No place like home in ACC

Winning on the road in the Atlantic Coast Conference is a daunting task. It is a league where road victories are appraised with the same value as a rare and precious gem, thus magnifying the importance of holding serve on your homecourt.

With the 16-game league schedule split evenly into eight home and away games, the cause-and-effect is amplified in the ACC. Lose in front of the home fans and face the burden of neutralizing the loss in a hostile environment. Fail to protect the home court enough times and suddenly the rest of the conference has passed you by.

"I don't know if it puts more stress," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, whose Tar Heels are winless in two ACC road games this season and lost in triple-overtime to Wake Forest in tip off the conference season. "I think there's always that stress a little bit in the back of your mind, because we've got to win at home,
because it's difficult to win on the road.

"But I'm trying to get the guys to understand we can win anywhere."

If the Heels are going to catch front-running Duke, they better start doing so. At 3-3, UNC is already three games back of the Blue Devils. The two meet for the first time this season in Chapel Hill (Feb. 5). Before then, however, UNC must win where expected on Saturday -- at Clemson.

Which brings up an interesting debate: Just where is the toughest basketball venue in the ACC? Gather a group of ACC fans together from each school, and you'll likely get seven or eight different answers. But be prepared to stand back and watch the fur fly.

While Cameron Indoor and the Dean Dome have the national reps, and the Comcast Center has picked up where Cole left off, pick a gym -- any gym -- and an argument can be made that it doesn't take kindly to visitors.

Take North Carolina State's RBC Center, the newest and most expensive building in the ACC. So far this season, the Wolfpack is undefeated in the shiny 19,722-seat building they share with the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes.

Then there is Wake Forest's Lawrence Joel Coliseum, where the Demon Deacons had built a 24-game winning
streak before seeing it snapped by Georgia Tech, 73-66, on Jan. 20.

And, speaking of the Yellow Jackets, they've won all three ACC home contests so far this season, and have yet to lose this year in Alexander Memorial
Coliseum. Georgia Tech, however, lost at N.C. State and UNC.

"I think our guys have a lot of confidence going on the road. Winning at Wake Forest the other day just reinforces that for us," said
Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt. Tech will attempt to do preserve its perfect ACC home record when Duke (3-0 in ACC road games) arrives Saturday.

"There's a difference. I felt it in the locker room after the N.C. State and the Carolina games. They can put their handle on it," Hewitt
continued. "Last year, I think we were more a little despondent. 'How could we lose that? We had it.' When you have, at least to me, something
that's tangible to work on and improve, then you can answer a lot of questions.

"With that said, are we going to win any more games on the road? I don't know. We've got some great teams in this league. I feel like every
night we go out, regardless of home or away, we have an excellent chance of winning the basketball game."

Except maybe in Durham, N.C. The last ACC team to leave Duke victorious was Maryland in 2002, when the Terps beat the Blue Devils in the regular-season finale. Since then, the Blue Devils have won 19 straight ACC games at home and 35 overall in front of the Cameron Crazies.

But down the road a bit, the other boys in blue also know how to protect their turf. And, when it comes to the conference's toughest venue, Chapel Hill makes a strong case. There's no denying Carolina's record in the Smith Center, the ACC's largest arena (21,572). Even with a hideous 8-20 campaign of two seasons ago, when all but Clemson and Florida State make themselves at home in the Dome, the Tar Heels have won nearly 80 percent of their games since 1980 (146-37).

"I'm hoping we can get a couple of breakthroughs,'' said Williams. "I'm hoping to get them to believe in that, because that's what we've been able to do for the 15 years we were at Kansas. We got them to believe that we could win everywhere.

"That's the mindset we're trying to get to. But in the best leagues in the country, you need to make sure to hold serve at your homecourt. And then try to get some on the road."

On Tobacco Road and beyond, that's easier said than done in the ACC.

Gomes shows big game
If the Big East recognized its most underrated player, no doubt it would be Ryan Gomes. He may, however, turn into the conference's most valuable.

Providence's 6-foot-7, 245-pound junior power forward has led the Friars all but into the NCAA Tournament already, not to mention into a surprising
first-place tie with Pittsburgh. Ranked second in league in scoring (20.3 ppg) and fourth in
rebounding (9.8 ppg), Gomes is putting up the kind of numbers that should
get him some postseason attention, if not nationally then certainly within
the league.

Gomes' crowning moment, though, came in Hartford, Ct., as he capped Providence's perfect 3-0 week by leading it to a convincing 66-56 victory over then-No. 4 Connecticut. Gomes had 26 points and 12 rebounds to help Providence beat a top 10 team for the first time since 1990 (an 87-86 victory over Syracuse).

"I can't tell you how much I like this team," Providence coach Tim Welsh told the Boston Globe. "They are a cerebral bunch, it
makes it easy to coach. Especially when your best player is the leader of that kind of attitude."

It was also triumphant homecoming for the native of Waterbury, Ct., who was an unpolished diamond in the rough at Wilby High Schoo, barely causing UConn recruiters to do a double take. Gomes earned Big East player of the week honors for his efforts against UConn, Villanova and Loyola-Chicago.

"It was a good win for us not just because I'm from Connecticut, but (because) it was for first place in the Big East," Gomes told reporters. "We just came in as if this was just another Big East game that we had to win and we came out and did it."

Around the East

  • Temple's John Chaney is still looking for win No. 2000. The 72-year-old Hall of Fame coach was denied in his bid for the personal milestone when Temple absorbed a stinging 66-65 loss at Massachusetts on Saturday. It was the Minutemen's their first A-10 win and ended a seven-game losing streak. The Owls host St. Bonaventure
    Wednesday night.

    Milestone or not, a Temple could use a win. The Owls (6-9, 1-4) are languishing at the bottom of the Atlantic 10 East Division standings. With No. 700, Chaney will become the 16th coach in NCAA history to record 700 career victories. Chaney would be the fifth active coach
    with 700 wins, joining Lou Henson of New Mexico State, Bob Knight of Texas
    Tech, Eddie Sutton of Oklahoma State and Lute Olson of Arizona.

    Asked about retirement in an interview with the New York Times, Chaney said, "Wherever I go, that's the first thing somebody asks me. 'Coach, how long are you going to be at Temple?' Well, I could leave tomorrow. But I plan to be here as long as I want to stay here, as long as my health is good. I feel comfortable and good about what I do here. I'm not looking forward to retiring. I can't do anything else."

  • Syracuse dropped to No. 22 in the ESPN/USA Today poll (No. 20 AP) after absorbing a 66-45 loss to visiting Pittsburgh, which rebounded (literally and figuratively) from their first loss of the season -- a 68-65 setback at Connecticut. The Orangemen were held to their lowest scoring output in the 24-year history of the Carrier Dome, the lowest under 28-year coach Jim Boeheim, and the lowest since a 71-41 loss to Kansas in 1969. Ouch. "Pittsburgh is a veteran team," Boeheim said. "I thought they were underrated all along. They're just too strong for us right now."

  • Richmond's stunning 69-68 road victory at 10th-ranked Kansas -- on Tony Dobbins' 14-foot jumper with 1.3 seconds left to play -- was the first triumph over a ranked team for the Spiders since defeating seventh-ranked Syracuse, 73-69, in the first round of the 1991 NCAA Tournament. The Spiders, ranked first in the Atlantic 10 in 3-point defense (.272), held the Jayhawks to just 2-for-11 shooting (.182) from behind the arc.

    Michael Vega covers college basketball for The Boston Globe and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at vega@globe.com.