Traveling Show: Tracking Elite Programs in True Road Games

Posted by William Ezekowitz on December 23rd, 2015

Last night Kansas traveled to southern California to take on San Diego State at Viejas Arena, providing college basketball fans with a rare sight: an elite, top-10 program playing a true non-conference road game. Teams in college basketball’s upper echelon generally like to stay close to home, and if they decide to venture away from their friendly environs, it is often for an exempted holiday tournament or Champions Classic type of event on a neutral court. This is all well and good and makes for appointment television before conference play begins, but what about a good old-fashioned road game? Those jewels are pretty hard to find these days, and, based on North Carolina’s 0-2 performance in their two true road games this season, it’s not hard to imagine why. Elite programs live off of perception, and perception does not always equal reality. So let’s take a look at the numbers and examine which teams from college basketball’s ruling class actually gets out and plays some road games?

Kansas is one of the few elite programs to consistently play true non-conference road games. (USA Today Images)

Kansas is one of the few elite programs to consistently play true non-conference road games. (USA Today Images)

For the purposes of this inquiry, the elite programs examined are Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State, Syracuse and Connecticut. We can quibble about who else should be on this list, but basically we wanted to choose programs that have had just one coach for the last 10 years (we’re cheating a bit in viewing Kevin Ollie as a continuation of Jim Calhoun, and using only Kentucky’s last seven seasons under John Calipari), and have the national cachet and draw to develop their schedules in any way that they desire.

So here are the numbers for true road games from those eight programs.

Team Total true road games Record
Kansas 19 12-7
Michigan State 14 8-6
Duke 9 5-4
North Carolina 23 12-11
Kentucky 9 3-6
Louisville 13 8-5
Syracuse 9 5-4
UConn 6 5-1


The first thing that jumps out here is how willing Roy Williams (23 games) and Bill Self (19 games) are to consistently play non-conference road games. On the flip side, Kentucky, Duke, Syracuse and Connecticut rarely venture into hostile arenas prior to the new year. But how many of these games are actual challenges? Playing a cupcake on the road still isn’t much of a test, and in the last decade, these eight programs are 29-3 in road games against teams ranking outside of the KenPom top 100. So what about games against teams within the top 100? The table below perhaps explains why we don’t see all that many of these marquee games coming on the underdog’s home floor.

Team Total Record
Kansas 15 8-7
Michigan State 8 2-6
Duke 8 4-4
North Carolina 13 4-9
Kentucky 8 2-6
Louisville 8 3-5
Syracuse 7 4-3
UConn 4 3-1


The only teams that are above .500 in this view are the two that that have played the fewest games, Syracuse and Connecticut. Also, North Carolina has continued a rich recent tradition of losing to good teams in non-conference play on the road, as the Heels have actually lost nine of their last 10 true road games against KenPom top 100 opponents.

The above table illustrates why we don’t see more true road games from the elite programs: They aren’t very good at winning them. Granted, there is some sample bias here because some manufactured marquee matchups come against other great programs (i.e., the annual Kentucky vs. Louisville clash), but the larger trend here is impossible to ignore. We don’t need another table to know that these programs haven’t done nearly as poorly on the road against KenPom top 100 teams within their own conferences. Perhaps the unfamiliarity of a new arena has something to do with it, or perhaps these teams, often laden with more McDonald’s All-Americans than can fit on the court at one time, just takes some time to reach its full potential.

A more cynical theory is that these programs are using their prestige to give themselves easier schedules in order to make themselves appear better. A prime example of this is with Jim Calhoun’s 2007 UConn team (Hasheem Thabeet’s freshman year), which started the season a perfect 11-0 by sweeping a non-conference slate that was played entirely in Storrs. When Big East play started, the Huskies were ranked #9 in the national polls. How’d that season turn out for the Huskies? UCon finished 6-10 in the Big East and won a total of two road games all season long. If the Huskies had ventured outside of the friendly borders of the Nutmeg State prior to conference play, they surely would have been exposed with a couple of losses, so in one view, they prolonged their fate for as long as possible.

The most prestigious basketball programs in the country struggle on the road outside of conference play. So, because they can afford to, they generally make teams come to them or meet them in neutral environments. There are certainly financial factors at play here too, but this tenet remains a basic truth. So hopefully you tuned into last night’s Kansas-San Diego State matchup to enjoy the rarity of an elite program going on the road in non-conference play. Much like their other counterparts sitting on the top line of the pecking order, the Jayhawks don’t travel often, and, last night’s 70-57 victory over San Diego State notwithstanding, they don’t travel all that well either.

William Ezekowitz (30 Posts)

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