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March 3, 2010

Powered Up: Call it both ways

The timing of this article is going to make it seem like sour grapes. I know this. The Missouri Tigers lost 63-53 at Kansas State on Saturday. The Tigers shot 13 free throws. The Wildcats shot 34. But save the emails from Manhattan that tell me I'm whining. I'm not. I think the next few paragraphs will prove it.

Officiating may be the most common complaint among Big 12 basketball fans. After nearly every game, fans are ripping the stripes up and down on message boards. Most fans will preface it with, "I'm not saying they were biased, I'm just saying they were bad," or with "I know that officials don't decide games."

Are those statements true? I crunched the numbers. And they sure don't look true.

First of all, I need to give you the raw numbers. Check out the table below to see the breakdown for Big 12 teams. I have used data for the top seven teams in the Big 12, all seven of which should be headed for the NCAA Tournament. The numbers listed are free throws attempted for each team and that team's opponents in both home and road games. Texas has played eight home games and Missouri and Baylor eight on the road. Every other team has one home game and one road game remaining.

Home Cookin'
TEAM HOME FT ATTEMPTS HOME OPPONENT FTA ROAD FT ATTEMPTS ROAD OPPONENT FTA
KANSAS 162 130 185 137
KANSAS STATE 218 176 184 202
BAYLOR 141 133 162 200
TEXAS A&M 179 124 180 188
MISSOURI 175 159 164 196
TEXAS 244 177 142 176
OKLAHOMA STATE 143 110 152 193


In other words, of the top seven teams in the Big 12, all seven of them have shot more free throws than their opponents at home. Baylor has attempted just eight more than its opponents in seven games. Missouri has taken 16 more. Every other team has taken at least 32 more free throws than visiting teams in seven games. That averages out to nearly five attempts per game. The group is led by Texas, which has taken an average of eight more free throws than its opponent in every single Big 12 home game.

The flip side is what happens to these teams on the road. The seven teams have taken a combined 117 fewer free throws on the road than their opponents. And that included Kansas-the only team with a road advantage-taking 48 more than its opponents. Take the Jayhawks out of the picture and the remaining six teams have taken 165 fewer free throws on the road than their home opponents.

So, what we are supposed to believe, is that the same teams that get to the line an average of 4.96 times more than their opponents somehow forget how to attack or defend on the road. Those teams that average five more attempts in each home game take an average nearly four fewer free throws than the opponent when they're playing in someone else's building (that figure doesn't include Kansas because it doesn't much appear to matter where the Jayhawks play. They actually have a bigger edge on the road than at home).

I'm sorry, that just doesn't pass the smell test. Is Texas a team that is so much different at home that they should average eight more free throws per game than their opponent at home, but five fewer on the road? Do Baylor and A&M (whose opponents have taken 133 and 124 free throw attempts, respectively, at home) suddenly forget how to play defense on the road (where the other teams have taken 200 and 188 free throws in the exact same number of games)?

No freaking way.

The simple fact is, the home teams get the calls. Unless, it seems, the home team is playing Kansas. Other than the Jayhawks, every single team sees a swing of at least 42 in the ratio of free throws at home and on the road. That's beyond the traditional "home cooking."

Now, how about that thought that the officials don't determine the outcome of a game? These teams have combined to go 42-and-8 at home. They are 28-and-23 on the road. That is an .840 winning clip at home. On the road, it drops to .551. Road teams win 29% less often than home teams. And we're not talking about the dregs of the league. These are the good teams, the ones that are going to the tournament. Every one of these teams will finish at least 6-and-2 at home, assuming Kansas State beats Iowa State in Manhattan. But only the Wildcats and Jayhawks will be better than .500 on the road. The similarity between the winning percentages and the way the whistles blow is simply too glaring to call coincidence.

The difference would be even more startling if not for Kansas State. The Wildcats have dropped two home games (in one of those-shockingly against Kansas-the Cats shot 11 fewer free throws than the opposition). They have gone 6-and-1 away from Bramlage Coliseum. Even more impressive, K-State has won four of the five road games in which it has attempted fewer free throws than its opponent. That number represents nearly half of the league total of road wins when taking fewer free throws than an opponent. The other six teams in our study have gone a combined 5-and-19 when they've gone on the road and taken fewer free throws than the opposition.

The final, mind-boggling number is this: When they have attempted as many or more free throws than their opponents, these seven Big 12 teams are 52-and-7. That breaks down to 33-and-4 at home and 19-and-3 on the road.

The fact is, the team that shoots more free throws wins 88.1% of the time in the games we've looked at. In our study, teams that were at home have had the free throw edge in nearly 75% of the games. The very same teams have shot more free throws just 43% of the time on the road.

Just about every team has one home game and one road game this week. Then it's off to Kansas City for the Big 12 tournament and various locations for the Big Dance. Finally, at that point, the players truly will decide the games.



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