Stats Corner: Home-court advantage in the Ivy League
The answer, of course, depends on how you ask the question. The simple response, of course, is that Princeton and Penn are the toughest places for a visiting team to win. Jadwin Gymnasium and The Palestra are notoriously tough for visiting teams; the Quakers and Tigers have the best point differential and winning percentage at home over the past decade, an advantage that was certainly even stronger in the more distant past, before the rise of teams like Cornell and Harvard.
But that’s not a very interesting answer. The hosts win so often at Jadwin and The Palestra not just because of a special home-court advantage, but because Penn and Princeton have been great teams in any venue. Instead, what we want to know is this: Which teams benefit the most from playing in their own gym, in front of their own fans, with familiar surroundings?
Conference play among the Ancient Eight is a perfect way to study this. The Ivy League plays a true home-and-home schedule, so each team faces each opponent at home and away every season. (With the increasing popularity of super-conferences in college sports, the home-and-home schedule is sadly disappearing in many places.) We can compare every team’s performance in home games, as measured by scoring margin, against the comparable away games, since the quality of opponents cancels out. Over time, the difference can be attributed solely to home-court advantage.
With the 2012 season in the books, let’s look back at the last decade of Ivy League play (2003-12) and see what patterns emerge.
The most dramatic home-court advantage is … well, it’s basically a tie between Yale’s Payne Whitney Gymnasium and Jadwin. The Bulldogs have played 6.33 points better at home than on the road, while the Tigers’ advantage was 6.27 points, a difference that corresponds to eight points over 140 games. When the topic of home-court advantage in the Ivy League comes up, many immediately point to Jadwin’s combination of weird sightlines, bouncy floor and unique lighting, but over the last decade, this has not set Princeton that far apart from the pack.
Third on the list is Dartmouth’s Alumni Gymnasium, a venue that has not exactly inspired terror for opponents. Over the past decade, the Big Green has been awful on the road, outscored by 11.1 points per game; with home-court advantage on its side, Dartmouth is merely bad, with a scoring margin of -5.5.
Penn rates as surprisingly mediocre by this metric, with its home-court advantage of 5.2 points barely above the Ivy League average of 4.9. Columbia’s 4.0 is not particularly inspiring, but the basement belongs to the notoriously sports-apathetic campus of Brown, which has played just 2.9 points per game better at home than on the road.
Two global takeaways: First, home-court advantage really matters. Everyone knows that playing at home helps, but the magnitude is probably larger than you think. Even the team with the smallest home-court advantage over the last decade played three points better in its own gym — and 13 percent of Ivy League games in this sample were decided by three points or less.
Second, these numbers are small on a national scale. According to research done by Ken Pomeroy, the median Division I team has a home-court advantage of 6-7 points on this scale. Yale and Princeton are flirting with the national average, but the Ivy League as a whole is comfortably below. Due to some combination of short road trips, small gyms and other factors, visiting teams have a slightly easier time in the Ivy League than in other conferences.
The sample of 70 home games and 70 road games is not very large, so don’t make too much out of small differences between individual teams, as they are not very significant. But it’s no coincidence that Princeton has won 17 straight Ivy League games at Jadwin Gymnasium — and that, despite going 3-4 on the road in conference play this year, the Tigers went a perfect 7-0 at home.