For Heels, quiet night at dome Even No. 1 Duke unlikely to stir crowd


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- They wouldn't dare put a decibel gauge inside the Smith Center. In what is certainly the Atlantic Coast Conference's quietest home court, the gauge might not even register most nights.

Blame it on the sheer expanse of the 21,572-seat arena. Blame it on many of those inhabiting the place, especially the high rollers who paid on the average of $14,000 to sit courtside and watch the North Carolina basketball team, uh, perform.

"A cheese-and-wine crowd," Florida State guard Sam Cassell called it after the Seminoles shocked the Tar Heels, 86-74, in their first visit here, Dec. 15.

"It's a Broadway theater-type crowd," said Towson State coach Terry Truax, whose undermanned Tigers hung close before losing there, 98-88, this season.

The loss to Florida State was the 10th overall at the "Dean Dome" since North Carolina opened it with a 95-92 win over Duke six years ago. And though it wasn't the biggest upset -- Maryland's 77-72 overtime win over the then-No. 1 Tar Heels later in the 1985-86 season probably tops the list -- it was another piece of evidence as to the lack of the Tar Heels' home-court edge.

Even at its loudest, which it certainly will be for tonight's game at 9 against top-ranked Duke, North Carolina's $33.8 million monument to its legendary coach is not a difficult place in which to play. And it's a far cry -- or in this case, shout -- from the Tar Heels' former home, Carmichael Auditorium.

"Carmichael was the loudest place I ever played in," said Virginia coach Jeff Jones, the Cavaliers' point guard on the Ralph Sampson-led teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s. "You couldn't hear a thing. It was as if the building was shaking."

In the 20 years North Carolina played at cozy Carmichael, during which its capacity ranged from 8,000 to 10,000, the Tar Heels were a dominant 169-20. Certainly, the teams had a great deal to do with it, but so did the atmosphere.

Students sat behind the team benches and the baskets, trying to disrupt the opposition during timeouts and free throws. A low roof kept the sound in, and Smith was accused of keeping the heat turned up.

"I thought that Carmichael was a very tough to play at, because it felt like they [the fans] were right on top of you," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who played there for the Terrapins when the arena opened during the 1965-66 season. "It would get very hot in there, but it was a great college crowd atmosphere."

At the Smith Center, where North Carolina is 72-10, the students have been pushed to the far reaches by some 15,000 season-ticket holders -- a figure that exceeds the seating capacity at any other ACC arena -- the temperature is a comfortable 72 degrees and the "Blue Heaven" color scheme makes it more serene than insane. Those who helped foot the bill are courtside, in the plush theater seats. They often act as if they're watching ballet, not basketball.

"Somehow, our people have gotten a bad rap," said Smith. "I don't think 12 rows of students are going to make that much of a difference. I do think we have a home-court advantage."

It might be a great place to watch a game, but that's all most of the fans ever do. In his first trip to the Dean Dome as Maryland coach two seasons ago, Williams picked up a victory. Though his Terps were routed there by 32 last season and lost by 20 last month, the losses had more to do with the disparity in talent than with an intimidating crowd.

"The thing with the Dean Dome, it puts people farther away from the action," said Williams. "It's a very comfortable place to watch a game, but it's certainly different than the pit-type atmosphere of Carmichael."

Or just about any other ACC arena. While Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium could be in a crass of its own, just about every building in the league is louder.

Not that the Smith Center is without its distractions. Take the band, for instance, which plays the school's fight song ad nauseam.

"The band scared me to death," said Duke's Bobby Hurley after his first trip to the Smith Center. "I know it's always loud for our games."

Loud or not, it won't be a shock if Duke wins tonight, considering the Blue Devils' success here. After losing in its first two appearances, including the inaugural game six years ago, Duke has won three of the past four on North Carolina's court.

"Of those 10 losses, at least half probably have been a result of not having the home-court advantage," said Truax, who was a graduate assistant under Smith in 1971-72. "Before our game this year, I was standing with Coach Smith in front of our bench and the people were starting to come in. Coach Smith alluded to the fact, almost embarrassingly, that there would be little or no home-court advantage because the crowd won't be into the game unless it's Duke or another top ACC opponent. But it's a beautiful building."

The Dean Dome might be state of the art, but its fans are in another state. Call it suspended animation.


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