Rocky road this season in SEC basketball
Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 11:56 p.m.
There is a great scene in the movie “Hoosiers” where Gene Hackman's character has players on his team use a tape measure in the big arena where the state finals will be played. The idea was to illustrate that the basket and the free-throw line were the same distance as they were back in Hickory.
Sometimes I wonder why more coaches don't use this idea.
Especially in this conference.
Look, this is going to come off as naive, but it is something that has been bugging me for years.
Why is it so hard to play on the road?
It's a question for any sport but especially basketball and especially this year. I talked to several basketball people who told me it's never been as bad as it is in the SEC this year.
Going into Wednesday night's games, the top seven teams in the league had only 10 losses at home all year combined. Meanwhile, there were five SEC teams with only one road win all season.
Florida is the only team in the conference with a winning road record and yet all five of its losses have come away from home.
These statistics probably don't surprise you. You know that teams tend to be better at home than on the road. And I have a theory why there is such a disparity this year — this isn't a very good league.
Talented teams can go on the road and overcome the adversity. But not always. For example, the 2006-07 Florida team that won the second of two straight national championships lost five games that year and all of them were away from home.
I'll never forget watching them in Baton Rouge lose to an LSU team that was missing Glen “Big Baby” Davis and finished the season with a 5-11 conference record.
“That was a weird game for us,” said Taurean Green, the point guard of that team who now plays in Sicily, Italy. “Nothing was clicking. I tell you, the tough place for us was Tennessee. They played out of their minds in front of their home crowd.
“But we loved to go on the road and shut the other crowd up. Some players get it. Some players fade away when they go on the road.”
When I asked Billy Donovan who were his best road players, he brought up the Oh-Fours.
“They liked it,” he said. “And Matt Walsh liked it.”
Nobody has ever been abused verbally on the road more than Walsh. His long hair and aggressive style made him a big target for opposing fans.
“I have always loved playing on the road, ever since I can remember,” Walsh emailed me from Madrid, Spain, where he is playing tonight. “For me the idea of going into a hostile environment and having everyone against you and still finding a way to win and play great was always way more satisfying than winning at home. I loved it from the moment I walked out in the away arenas and had fans yelling at me and holding their mean posters.
“I know for a lot of guys it's different, but I always loved road games. No better feeling than playing on the road and quieting the crowd, knowing that they tried their best to distract you and rattle you and they just couldn't do it.”
Not everyone is able to take all of that negative energy (especially younger players) and turn it into a positive which is one reason we see such abysmal road records.
“I just totally embraced it,” Walsh wrote. “Whenever I walked onto the court on the road, I was going to either silence them with my own personal performance and by getting a team win, or go down fighting trying to.
“The only time I really remember losing it on the road was at Tennessee. The fans had printed out naked pictures of my girlfriend and passed them out to the whole student section. I remember hitting a shot right inside half court to end the first half and just letting the crowd have it. But I let the emotions of that game get the best of me and we ended up losing. Still to this day, I love playing on the road.”
Donovan is a believer that the crowd is the biggest reason it's tough to play on the road.
“You're not made to feel welcome,” he said. “It's a lot of things, but how about being a kid and you're out there free shooting an hour before the game and they are lambasting you?
“There is a mental part you have to block out. I spend a lot of time with (players) mentally.”
With that 2007 team, Donovan even went as far as to cancel the free shooting period before a game because he didn't want to expose them to the taunts of opposing fans.
Because the fans are closer to the floor than in football, I can get that they can have a big influence on the visiting team. And that they can help fuel the home team. You make a 3, and the crowd goes nuts and it helps you play defense.
But is that enough to account for such a disparity between how teams play at home and on the road? Look at Arkansas (16-1 at home, 1-7 on the road). Look at Missouri. (15-0 at home, 1-7 on the road).
I asked a handful of people whose basketball knowledge I respect and they gave me a bunch of different reasons. Well, they gave me a bunch of different reasons after they looked at me incredulously for even bringing up the subject.
“It's always been that way,” said Mark Wise, UF's hoops analyst on radio.
It's not exactly breaking news that home teams win more than visiting teams.
“I run these numbers every year and the winning percentage is higher in basketball than any other sport,” said Seth Davis of CBS and Sports Illustrated.
Davis is one of several people I talked to who believes the reason is familiarity more than anything else.
“In college basketball, they practice where they play,” Davis said. “Atmospherics, sight lines, they all come into play. I always say that you can shoot 3s at home, but you had better be able to make free throws on the road.
“It's different in the NBA because there's not that much difference in the arenas. College basketball is more quirky. You have a place like Vanderbilt where there is all kinds of room, and then a place like the O'Dome, which is different.”
For example, this season Florida will end up playing 16 games in the O'Connell Center (where they have shot 38.7 percent on 3-point shots so far). It played one game in Knoxville (where UF shot 23.5 percent from 3 on Tuesday night).
“Waking up in their own beds, going to the same arena, getting there the same way, eating at the same place,” said former SEC official Don Rutledge. “There is a comfort level.”
Rutledge, an associate supervisor of officials in the SEC who evaluates referees, said he doesn't buy into the theory held my many that officials get caught up in the white noise and favor the home teams.
“Most officials don't hear the crowd as much as people think they do,” he said.
But the players certainly do. And as much as it can be a negative to the visiting players, it can be a boost to the egos of the home players. You like me, you really like me. Some guys need to be liked to perform.
In the end, we're talking about a number of factors that play into it. And no matter what you're opinion is of which matters more, we only know for sure that something matters.
“The bigger story is when a team wins on the road instead of when a team loses on the road,” said Wise.
Especially in the SEC.