GREENSBORO — They won their first game in front of 8,131 at the Greensboro Coliseum, the biggest crowd ever at a UNCG home opener.
Now the Spartans (1-0) head to Lawrence to play in front of twice that many people when UNCG plays No. 3 Kansas (0-1) in the Jayhawks’ home opener at 16,300-seat Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
Tip-off time is 9 p.m. Friday. And it can’t come soon enough for UNCG.
“Of course we’re excited,” Spartans senior James Dickey said. “It’s Kansas, one of the blue bloods, one of the most historic places in the world in terms of basketball. It’s definitely going to be a fun game for us, and our juices will be flowing for this one.”
Kansas starts its 121st season of college basketball No. 2 on the NCAA’s all-time wins list with 2,217 victories. Only Kentucky (2,238) has won more games than the Jayhawks, and UNCG played at Rupp Arena last December.
“I don’t think we’re intimidated at all,” UNCG junior Isaiah Miller said. “We’ve played teams like this before. We played at Kentucky. We won at N.C. State. We’ve played all different kinds of schools since I’ve been here. We can handle whatever comes at us.”
Indeed, UNCG has sought to schedule early-season road games against Power Five teams every year. The Spartans have made trips to Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, N.C. State, Indiana and LSU over the last five years.
And now Kansas.
“One of the reasons we scheduled the game was purely selfish,” UNCG coach Wes Miller said. “I wanted to see Allen Fieldhouse. I’ve heard for years it’s one of the best environments in college basketball, and I’ve never been there. So, No. 1, I’m a fan of the game, too, and I want that experience. And, No. 2, I want our kids to get those kinds of experiences.
“You’re going to play one of the historic programs in college basketball, in one of the great places to play college basketball.”
Phog Allen Fieldhouse opened in 1955, and the Jayhawks have been dominant in their building. They’ve lost just 13 home games in the last 16 seasons under coach Bill Self.
Kansas has won 21 home games in a row, the fourth-longest active streak in Division I. The Jayhawks are 13-0 all-time against Southern Conference opponents. And they’ve won 46 consecutive home openers starting with the 1973-74 season.
“It’s the same idea as playing at Kentucky last year,” Wes Miller said. “We try to play the elite programs in college basketball on the road, whether it’s at Virginia or at Kentucky or at Carolina or, now, at Kansas. That’s been a goal of what we do in scheduling. …
“Part of it is we get to really find out where we are. It’s a really good test early on to see where we’re at. Look, we know it’s humongous task. But it’ll be good for our program, no matter what the outcome is.”
It’s a challenge UNCG’s veterans look forward to. Isaiah Miller scored 12 points in The G’s 78-61 loss at Kentucky last December.
“I love games like this,” Isaiah Miller said. “It brings the potential out of everyone you play with. It shows your talent and your toughness. … It’s everyone’s dream to play in a place like (Allen Fieldhouse), where there’s 16,000 people screaming and you can barely hear. You have to talk your lungs out, especially on defense. But it’s fun, and it should be fun to watch.”
If UNCG has an advantage over Kansas, it’s experience. The Spartans start three seniors and a junior who have all played in NIT and NCAA Tournament games.
The seniors have played at the Carrier Dome, at Rupp Arena, at John Paul Jones Arena, at the Dean Smith Center, as well as cozy, loud SoCon gyms.
“Playing in big games helps,” Dickey said. “Some of us have played in the NCAA Tournament, and we played the Kentucky game last year. That definitely helps. And just being an experienced college basketball player helps the most. Some of us have been here three or four years now, and experience against teams in our conference helps. Take Wofford; they don’t have a quote-unquote ‘big name’ but they’re a really, really good team and going there is a hard place to play.”
So which place away from Greensboro was the most fun?
“You’re gonna think I’m crazy,” he said, “but the coolest place we’ve played is Boise. It’s the NCAA Tournament, and it doesn’t matter where you play, the tournament is the tournament, and that’s the coolest place to play.”