Playing at home a big advantage in regionals

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – After the NCAA regional assignments were unveiled last week, North Carolina coach Andrew Sapp perused the six tournament fields and cracked that his draw would lead in one category:

Sprinter vans.

Sure enough, there were 10 Mercedes eight-passenger vans in the parking lot here Wednesday, with license plates ranging from Maryland to Tennessee to Pennsylvania.

While there’s plenty of local flavor this week at Finley Golf Course, there’s an odd dynamic here too – two of the top teams traveled the farthest to get here. Little wonder this is the most difficult regional to forecast.

Seven of the 13 teams traveled less than six hours to get here. But instead of piling into the team van and heading up the interstate, No. 1-ranked Florida State and No. 2 seed Stanford crammed into a plane to prepare for this all-or-nothing, survive-and-advance tournament.

All Sapp had to do Wednesday was kiss his wife goodbye, climb into his SUV and make the 15-minute drive to work. His players had an even shorter commute – campus housing is less than two miles from the course.

“It’s a nice feeling,” Sapp said, smiling.

UNC is one of four host schools in this year’s six-regional field, the biggest advantage a team can have in this 54-hole tournament in which the top five teams move on to the NCAA finals and the rest begin their summer vacation.

Each of the last 11 host teams has advanced out of regionals, and 18 of 22 since 2009. Last year alone there were three: No. 4 seed Auburn, seventh-seeded Oregon and eighth-seeded Missouri. Put any of those three teams in another regional, and there likely would be a different outcome.

This year, you can all but guarantee that No. 2 seed Texas Tech (Lubbock), No. 2 seed Washington (Bremerton) and No. 3 seed North Carolina (Chapel Hill) will steamroll through regionals. Even the University of San Diego, a No. 9 seed, threatens to wreak havoc in its home regional that features such teams as Arizona State, Georgia Tech, Georgia, Virginia and New Mexico.

So, no, the current system doesn’t exactly reward the teams that perform the best during the regular season. Just ask South Carolina, the last of the six top seeds. The Gamecocks’ reward for a five-win season? A seven-hour flight to Seattle.

Although there is no shortage of ideas on how to improve the format, they haven’t gained much traction with the NCAA competition committee:

 Most appealing is for the top six teams in the country to host a regional at their home course. Those againstthis plan argue that there isn’t enough time for the schools to prepare the course for tournament conditions, but the NCAA could put the top 15 teams on notice in the spring and have a cutoff date for the postseason.

• An extension of that plan: Create 16 four-team regionals, with the top teams hosting and the low two squads after 54 holes advancing to the finals. Hey, it works in baseball.

• Let the top six seeds choose where they want to go, rather than be assigned based on geographical consideration. For instance, since Florida State is the top overall seed this year, coach Trey Jones could decide whether he wants to stay close to home or travel to, say, a course where his players have the most experience.

• Six neutral sites spread out around the country, though this seems the least likely, since the committee prefers to have a school attached to hosting the event.

Look, it’s impossible to quantify a home-course advantage, but nearly every coach agrees that it’s significant.

Washington’s Matt Thurmond says it’s about three to five shots, mostly because of strategy.

South Carolina’s Bill McDonald believes it’s even higher – about half a shot per player per nine holes, so as much as 12 to 18 strokes over the course of the tournament.

Even Sapp conceded, “Yeah, it’s quite an advantage.”

Teams that host regionals in baseball have the benefit of a boisterous home crowd, but the distance between the rubber and home plate is the same no matter where they play.

That’s not the case in golf, of course, and the biggest challenge for visiting teams is how quickly they can get acclimated to the time change, the weather conditions and, most importantly, the different types of grass.

Says FSU’s Jones, “It can be as simple as what you’re used to seeing with your eyes.”

No team traveled farther to get here to Chapel Hill than Stanford, the No. 2 seed and Pac-12 champion.

The Cardinal was fortunate to score a direct flight from San Francisco to Raleigh, and coach Conrad Ray has done his best to spin the trip positively.

This is why we play a well-rounded schedule, he says, because this isn’t the first time Stanford has played on Bermuda grass, nor is it the first time it has had to change time zones and adjust.

“That’s why you focus on playing great golf in all different circumstances,” he said. “But then again, sometimes, if you feel like you’ve got a team that’s going to win, you could put them in a bowling alley and they’ll be fine.”

His players’ “homework” assignment over the past week? To learn the course digitally, using Google Earth. They charted their way around Finley Golf Course just by surfing the Web and reading the yardages.

“It’s like you’re walking the fairway,” says Ray, so when it came time for his team’s official practice round Wednesday, it was like they’d already toured the place a few times. The running joke in Stanford’s van this week is to ask, What’s the fifth hole this week? Tell me the yardage.

South Carolina was also left scrambling.

As the last No. 1 seed, McDonald figured that his team would receive the least amount of geographical consideration. So when it was confirmed that the sixth-ranked Gamecocks were headed to Bremerton, Wash. – nearly 3,000 miles away – well, he wasn’t the least bit surprised.

“You more or less have to say, these are the rules and I better have a great attitude,” McDonald said, “or it’s gonna whip my butt.”

Last year, this identical Gamecocks lineup headed to Eugene, Ore., for what was the most difficult regional in terms of scoring average. They played terribly for three days and were lucky to escape with the fifth and final spot.

“I have fond memories,” McDonald said, “but maybe it was a little like childbirth. Maybe it was hell and I just don’t remember it.”

Host teams may almost always breeze through regionals, but they’re not without their challenges, too.

Thurmond, whose Huskies are hosting South Carolina and 12 other teams at Gold Mountain, explained that the hormones in the body that lead to high performance and focus are produced at a much higher level when they are needed. That’s why players tend to “rise to the occasion” in the most challenging times – the brain has another gear when it needs it.

“People don’t perform their best when they feel like they are advantaged,” he said. “It’s easy to be flat as a home team and not prepare with as much urgency and focus. Some of our best performances as a team” – such as at regionals in 2013 and ’14, when Washington traveled to Tallahassee and Raleigh and advanced easily – “have come when we were most disadvantaged. That’s just a basic life principle.” 

The fear of failure – especially in front of friends and family – can be a powerful mental enhancer, as well.

“I’m glad we are home,” he said, “but I’ll want to feel like it is a big challenge.”

Sapp, meanwhile, has tried to keep everything the same at UNC – the same schedule and same routine, even the same catering (Nantucket Grill and Maggiano’s) for their post-round meals at the team’s practice facility.

The Tar Heels won their home tournament here in the fall by 23 shots, and they’re considered a significant favorite even in a regional that includes the country’s top-ranked team. His biggest issue isn’t unfamiliarity, but complacency.

As for everybody else, the teams who arrived by van or plane and are simply trying to stay alive in this NCAA postseason?

Says FSU’s Jones, with a smile: “There are about 80 coaches around the country right now telling their guys that no matter where they are, this course is perfect for them.”