Home-court advantage can be tricky

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During the 1990-91 season, UNLV, coming off a national championship the previous spring, drew an average of almost 19,000 fans at its home games. The Rebels were No. 5 in the country in attendance and rolled to a 34-0 record before falling to Duke in the Final Four.

Raucous fans in the Thomas & Mack Center would push the needle on the arena’s decibel-lever meter to rock-concert levels as the Rebels extended leads to 20, 30 or 40 points. UNLV’s margin of victory at the T&M that season was 32.5 points. Quite a home-court advantage, no?

Well, not necessarily. That Rebels team was one of the most talented in college basketball history and probably just that much better than everyone else. Home-court advantage (HCA), it turns out, is rather more difficult to quantify.

Not surprisingly, advanced analytics guru Ken Pomeroy has taken a couple of cracks at it.

Pomeroy, who admits that defining HCA has “been a personal obsession of mine,” tracks the differences between home and road performance in several areas – including points scored, personal fouls, non-steal turnovers and blocks – on his website. He includes even the elevation of each school’s home arena.

But the best home-court teams are not necessarily the best teams.

John Paul Jones Arena, Cameron Indoor Stadium and the McCarthey Athletic Center are home to the top three teams in Pomeroy’s college basketball ratings. But Virginia is 103rd, Duke 105th and Gonzaga 216th in true HCA, according to his numbers.

The average HCA last season amounted to 3.3 points for the home team, a slight uptick in what had been a four-year downward trend. Pomeroy’s numbers say Arkansas has had the biggest HCA this season at 4.5 points. But the Razorbacks aren’t having a particularly noteworthy campaign otherwise. They are 9-4 at home but just 6-7 ATS. Their HCA numbers are being affected by last season’s results that saw the Razorbacks surpass 90 points in 12 different home games.

Bowling Green, at 9-0 ATS, is the best-performing team in the country at home this season. But Pomeroy rates the Falcons’ HCA at a very-average 3.3 points, 142nd best in the nation. The Falcons have beaten the point spread in their home games by an average of 11.2 points. But lately they’ve become a dependable team wherever they play.

Since an ugly 18-point loss (as a 3.5-point favorite) at Cleveland State on Dec. 5, Bowling Green has failed to cover just once – in a 14-point loss at Miami (Ohio) on Jan. 26. Prior to that 11-game stretch, which includes a win over Division II Findlay, the Falcons were just 3-5 ATS.

Home teams have won almost 70 percent of their games this season. But, according to Covers.com, home teams through Sunday’s games were precisely .500 (1,797-1,797) ATS.

Of the top 10 teams in HCA at KenPom.com, only Iowa State ranks in the top 50 ATS at home.

Colorado, No. 2 this season in HCA, scores 12.9 more points per game in its home in the thin air of Boulder, elevation 5,400. That’s the third biggest difference of any team in its past 60 home and road conference games.

While No. 3 Louisiana Tech (300 feet above sea level), No. 4 Iowa State (900 feet) and No. 7 Iowa (700) are not adjacent to any ski slopes, being used to playing at altitude can be a big advantage. The 10 highest-elevation arenas are home to seven of the top 75 teams in HCA.

So, what can be gleaned from all this? Perhaps not a whole lot definitively. But it can be a cautionary tale: Especially as home-court advantage in college basketball appears to be in decline on average, it’s probably a good idea to spend more time looking at other factors.

Thursday

Washington at Arizona: The Huskies hold a three-game lead at the midway point of the Pac-12 schedule. They’re 9-0 in conference play and have won 10 straight overall. Arizona has lost three in a row and four of five. WASHINGTON

Saturday

Kentucky at Mississippi State: The Wildcats dropped their SEC opener at Alabama but are perfect in conference since and have covered four straight on the road. The Bulldogs were 12-1 when the calendar turned to 2019, but they’re 4-4 since conference play. KENTUCKY

Villanova at Marquette: This Big East showdown features the two runaway leaders in the conference. The teams are a combined 17-1 in the Big East; two teams are tied for third at 4-5. The Wildcats haven’t lost since Dec. 15 and has covered five straight. VILLANOVA

New Mexico State at Grand Canyon: Another conference showdown: this one between 7-1 teams atop the WAC. The Aggies have won seven straight but have had some close calls on the road. The Antelopes, meanwhile, are 9-0 at home with eight of those victories coming by double digits. GRAND CANYON

Last week: 1-3

Season: 21-18-1

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About the Author

Ched Whitney

Ched Whitney has been a journalist in Las Vegas since 1994. He worked for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 18 years, where he was the paper’s art director for 12. Since becoming a freelancer in 2012, his work has appeared at ESPN.com, AOL, The Seattle Times and UNLV Magazine, among others. ​

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