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MISERY ON THE ROAD
Frank Deford
February 28, 1966
Travel is broadening but in basketball it is flattening as well. A few "home advantage" disabilities have been cured—but some surprising new ones keep visiting teams rolling down the road to ruin
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February 28, 1966

Misery On The Road

Travel is broadening but in basketball it is flattening as well. A few "home advantage" disabilities have been cured—but some surprising new ones keep visiting teams rolling down the road to ruin

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THE RECORD IN THE MISSOURI VALLEY

 

TEAM STANDINGS

MVC HOME GAMES

OVERALL HOME GAMES

CINCINNATI

9-3

6-0

12-0

WICHITA STATE

6-4

6-0

11-0

ST. LOUIS

6-5

4-0

9-1

BRADLEY

6-5

4-1

12-1

DRAKE

6-5

4-3

7-5

LOUISVILLE

6-6

4-1

10-1

TULSA

5-5

4-1

8-2

NORTH TEXAS

0-11

0-6

3-7

   

32-12

72-17

Team balance has led to the remarkable number of home victories. Wichita State, still in contention for the conference title, is given little chance to win because its last three games are on the road.

Explaining the home-court advantage in basketball is, of course, simple enough. The litany of reasons has been chanted for years until every visiting coach—and they all visit sooner or later—can relate them at the drop of a game: 1) visiting teams are subjected to the abuse of Cro-Magnon fans in tiny, cramped, dim gyms; 2) the officials are all "homers"; and 3) the home team uses all the little tricks, like cutting off the heat in the guest locker room, to make the visitors miserable. How can any coach be expected to win on the road with conditions like this prevailing? How indeed?

Well, the truth is—taking those difficulties in order—that huge, clean field houses are springing up like Levittowns to replace the bandbox gyms; today's officials travel well out of their own Zip Code zones and are chosen largely by neutral commissioners, not the coaches; and, finally, conference and NCAA ethics committees have all but erased home-gamesmanship. So the home-court advantage is a myth—right?

Wrong. This year 70% of college basketball games have been won by the home team (see chart on page 20). The advantage is as significant as it ever has been, possibly more so in certain areas. Last week, for example, as conference races entered their critical phases, 14 games were played in the Missouri Valley and the AAWU. Twelve were won by the home team. Defending national champion UCLA has won all its home games and lost seven on the road. Wichita has won all its Valley games at home and lost all the others. All three Kansas losses and three of St. Joseph's four were road games. "Anytime you win on the road it's an upset," says Marquette's Al McGuire.

A few specific home-and-home series provide dramatic illustration of the problem:

UCLA (home) 79, Oregon State 35
Oregon State (home) 66, UCLA 51
Difference: 59 points

Oklahoma City (home) 138, TCU 114
TCU (home) 103, Oklahoma City 93
Difference: 34 points

Evansville (home) 104, Butler 68
Butler (home) 110, Evansville 83
Difference: 63 points

According to Jimmie (The Greek) Snyder, who studies "the baskets" from his command post in Las Vegas (and who may be conservative nevertheless), every college team is worth at least five additional points when it plays at home; when the home team is Kentucky, Evansville, Brig-ham Young, Penn State or DePaul, the edge moves into double figures. Basketball teams remain, as Euripides said of women, "Good for everything at home, but abroad good for nothing." And the question is why. Why—especially in view of the improvements noted in gyms, officiating and general behavior?

A clue to one answer is to be found in the National Basketball Association this year. Last season the NBA's home winning percentage was 58; this year it is 71. One reason for this remarkable rise is the performance of the Boston Celtics. They are winning at home (23-3) about as well as ever, but they are no longer ruining the home records of the other clubs. Their record on the road is 13-17. For one reason or another, the Celtics have moved down to the level of the rest of the NBA; except for Detroit, there is better balance all around the league. And the same is true for college basketball.

All over the country college teams are getting better and better and, with a few exceptions, approaching parity. The result is well put by Coach Gary Thompson of Wichita: "Since any two teams are likely to be extremely even, those factors that, taken together, produce a home-court edge will usually determine the outcome of the game. I know that's true in the Missouri Valley, where even our last-place team, North Texas, can hold a team like St. Louis to a two-point margin on the North Texas court. But it isn't limited to the Valley. Six or seven years ago you could look down your schedule at the start of the season and pick half a dozen games you could count on winning. This year I didn't see a single one I could count on, particularly on the road. Today, if each team plays its average game, the home team usually will win. Coaches understand this. The public doesn't. Soon after we beat Michigan at home in December, Butler also beat Michigan, also at home. Fans were shocked. Coaches weren't. They knew Butler had a good, sound team capable of beating anyone at home."

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