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Do student sections change games?

6/1/2011
AP Photo/Gerry Broome

For all our yearly talk of home-court advantage, it's possible we still consistently understate the difficult of winning on the road in college basketball. That difficulty exists. Oh, does it exist. In the thick of a college hoops season, when the individual data points are flying fast and furious, it's easy to forget just how much home-court advantage skews results and, in turn, our perceptions.

But, well, why? Why are most teams so much better at home than on the road? What about the environment changes the stakes? Is it familiarity? Sight lines? The brand of basketball? Raucous chants from the student section?

That last one is most frequently cited; we assume that tough home crowds, led by insane student sections, do more to affect outcomes than any other factor. College basketball coaches typically seem to agree. But is that really the case? And if so, how pronounced are such effects?

Halcyon Hoops' Corey Schmidt did the yeoman's work of teasing out -- or at least attempting to tease out -- just how much impact a student section can have on a team's chances of winning. The answer, in short, is "we don't know." The long answer goes a little something like this: Schmidt compared Big Ten road teams' first- and second-half free throw shooting percentages -- the one area where student sections might have an obvious effect on an in-game outcome -- and came up with inconclusive but ultimately interesting data in the process.

The result is this chart. Once you get past the surprising fact that teams actually shoot free throws better in the second half than the first -- see this TrueHoop post for why, exactly, that may be -- a mostly familiar but occasionally murky picture emerges:

A fan might also question these results, as I have, based on the fact that they suggest Purdue’s Paint Crew has limited impact on free throw shooting. I’ve been to Mackey Arena to see these students in action, and they are among the most unified and massive sections I’ve ever seen. However, it could also be that they simply haven’t mastered the art of effectively impacting a free throw shot. As Wild Bill at Utah State has shown, it sometimes only takes one person.

The rest of the results aren’t as much of a stretch. Illinois and Indiana are known for their large and imposing student sections, and schools hovering around the league-wide average have been able to secure large crowds for big games. Seeing Michigan State just above the average is a bit strange, though I think the Izzone might suffer from a simple lack of sample size (-4.0% in 2010-11, +9.0% in 2009-10). On the bottom end, support at Iowa has waned over the past few seasons, and Penn State has often been the brunt of jokes for its lack of fan support for basketball.

Like Purdue, another apparent outlier is Wisconsin. The Badgers are one of the best home teams in the nation, let alone the Big Ten; they've lost only 11 games in the Kohl Center in 10 seasons under Bo Ryan, and Wisconsin went 16-0 in Madison in 2010-11. And though Wisconsin's student section may not have the national exposure of the Cameron Crazies, they're plenty crazy in their own right.

Of course, as Schmidt writes, his study is far from scientific. Some of it might have to do with student section placement. (Which he helpfully illustrates in the post). Some of it might have to do with small sample size. (Only two years of Statsheet data were available for these purposes.) Some of it might be the building or the basketballs. Some of it might just be random.

Whatever your preferred explanation, bickering over placement will only miss the point. Really, this sort of discussion is just getting started; there are miles to go before anything resembling a conclusive student-section study -- let alone something that can tease out exactly why it's so difficult to win on the road -- is at our doorstep.

In the meantime, student sections of America, begin planning your hijinks now. The world, or at least the world of intelligent college hoops blogging, is tracking your performance, too.