This Saturday, two No. 5 seeds, Butler and Michigan State, will kick off Final Four weekend. Butler, the Cinderella out of the Horizon League, is on a 24-game winning streak. Michigan State has beaten the odds as a lower seed, but the Spartans do hail from a major conference and bring the experience of coach Tom Izzo, who has led six teams to the Final Four in the past 12 years.
Given how wild this year’s tournament has been, there’s no reason to believe this game won’t be exciting. But what makes the game all the more interesting is that Butler is virtually playing a home game. Butler University is 20 minutes from Lucas Oil Stadium, the site of the Final Four in Indianapolis, Indiana. Will the home-court advantage be a factor? I thought I’d take a look at past academic studies on home-court advantage in order to figure out what type of edge, if any, the Bulldogs have over the Spartans.
Home-court advantage is a mysterious topic. It’s known to exist, but it’s not well known what actually causes the advantage. The numbers do say that home teams perform better, at least in professional sports. Home teams won 60 percent of NBA games from 1996 to 2009. But questions remain. Is home-court advantage a result of pre-game confidence and nervousness or things like sleep and travel time? Or does home advantage happen during the game when loud crowd noise motivates and intimidates players?
One possibility is that home and away teams differ in physical health, such as sleep time and travel fatigue. The reasoning is that away teams are more fatigued and perform worse accordingly. If this theory is correct, Butler should have an advantage over Michigan State because the Bulldogs will be well rested in familiar settings and will travel less than 30 minutes to the arena.
The physiological reasons, though, just aren’t that convincing. K. Steenland found, using NBA seasons in the 1980s and 90s, that travel time and distance don’t have significant effects on team performance. Butler might have a home advantage, but probably not because the Bulldogs will be more rested from being physically closer to Lucas Oil Stadium than the Spartans.
A second possibility is that pre-game psychological factors related to emotions and moods will have an impact. A pair of studies by J. Carre and N. Neave actually do show that home teams in hockey and soccer have higher testosterone levels, indicating some type of emotional edge for the home team. Butler certainly could benefit from this kind of psychological advantage. In familiar settings with a supportive crowd, the Bulldogs might be more confident than the Spartans.
A third potential cause of home-court advantage is the effect of the crowd. In 1983, D.L. Greer studied Illinois and Kansas State basketball home games and found that after crowd outbursts, home teams got better and away teams got worse. Crowd noise seems to have important effects on game outcomes, and with 17,000 of Butler’s 42,000 graduates, living in Central Indiana, the crowd on Saturday will likely be strongly and loudly in favor of the home-town Bulldogs.
For the most part, the studies just confirm common knowledge. Crowd noise in support of Butler and against Michigan State will probably end up giving the Bulldogs an extra boost. The fact the Butler is playing a pseudo-home game may also give the mid-major squad confidence and an emotional edge.
It’s pretty safe to say Butler is going to get some type of advantage from playing close to home. How large that advantage will be, though, is hard to say.
One source, it seems, thinks the home-court edge will be pretty important. Las Vegas lines have Butler as a 1.5-point favorite.
If Butler fulfills these odds and then manages to pull off another win in the NCAA Championship on Monday, many would consider it to be one of the most noteworthy upsets in tournament history. But in the crazy tournament we’ve had, having a mid-major school like Butler win kind of makes sense. I guess you can say a Butler victory has a homey feeling to it.