How Big is Home Court Advantage in College Hoops?
by Trevor Whenham - 02/08/2008
A couple of weeks ago I took a look at the home court advantage in the NBA, so it only makes sense that we do the same for college basketball. Unfortunately, this is a much more difficult task. There are so many teams and so many factors involved that analyzing the college home court advantage is an imprecise science at best.
The first thing we can be absolutely certain of is that there is indeed a very significant home court advantage. All you need to do to prove it is look at unbeaten teams. Memphis is the only unbeaten team in the country home and away, yet there are 30 teams that have yet to lose at home. One of those teams, Presbyterian, shows just how much easier it can be to win at home than on the road - they are 4-0 at home, and 0-22 away. They aren't the only team with a strangely unbalanced record, though - 11 of the 30 teams are below .500 on the road. You'd think that a team that is undefeated at home would have the ability to cover a lot of spreads, yet 14 of the 30 teams have lost money ATS over the course of the season. What that all means is that you don't necessarily have to be a particularly good team in order to win a lot at home.
Finding a way to quantify the home court advantage is very difficult for college basketball. Sonny Moore, a provider of power ratings for almost 35 years, fixes the home court advantage at 4.5 points. That means that if two perfectly matched teams were to play the home team would be expected to win by 4.5 points, on average. If they played on a neutral court the expectation would be for a tie. Jeff Sagarin, who works with USA Today among other sources, adjusts his home court advantage over the course of the season, but currently has it set at 3.94 points.
There are a couple of problems with these numbers that are unique to college basketball. First, with over 300 teams to deal with, any average number is going to vary wildly from the biggest and smallest home court advantages. If you rely blindly on the average then you could be in a position where you are using a number that is much bigger or smaller than you should really be using, and that could make a line that actually has a lot of value in it look too tight to play, or vice versa. By using the average you could be giving up a big edge. The uneven schedule in non-conference play also adversely affects the quality of any home court advantage number that is constantly adjusted. As a general rule better teams play more non-conference home games, because they are more likely to play a bad team if they can play them at home. Those better teams also likely have a better home court, so the impact of the home court could look bigger in November than it actually is in January once conference play and a balanced schedule starts.
The biggest problem by far, though, is that the size and significance of the home court advantage can vary significantly from team to team based on so many factors:
-The size and intensity of the average crowd - is the building always sold out, or are there more cobwebs than people in the stands?
-The configuration of the building - some college arenas are built with unique designs that put the fans practically right on the court, while others aren't built to create an intimidating crowd presence.
-The student's activity level - some schools have student sections that are out of control, while others resemble a library.
-The popularity of the opponent - a home team will have less of a home court advantage if their opponent is a major national program because a lot of people will come to the game to see the visitors in person.
-Age and experience of the visitors - any court will have more of an impact on a young, inexperienced team that hasn't played on the court before than it will on a team made up largely of seniors who have seen it all already.
-Travel - for some teams the home court advantage can come in part because it is such a struggle for the opponent to get to them. If a team isn't used to onerous travel then a game in an isolated location can give the home team an extra edge.
As you can see, and as you have probably experienced for yourself, the home court advantage can create real headaches for college basketball handicappers. It can create all sorts of problems and cause all kinds of mistakes. One of the common ones is for a handicapper to overcompensate or undercompensate for the home court advantage because of a special knowledge of a particular venue, or the total lack of knowledge of one. Mistakes can also be made when a handicapper doesn't account for a factor that will affect the advantage compared to what it would normally be. Examples would include if a team is playing in a major arena in town instead of at their campus gym, if a school holiday will negatively impact attendance, or if an unexpected sellout will create a buzz in an otherwise quiet stadium. The latter happened in Michigan a couple of weeks ago. The Wolverines are struggling on the court and at the gate, but the building was packed when a superstar high school quarterback was at the game as part of an official visit to the school. That would have likely given the Wolverines more of a boost than playing at home normally does, or at least it would have if they weren't such a terrible team.
What does this all mean for your handicapping? Home court advantage is a very circumstantial problem. If you want a general rule, though, then try this - handicap all games as if they were played on neutral courts. There are so many available games every week that you can usually find a few where your perceived edge is so big that it doesn't matter how big the home court advantage is. Looking at it that way won't solve all of your problems, but it will at least force you to think outside of the home court advantage traps that you can easily fall into.