[The Alumni Club is our weekly glance into the weird & wonderful world of college sports.]
This week college basketball had something of a religious experience. How else to explain the sudden, unequivocal defeat of all four remaining unbeaten teams in the span of five days but as the stirring of some ancient, undefeated-team-hating-deity? Like a cousin of the similarly college-sports-specific AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back-Hating God), the vengeful entity, who I personally picture as a mix between Tom Crean and this guy, made short order of Wyoming, Arizona, Duke, and Michigan. To bring it back to the secular world for a second, what did those three elite teams (sorry, Wyoming) share in defeat? They all stumbled away from home.
All three teams had been tested already this year, and all had pulled off impressive wins. Arizona beat Florida and San Diego State. Michigan beat Pitt, Kansas State, and NC State. Most impressive of all, Duke dispatched Ohio State, Louisville, and Kentucky. But every single one of those games was either played at a neutral location or on the undefeated team’s home floor. I used to be skeptical of commentators who’d talk about the effect of home court advantage, but it’s hard to deny the results that so often swing that way in college basketball.
Maybe my doubt stemmed from growing up in a football town. My house was literally down the street from Michigan Stadium, close enough that strains of “The Victors” and assorted cheers would drift through our window most any autumn weekend. For those who don’t know, the stadium sits on the corner of a street called… Stadium Blvd: a street also shared by Crisler Arena, the home of Michigan basketball. Literally dwarfed by the home of the bigger-earning, almost-always-better football program, Crisler and the basketball team have long been considered something of a younger sibling.
Having languished under NCAA sanctions and underwhelming rosters since the Fab Five era, the team has struggled to draw big crowds — even against premiere teams the area was rarely packed. I went to a handful of games as a kid, and not only were tickets cheap, but attendance was often sparse enough that you could pick a much better seat than the one you were assigned. The student section, dubbed the “Maize Rage” was intimidating only in comparison to the passively seated townies. But in the last two seasons, extensive and much-needed renovations have transformed Crisler into a destination for fans, and the team has obliged them, going 26-1 at home since the beginning of last season.
The curious thing about home court advantage in basketball is the lack of a tangible edge. Baseball teams get last at-bat at home, while hockey home teams get the final line change. Even in football, there’s the potential for a loud and raucous crows to mess with an opponent’s snap count. In basketball, it’s almost purely about the abundance of noise and energy intimidating those who dare enter. Look at the energy level of Duke’s student section, the “Cameron Crazies,” or Michigan State’s “Izzone.” Their proximity to the court and potential decibles create an atmosphere that’s fun to watch from the comfort of our homes, but to play in must be anxiety-driven. Watching both Duke and Michigan claw away in the arenas of N.C. State and Ohio State this weekend, it was difficult to shake the impression that both teams were in an uphill battle.
In a 15-year (1952-1966) study of five college basketball teams, Barry Schwartz and Stephen Barsky found that, when playing before a home crowd, teams took more shots, scored more field goals, and grabbed more rebounds. The ability to feed off of fans’ energy is especially valuable when those fans are endlessly-energetic 20-year-olds that are probably both semi-intoxicated and ready to release a week’s worth of pent-up energy. When you hit a basket and the crowd erupts, it can only help your confidence.
Sometimes it feels like the discussion of home court advantage centers completely around teams like Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky. Granted, those teams rarely lose at home but it’s important to remember — those teams rarely lose anywhere. In a recent study, basketball guru Ken Pomeroy took results back to the 1999-2000 season, and compared scores of home-and-home series. The statistical difference gave him a surprising list of the teams who showed the largest improvement in their home arena. Here was the top ten:
1. Utah Valley
5. Virginia Tech
10. Mississippi State
Many of the home courts that rank high are either isolated from other teams in the conference (like Hawaii, Denver, and Utah Valley) and/or at high altitudes (like Denver and Utah Valley). While interesting, Pomeroy’s method is really only the flipside to the problem with only focusing on teams like Kansas who perform well anywhere — it might equally measure not how good teams are at home, but how bad they are on the road.
Some people argue that fans can’t have that much effect on the opposing players. It’s more about the inherent comfort of the home players being someplace familiar. I happen to think that one of the biggest aspects of home court advantage does have to do with the crowd, but it isn’t even their influence on the players. It’s their influence on the referees.
People don’t usually like to directly draw a line between the refs and home crowds for fear of coming off as crybabies or complainers. But “home cooking” — the sway on those refs to, intentionally or not, call a game in favor of the home team — seems to actually exist in the game today. In the book, Scorecasting, by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, the authors attempt to prove official bias by conducting an experiment. They first had a group of officials view a televised game with crowd noise and call the fouls as they saw them. They then had comparable officials do the same on a screen with no noise whatsoever. The former group with the crowd noise included called more fouls on the visitors, especially during crunch time. Those without crowd noise showed no true discrepancy.
Of course, officials only have so much control over the game’s outcome, and it’s ultimately up to the players to get the job done. But in a game that so often comes down to tenths of a second, or a forgiving bounce on a rim, teams will take any advantage they can get. So it only behooves you to rouse up the fans in order to create that crazy atmosphere. If you can dominate at home, that’s more than half your schedule. Win all, or even most of those games and your ticket to the tournament is basically punched.
With the continued emergence of fun crowd traditions — the funny face signs waved for an opposition’s free throw attempts, Taylor University’s Silent Night game, probably many others I don’t even know about — the sport has never seemed so alive. As great as the NCAA tournament is, the neutral site half-full arenas always remind you that something’s missing. It’s the rabid fans who form the lifeblood of the game, give it that raw and vital energy that reminds you — even if you’re playing the #1 team in the nation, you can still be the favorite. Hell, you might even win.