College Tournament Handicapping
© Rob Crowne & Assoc., March 12, 2010

 Successfully handicapping the NCAA Conference Playoffs and the NCAA Tournament requires an awareness of the special factors the game location presents.  The supposedly neutral sites are not necessarily neutral.

To analyze any advantage that may lie in the location of the game, you must fully understand the factors that create a home court advantage.  What is generally referred to as the home court edge is actually comprised of two equal parts - the advantage to the home team of being home, and the disadvantage to the road team of playing on the road.  Some of the home team edge may come from the physical court itself.  In basketball, the dimensions of the arena, acoustics, sight lines, bounce in the floorboards, tightness of the baskets, and proximity of the crowd to the players, and amenities in the locker room can all play a part in providing an edge to the home team.  The factors don't end with the physical court, however.  Here are the home edge factors and road disadvantage factors that may come from the geographical location of the game, and will exist independent of the court on which the game is played.


1        The crowd

The effect of the crowd cannot be underestimated.  The closer a game is to the campus of a team, the larger the fan base can be expected to be for that team.   Teams playing a short drive from their campus will have a much larger contingent of fans than a team that traveled across the country for a game.  It is a demonstrable fact that tournament teams playing in their home state have a higher tournament win-rate than teams from other states. 

State lines, however, are not always a good indicator.  In some cases, a game may be played sufficiently close to one team's campus to create a natural fan base even though the game is being played in a different state.  For example, in the Atlantic 10 Conference, the 2009 Season Tournament is being played in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  Even though Atlantic City is in a different State, Philadelphia, PA is so close that a large percentage of the hotel and casino workers in Atlantic City commute from residences in Philadelphia.  Temple, located in Philadelphia, is likely to have a larger attendance of fans than a team that is playing in its home state, but on a court that is 400 miles from the campus. 

     2.  Friends and Family

Having personal friends and family at the game can provide a great deal of incentive.  The advantage of friends in the crowd is a function of the distance of the court from the campus, not the physical court itself.

     3.  Travel Time

Anybody who has ever taken a long trip by bus knows how uncomfortable and exhausting it is.  After sitting in a bus or an airplane for hours your legs get cramped.  When you arrive your legs feel wobbly.  You are not ready to walk let alone play basketball.  This problem is compounded by the fact that buses and planes are not designed for very tall people with very long legs.  Basketball players spend hours with their legs in tight, uncomfortable quarters.  When they stand, they cannot stand up straight without hitting their heads.  A trip that is difficult and uncomfortable for an average size person, is four times worse for a basketball player.

On Saturday, March 13, 2010, Tennessee is playing in its home state. Nevertheless, it is a solid 3+ hour bus ride to Nashville, where the game is being played.  Tennessee will either need to travel 3-4 hours on the day of the game, or stay in a hotel with all the disadvantages of any road team.  Thus, the only advantage that the location will give  to Tennessee over their semi-final opponent, Kentucky is that the crowd is more likely to root for a Tennessee team.  Vanderbilt, on the other hand, will have every home advantage available at the Sommet Center.  If Vanderbilt and Tennessee  should happen to meet in the Championship Game, Vanderbilt should be considered the home team, and Tennessee should be considered the visitor.  .


  1. Physical Effects of Travel

 If you have ever experienced irregular bowel movements, excess fatigue,  or insomnia during the first few days of a vacation trip, you understand the effect that sleeping I a different place, eating different food, and in some cases being in a different time zone can have on your body.  Not sleeping in your bed, not eating your usual food, not eating on your normal schedule, and not sleeping and waking on your normal schedule all have negative effects on a road team. 

     2.  Practice Schedules

The road team must share the available court time, locker space and meeting space  with all the other road teams in the tournament.  Scheduled practices may be inconvenient, or too short, and lockers may be crowded and uncomfortable.  A player who wants extra practice time at the free throw line, may not be able to get it.  Compare that to the situation for a team with a campus only a half hour away from the tournament site.  They can practice in their usual campus gym at their usual times and for as long as they desire.

     3.  Distractions

Being away from home can create a number of distractions.  In some locations, such as Las Vegas, Hawaii, or Miami, just walking to dinner can present distractions.  Some teams lack the discipline to perform well in locations in which they would rather be taking spring break.

Of course, all the advantages of the home fans and short travel time enjoyed by the local team are equal and opposite disadvantages for teams that are attending from distant campuses.

Often the lines are set based on the public perception that the game is being played on a neutral court.  Mapping distances between the campuses and the tournament arena, and adding or subtracting points for local advantages and disadvantages can provide a winning edge over the line in many games.  

I discussed handicapping for a neutral court in a blog article last year entitled, "March Madness Statistical Handicapping."