Basketball has become a tweeter's game.
For a plethora of reasons — the ubiquity of its star players, a pace that inspires constant reaction and discussion, an inclination toward highlight plays and GIF-worthy moments — the National Basketball Association was the most tweeted-about sports league in 2018, leading the Washington Post to describe NBA Twitter as “a sports bar that doesn’t close, a barbershop with unlimited seating, a family cookout where the NBA stars show up to hang.”
NBA Twitter is, for lack of a better term, a thing. But what about Tar Heel Twitter?
North Carolina men’s basketball is one of the few college teams in the country that can boast a veritable and vibrant community of amateur pundits, hashtaggers and meme creators. This season notwithstanding, the Tar Heels are one of the most successful programs in the history of the sport; with that success comes a certain level of online fandom and — it’s fair to say — fanaticism.
“You have to be a certain kind of Carolina fan to want to dive deep into the numbers like that,” says Adrian Atkinson, founder of The Carolina Charting Project and The Secondary Break newsletter. “But there’s a pretty big group of people that do.”
Atkinson is talking about his approach to UNC basketball, which involves advanced analytics sometimes found only in the ranks of the NBA and sometimes found virtually nowhere else.
After an initial live watch of any given game, Atkinson, a data scientist by day, spends two to three hours re-watching and charting things like deflections and offensive efficiency on different offensive sets. He then spends another hour or two on data entry and charting before dropping relevant information to his Twitter followers, of which there are more than 5,000.
He’s been charting games for more than 15 years, gradually adding more things to keep track of and more ways to frame everything from the intricacies of Roy Williams’ half-court sets to the Tar Heels’ recent loss to Clemson.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to analyze the game to Adrian’s detail,” said Chris Gallo, who’s collaborated with Atkinson on UNC basketball projects in the past. “It’s unparalleled.”
The impetus behind creating the account? Just a passion for UNC basketball — a sentiment shared by everyone interviewed for this story.
“It’s never really been my goal to gain a bunch of followers,” Gallo said. “I’m kind of just doing this for myself — selfishly — and also just sharing some things.”
Gallo is one part of the Big Three of UNC basketball analytics, along with Atkinson and Bryan Ives (@awaytoworthy), an ESPN researcher-turned-producer who still makes time to tweet about UNC football, basketball and the ACC at large.
As a kid, Ives — a Hornets fan — would check the box scores in the paper, comparing Glen Rice’s nightly output with Michael Jordan (Rice finished third in points per game in 1996-97 behind Jordan and Karl Malone). While he says he never thought to pursue a career in sports analytics — “It just sort of found me” — he always liked numbers, an approach that shines through in his posts.
That Big Three helps make UNC basketball Twitter one of the most informed communities in college sports. But, it doesn’t exactly help fans cope with a disappointing 8-8 campaign, one that has seen the Tar Heels drop four straight ACC games with their NCAA Tournament chances now seriously up in the air.
“They’re not good,” Ives deadpans. “They’re not just like, ‘Oh, we’re underachieving.’ They’re a bad basketball team.”
That’s why there are accounts like UNC Humor, run by Michael Hardison, to soften the blow. As a UNC undergraduate student, Hardison started a Facebook meme page with a friend. Soon, he made the move to Twitter, where he’s amassed more than 26,000 followers.
Hardison has since pivoted to content focused on sports commentary and conversation, and sees his account as a “great way to stay connected with the community.” Recently, that’s meant a lot of commiserating about a season that has tested the limits of Murphy’s Law. Everything that can go wrong — an offense that has yet to gel, injuries to nearly every contributor at various points — has.
“After the way that this season has gone so far, I’ve decided to transition my account from analysis to just memes,” John Bauman, a DTH alum whose content has landed him more than a thousand followers, said soberly.
Still, there are silver linings, even for the most painfully invested fans.
“We’re very fortunate to tout (this season) as our worst year of the decade,” Hardison said. “UNC basketball is one of the top programs in the country, and I think years like this happen … we don’t really realize how good we have it.”
Levels of optimism might vary — most are dubious of the Tar Heels’ March Madness odds — but levels of involvement do not. It begs the question: what other college programs can claim a Twitter fandom that matches UNC’s?
Clemson football Twitter got a mention, as did Virginia, Duke, Kansas and Kentucky basketball. And Gallo gave a shout out to the growing infrastructure around Ivy League hoops, with Yale and Harvard grads angling to become the Billy Beane of basketball.
“If you read some of their stuff,” Gallo said, “it’s kinda nuts.”
But when it comes to a diversity of voices and perspectives — many of which operate outside of a traditional media context — there seems to be a consensus: the UNC hoops community is in pole position.
“There’s a pretty good mix,” Atkinson said. “People like to consume basketball in different ways. Not everyone wants to dig deep into the numbers like I do, or break down X’s and O’s. But Carolina’s got a good mix of those, and then just super-fans who like watching the games and cheering.”
“I don’t think there’s many other college programs that have such an intense following,” Bauman agreed. “Some SB Nation team accounts sort of serve as the de facto gathering place for the fans, but it feels like UNC has so many different accounts and they all have different purposes and share different types of things.
“It’s a really cool little ecosystem to be a part of.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.