Home field advantage is no myth

By Blake Snow

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Sept. 12 2011 10:33 p.m. MDT

The home-field advantage is not a myth. It's proven.

Although mostly a psychological victory, home teams play in familiar facilities in front of supportive fans. They are more acclimated to the climate and elevation. And they even benefit from more favorable rules in some cases, such as the home team batting last in baseball.

Not only that, but multiple studies — including a recent one by Harvard University — have shown that home teams are systematically awarded more favorable officiating calls than visiting teams.

In other words, when playing on the road, the odds are not in your favor. But winning on the road can be done, even without the law of averages.

How so?

"Answer that and you'll become a millionaire," joked Utah State basketball coach Stew Morrill. Turning serious, he added, "To think there's magic involved, you're out of whack."

Of course not. But visiting teams can increase their chances, as number-cruncher and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out, stating that underdogs can boost their odds by an impressive 35 percent when they compete in an unexpected way.

More commonly called a surprise attack, it's something Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham has gained a reputation for in his six-plus years guiding the Utes.

"When you prepare for an opponent, you prepare for what you see on tape," he explained. To keep his opponents guessing, Whittingham said he regularly does things his opponents haven't seen on tape.

Former BYU basketball star Jimmer Fredette, who achieved some of his biggest collegiate performances on the road, agrees. "Good offense is being unpredictable!" he said emphatically. "You have to be able to trick people."

In Fredette's case, that means dribbling the ball with varying speeds. "Playing as fast as you can all the time makes you very predictable," Fredette said. "That is the last thing a point guard or scorer wants."

Admittedly, unconventional play can increase the odds of winning, whether at home or on the road. But as Gladwell points out, the favored home team wins just as much, if not more, when both teams play to their conventions.

It's a trend even the more conservative Morrill is willing to concede.

"You got to play a little different on the road," the Aggies coach said. But at the same time, "you have to be careful not to do something you're team's not good at."

It's that line of thinking that drives the BYU men's basketball staff toward a more traditional approach, despite their former point guard's individual style.

"We don't change how we play, no matter the opponent or whether we're the favored team or the underdog," assistant coach Terry Nashif said bluntly. "We play the same at home and on the road."

With exception to his playbook, Whittingham also tries to normalize his pregame preparations at both home and away games.

"We do everything we can on Friday, the same way whether at home or away," he said, including accommodations. "We try to keep the routine as similar as possible for our players."

That said, Morrill believes the ability to ambush your opponent on the road diminishes when you enter conference play.

"They're aren't as many surprises in league play because coaches know each other's tendencies a whole lot better."

To which Fredette agrees. "Scouting is so good now it is hard to surprise a team, especially a conference team that you play regularly every season."

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