tokoto). But keep in mind: balancing the difficulty of the schedule also factors into which teams UNC might try to play in those areas, and when.

“It is harder with more conference games and more national rivalries,’’ Williams said. “... So you have less freedom than you’ve ever had on your schedule, and less flexibility than you’ve ever had. So it is getting harder, but I still do want to do it, there’s no question.

"During the course of the recruiting process, we talk to our youngsters and see if that’s something they would be interested in. ... And we will continue to do that. It’s something I like to do.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

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