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    The invisible hand of home-court advantage

    by Ken Pomeroy on Wednesday, February 12, 2014

    Sometimes I think of home-site advantage as the simplest contribution of analytics. I don’t know when home-site advantage was first discovered or how it was estimated, but at some point, somebody had to do it and it was a major contribution to those interested in sports. I can’t imagine it took very long for people to realize that in any competition, performance is impacted by whether a player or team is at home or not. I have to assume it was known about by the time of the first World Series in 1903.

    Despite home-site advantage being accepted as fact for decades, people, at least in college hoops, have serious trouble mentally accounting for the effect of the home court when evaluating teams. Syracuse is providing us with the most extreme example of this that I can remember.

    It is February 12, 33 days from the ACC championship game, and the Orange have played five true road games and none of them were particularly scary. In theory the most difficult of the bunch was a game against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden, which might not be considered a particularly hostile venue for New York’s College Team. The other road games were against #70 Miami FL, #104 Wake Forest, #151 Boston College and #209 Virginia Tech.

    If you ask people in the know, I guess they would say that Syracuse is the best team in the country? The Orange are #1 in the polls, but I’m never really sure what that means.  I don’t think any writer is free to vote them something other than #1, because none of them are even though Syracuse’s unbeaten record, like Wichita State’s, is clearly schedule-aided.

    But I’m sure some of those voters must think Syracuse is truly the best. It’s weird that people aren’t free to put a team with losses ahead of Syracuse but are allowed to do that with respect to Wichita State. Sure, the Shockers’ schedule has been weaker than the Orange’s. But if you were ranking based on accomplishment, Syracuse and Wichita State have accomplished the most of any team in the land so far. Even against Wichita State’s schedule, going unbeaten is extremely difficult.

    In fact, the best win among the two teams by any objective method was the Shockers’ win at Saint Louis. Really, any proper way you try to assess difficulty will indicate that winning at Saint Louis is tougher than beating Duke at home. It’s not all that close.

    Given everyone’s current rating, Syracuse would have a 65% chance of beating Duke at home and a 52% chance of winning at Saint Louis. You can say I’m overrating the Billikens, but it’s equally likely I’m overrating the Blue Devils. I think I’m doing pretty well with both teams, though. There’s just no way around the idea that winning at Saint Louis is tougher than beating Duke at home. (Truth be told, the game at St. John’s, if you assume full home-court advantage, was about as difficult as the game against Duke.)

    I don’t bring this up to make the case that Wichita State’s schedule has been tougher than Syracuse’s. It hasn’t. But I think if you asked most basketball people, certainly talking heads on TV or people with a poll votes, you’d get something close to unanimity that winning at home against Duke is better than winning at Saint Louis, and again, that’s wrong, and wrong by a lot.

    For some reason, people view home-court advantage and the quality of the opponent separately when evaluating these things. Duke is playing well, and may be one of the favorites to win the NCAA tournament in a few weeks, and prevailing wisdom says a win over a team like that is better than a win over a team like Saint Louis. Almost nobody thinks of it as a comparison of a win over road-Duke versus a win over home-Saint Louis. Though, if you’re serious about evaluating teams, that’s how it should be done. One could blame this fallacy on the RPI which encourages the user to evaluate wins irrespective of location, but everything isn’t the RPI’s fault. I suspect it has more to do with home-court advantage being invisible.

    If you watched a game with the sound turned down and didn’t know which team was at home, it would be nearly impossible to determine which team was benefitting from home-court advantage. While its effects are large over the course of a game, its influence is tiny on a given possession. It’s impossible to see with the naked eye, you might say. Which is why relying solely on the eye test is kind of dumb. Your eyes can’t even see one of the most important factors in the game! So how can you completely trust them to make other judgments?

    But no, this is not a lecture about your eyes. Where was I? Oh yeah, this is a lecture about your opinion of Syracuse. Because the ACC schedule-maker played a cruel trick on them and in a few hours they are about to begin a stretch that includes at least three, and maybe four games that are at least as tough to win as playing Duke at home. They will probably lose one, two, or maybe even three games before the NCAA tournament begins.

    This won’t necessarily be a negative reflection on Syracuse. If you think Syracuse is the best team in the country, these losses will not be inconsistent with that opinion. I suspect the Orange is #1 in the polls right now both because they’ve played well and because the schedule has been friendly. But I also know there are some people that truly think Jim Boeheim’s team is the best in the land. So basically, what I’m saying to the latter group is: Unless you deny the existence of home-court advantage, the best team in the land could, and actually should, lose some of these upcoming games. So stick to your guns over the next month. Perhaps I’m too pessimistic, but I’m guessing that will be impossible for you to do.