In the aftermath of Kansas’ worst home defeat of the 18-year Bill Self era — an 84-59 loss to Texas earlier this month — Self made sure his team’s lackluster effort did not get pinned on the lack of energy inside the usually raucous Allen Fieldhouse. The venue, which would normally welcome more than 16,000 fans in for such a game, was capped at a capacity of 2,500 as the Longhorns ran roughshod over a Jayhawks team ranked No. 3 at the time.
“I told our guys, if we’d had 18,000 packed into Allen, I don’t think it would have made any difference with the outcome of the game,” Self said.
But the legendary coach also pointed out how the game swung on a series of made 3-pointers from Texas guards after Kansas closed within four points early in the second half. It’s fair to wonder if a full of Allen Fieldhouse, rising collectively to its feet in a moment of need for the home team, might have been able to implore the Kansas defense during that sequence and keep the margin of defeat from snowballing to historic proportions.
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“You do get spoiled when there’s energy and you’re playing poorly and the crowd can kind of pick you up,” Self said. “Certainly, this is going to be a year when the best team is going to win, regardless of which court you play on.”
While losses like the one Kansas suffered to Texas and the 85-65 home loss Kentucky suffered against Alabama on Jan. 12 — the worst home loss of the John Calipari era — were examples of teams getting outplayed, the historic margins of defeat also underscore the diminished benefit of home-court advantage in the COVID-19 era.
With arenas operating without fans or at greatly reduced capacities, home teams have won just 57.3% of the time this season in Division I college basketball, the lowest figure since KenPom began tracking the statistic with the 1996-97 season, when home teams won 64.3% of their games
“For us, you just don’t win many games in Rupp Arena — opponents don’t,” Calipari said. “Now you’re down to 3,000 and it’s a big difference.
“Without fans, it’s just mano a mano.”
The shift has been particularly noticeable in the Big 12, where home teams are just 13-18 in league games this season after going 58-32 at home last year against conference foes.
“When you watch games from last year, it’s amazing the impact crowds have on games,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose No. 2 Bears are 4-0 in road Big 12 games. “We’re allowed just over 2,000, and that’s why it’s so critical that we get those 2,000 because they make a difference. We do a great job of making sure we don’t go above the number and keep everyone safe. Whatever crowds people have, whatever noise, not only affects both teams, they affect the officials too.”
The reduced home-court advantage amid the pandemic is coinciding with a down year for many blueblood programs that traditionally have some the best home-court advantages. Duke, which owned a 150-game nonconference home winning streak until last season, lost two nonconference games at Cameron Indoor Stadium during a week-long span in December without its iconic “Cameron Crazies” in attendance.
Michigan State was one of the two nonconference teams to win at Duke during the stretch as the Spartans notched their first road win over the Blue Devils in program history. While Michigan State coach Tom Izzo noted afterward that he wouldn’t be putting an asterisk next to the win, Izzo and Michigan State have since experienced the perils of a reduced home-court advantage amid a 1-2 start in Big Ten home games.
The change in atmosphere on the road is clearly providing opportunities for teams to win games they wouldn’t normally win and by surprising margins in some cases. A struggling Kansas State team that didn’t win a single Big 12 game on the road all of last season began conference play this year with a 74-65 victory at Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum, which is typically known as one of the toughest places to play in the Big 12. Veteran coach Bruce Weber’s squad entered the game as an 8-point underdog.
“The road is a little different,” Weber said. “I don’t think it is quite as much a factor.”