The notion that home teams in all sports need to “bring their own energy” has quickly become an overused expression in the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021.
But has the lack of a home crowd been a factor thus far in the Big Ten?
IU basketball has certainly struggled at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, losing to middling or worse league foes Northwestern, Purdue and Rutgers on their home court. Just nine games into the league slate, the Hoosiers have already matched their 2019-20 Big Ten home loss total, and the three losses last season included eventual league champions Wisconsin and Maryland.
Indiana’s struggles on the Branch McCracken Court have certainly been on the mind of coach Archie Miller.
“If we can start to find a way to be better at home it would really help. I can tell you that much right now,” Miller said earlier this week on his radio show. “The home venue has been difficult for us. We haven’t played well there.”
Indiana is 2-3 at home in league play this season and 2-2 on the road including a win at then No. 4 Iowa. Even in its two away losses the Hoosiers were in many ways playing above expectations in tight setbacks at Illinois and Wisconsin.
The crowd inside Assembly Hall has always been thought of as a major contributing factor that has led to Indiana’s home court success. IU has completed nine perfect seasons in the building, and even in down years the venue has presented a major challenge for visiting teams. But with no home crowd to push them along and intimidate opponents, this year’s edition of the IU basketball has dug a deep hole in each of its three home losses that it couldn’t work its way out of.
“I’m not sure if the guys are thinking the doors are going to open at halftime and 17,000 people are going to flood in and save them, but that’s not happening right now,” Miller said.
There is no doubt that the atmosphere inside all of the Big Ten arenas is non-existent this year. It varies a bit from state to state. Literally no one attends games in Illinois, while a smattering of family members do their best to be heard in Bloomington and most other locations.
But wherever the game is held, the new normal includes awkward artificial crowd noise, dueling bench mobs, screaming coaches, and an energy level that would make the hosts of AAU events blush.
When you add it all up you get an expected result. The rate of success for Big Ten home teams has dropped by more than ten percentage points roughly halfway through the 2020-21 league schedule when compared to last season.
The rate of home court success is likely overstated. Teams widely regarded as the league’s best — Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin — have already played a combined 21 home games against just 14 road games. Once those teams spend more time on the road, expect the home success rate to drop further, and not far from a coin toss.
The 2019-20 season was a bit of an outlier as it relates to the difficulty of winning on the road. The road success rate has been .367, .375, .390, .368, and .349 during the 2018-19 through 2014-15 seasons, respectively. But the 2019-20 season is probably the best comparison to the current year as the floor of the league has risen considerably, with former doormats like Rutgers and Penn State presenting legitimate challenges. There truly are no days off in the Big Ten.
Indiana is one of a handful of teams that is notably worse at home this year. Maryland is the biggest outlier, following up a 9-1 2019-20 season with an 0-3 start to the current campaign. Rutgers is also off to a much worse start at home after nearly running the table at the RAC last season.
On the other end of the spectrum, Iowa couldn’t beat anyone on the road last year but has found the empty away confines friendly thus far along with Michigan.
If Indiana’s postponed road trips to Michigan and Michigan State are rescheduled, the Hoosiers will finish with six of their final 11 on the road.
But as the early data and Indiana’s specific results highlight — the location in 2021 might not mater.
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