Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Or that charter bus cruising down West End. You didn’t see Roy Williams and the North Carolina basketball team, fresh off its 2009 national championship, sneak into the back door of Memorial Gymnasium and step onto the court against Vanderbilt for a game that never happened.
Wait, it did happen. In fact, Williams told The News & Observer on Nov. 5, 2009, the Commodores provided the Tar Heels with a “slap in the face.”
“We were just ugly. We were yucky,” Williams said.
What was the score? No one will ever know — or at least ever tell.
Official score isn’t kept in these secret scrimmages, workouts the NCAA wants to keep hush-hush. Teams can replace their two exhibition games — usually blowouts against obscure Division II and NAIA clubs — with these closed-door scrimmages against other Division I programs to provide a test a week or two before the season begins. But the school can’t promote the glorified practice. No fans, no media allowed. Some institutions even put security guards at the doors.
“If the conditions were not in place, the practice scrimmage would be no different than a contest that takes place during the regular season,” NCAA associate director of public and media relations Chris Radford told The City Paper. “It provides an opportunity for coaches to assess their teams against outside competition in an environment free from scrutiny and helps teams prepare for upcoming regular
Former Belmont guard Drew Hanlen remembers coach Rick Byrd as a stickler for the rules — even if that meant turning away family.
“Coach Byrd was so strict with rules that even if our parents were in town, you’re just going to have to tell your parents sorry,” Hanlen said. “They’ll have to see you on opening night.”
Byrd and the Bruins took a bus to Chattanooga for a scrimmage last week and will meet Wofford halfway this week, most likely near or in Knoxville at Tennessee’s practice facility or Maryville College.
Belmont chose two scrimmages over an exhibition. Other area schools decided to do one of each. Middle Tennessee State traveled up to defending Ohio Valley Conference champ Murray State last week for a scrimmage. Tennessee State played Lipscomb.
On a national scale, thanks to a list leaked by CBSSports.com, North Carolina played at Georgetown. Xavier went to West Virginia, and Georgia Tech traveled up I-75 to play Tennessee in Chattanooga.
For those longer trips, some teams fly a charter the day before, scrimmage for usually no longer than four hours and fly back that night.
“They are real helpful. I prefer them to exhibition games,” Byrd said. “We play more minutes. We play three halves usually. You’re not allowed to keep the score, so you’re not worried about that part of it. You’re worried about execution and effort. I mean, you add it up when you do the stats off the video. ... It’s really interesting to coach a half that way. There are times when I thought we got beat by 12 and we won by five. It’s really funny to watch a game without a score being on the board.
“It’s the end and you try to make a guess, and you can’t even, sometimes, be close.”
This drove Hanlen nuts.
For the feisty competitor, a scoreless basketball game didn’t sit well.
“As competitors you want to be able to win everything you do,” he said. “For you not to have the ability to look up and see if you are winning or losing is definitely very weird. ... At times, we’re coming over, ‘Hey, what’s the score, what’s the score?’ to our managers under our breath. There was one year against Eastern Kentucky one of the halves we tied. That’s the worst answer. You’d rather lose by one than tie. There’s nothing worse than a tie in anything you do in life.”
Vanderbilt, which hosted Virginia last year and played North Carolina the two previous years, opted for two exhibitions this winter. A young, inexperienced team that lost its top six scorers might benefit and gain confidence from beating up on St. Xavier and Delta State.
Of course, there is one big tangible benefit from exhibitions — money. It makes sense for powerhouses like Kentucky. Throw any five guys into Rupp Arena and as long as the Wildcats are playing, the people will come. People will most definitely come.
Crowds of 21,024 and 20,194 watched Kentucky bludgeon Transylvania — yes that exists — and Morehouse last year.
“I talked to Brad Stevens about scrimmaging Butler. He wanted to do it, but they can make money at the gate by having exhibitions,” Byrd said. “That is normally what precludes the big boys from playing scrimmages. Their [athletic directors] want to open the doors and charge money.”
But behind closed doors, coaches can stop play, step in and provide instruction.
They can work on specific situations, such as in-bounds plays, running a full-court press or penetrating a 2-3 zone defense.
Tennessee State attempted to fine-tune its game last year with a scrimmage against Georgia Tech. Well before the Tigers won 20 games for the first time in more than 30 years, they banged around with the Yellow Jackets in a controlled — and private — atmosphere.
“It was a great experience,” TSU’s first-year head coach Travis Williams, then an assistant, said. “You can huddle. You can call a play. You can set up situations. ... Always helpful when your guys get to play another Division I program.”
Even if it is a well-kept secret. Or not.