March 29, 2015
HOUSTON — The South Regional of the NCAA Tournament is the only one being played in a football stadium.
Is that the reason for such poor shooting in Houston?
The games are being played in NRG Stadium, which is home to the Houston Texans, and the setup, with no walls or bleachers directly behind either basket, challenges players' depth perception. There are black curtains behind each goal, but they are far from the baskets.
"I've never been in a stadium like this and for me, personally, it's different. On the outside looking in I can see how you can feel alone. Everybody's so far away from you and the depth is crazy."
"It's tough being out there on a court where there's so much room behind the basket," said Utah's Brekkott Chapman, whose team shot just 35 percent in a loss to Duke on Friday night. "But it's something that you got to adjust to quickly if you want to succeed in this."
The other regionals are being played at Staples Center, home to the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cleveland Cavaliers play and the Carrier Dome, home to Syracuse University basketball and football games. Even though some football games are played at the Carrier Dome, the setup for the tournament is that of a traditional basketball arena.
"It's an interesting environment," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "It's not a basketball arena. It's the only regional that's played in a venue like this. Everybody else is a normal-sized arena. It's not (just) our issue. It's Duke's issue as well as everybody else. It had a lot more to do with our mindset and turnovers. That probably sealed our fate more than anything."
Duke's Matt Jones, who was 1 for 4 from the field and missed both of his 3-point attempts on Friday, said the setup kind of made him feel like he was on an island.
"You can definitely feel alone up there," he said. "I've never been in a stadium like this and for me, personally, it's different. On the outside looking in I can see how you can feel alone. Everybody's so far away from you and the depth is crazy. It was different, but you have to get used to it real fast."
While Utah shot the worst of any team in this regional on Friday night, the Utes were not the only ones who struggled. Duke shot the best at 44.4 percent, Gonzaga shot 40.3 percent and UCLA 38.8 percent.
Struggles shooting in the venue are nothing new. Entering Friday's game, teams shot a combined 39.8 percent in nine NCAA Tournament games at NRG.
"They put (the court) kind of in the middle, and so those black curtains help," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I was a little bit surprised that all four teams didn't shoot better (Friday) night."
No one wanted to use the venue as an excuse for bad shooting, but it was hard to deny that it changed the level of shooting in these games.
Gonzaga's Kyle Wiltjer, who was 4 of 12 in the Bulldogs' win over UCLA on Friday, said it doesn't do any good to complain about the venue. No. 2 Gonzaga just has to work to do better in Sunday's regional final against top-seeded Duke.
"We're going to continue to get shots up in practice (Saturday), and hopefully, they'll fall in the next game," Wiltjer said.
Duke freshman Justise Winslow was not among those who had problems with the stadium. The Houston native was 8 for 13, including 3 for 4 on 3s, to finish with 21 points Friday night.
"I don't have any complaints about playing in NRG," Winslow said with a smile. "I would love to play here as many games as I can. I don't really know why it seems like teams shoot bad in the stadium. It's something that both teams have to deal with, it's not like one team is shooting on a basket different than the other one ... you can't complain about the stadium or try to make excuses, you got to go out there and make it work."
While many seem to be unhappy about the shooting atmosphere in this regional, there might be a silver lining to it. This year's Final Four is being played at Lucas Oil Stadium, the place the Indianapolis Colts call home, possibly giving the team that advances from Houston a leg up in dealing with a non-traditional basketball setup.
"Exactly," Jones said. "So we like how everything ties in. But we know we can't look ahead because Gonzaga is a really good team."
And the benefit could bleed into next year, too. If any of the teams in this regional end up in the Final Four a year from now, they could have an inside track since the event is in Houston.