Butler and Its Home-Court Advantage

By Jake Fisher

This Saturday, two No. 5 seeds, Butler and Michigan State, will kick off Final Four weekend. Butler, the Cinderella out of the Horizon League, is on a 24-game winning streak. Michigan State has beaten the odds as a lower seed, but the Spartans do hail from a major conference and bring the experience of coach Tom Izzo, who has led six teams to the Final Four in the past 12 years.

Given how wild this year’s tournament has been, there’s no reason to believe this game won’t be exciting. But what makes the game all the more interesting is that Butler is virtually playing a home game. Butler University is 20 minutes from Lucas Oil Stadium, the site of the Final Four in Indianapolis, Indiana. Will the home-court advantage be a factor? I thought I’d take a look at past academic studies on home-court advantage in order to figure out what type of edge, if any, the Bulldogs have over the Spartans.

Home-court advantage is a mysterious topic. It’s known to exist, but it’s not well known what actually causes the advantage. The numbers do say that home teams perform better, at least in professional sports. Home teams won 60 percent of NBA games from 1996 to 2009. But questions remain. Is home-court advantage a result of pre-game confidence and nervousness or things like sleep and travel time? Or does home advantage happen during the game when loud crowd noise motivates and intimidates players?

One possibility is that home and away teams differ in physical health, such as sleep time and travel fatigue. The reasoning is that away teams are more fatigued and perform worse accordingly. If this theory is correct, Butler should have an advantage over Michigan State because the Bulldogs will be well rested in familiar settings and will travel less than 30 minutes to the arena.

The physiological reasons, though, just aren’t that convincing. K. Steenland found, using NBA seasons  in the 1980s and 90s, that travel time and distance don’t have significant effects on team performance. Butler might have a home advantage, but probably not because the Bulldogs will be more rested from being physically closer to Lucas Oil Stadium than the Spartans.

A second possibility is that pre-game psychological factors related to emotions and moods will have an impact. A pair of studies by J. Carre and N. Neave actually do show that home teams in hockey and soccer have higher testosterone levels, indicating some type of emotional edge for the home team. Butler certainly could benefit from this kind of psychological advantage. In familiar settings with a supportive crowd, the Bulldogs might be more confident than the Spartans.

A third potential cause of home-court advantage is the effect of the crowd. In 1983, D.L. Greer studied Illinois and Kansas State basketball home games and found that after crowd outbursts, home teams got better and away teams got worse. Crowd noise seems to have important effects on game outcomes, and with 17,000 of Butler’s 42,000 graduates, living in Central Indiana, the crowd on Saturday will likely be strongly and loudly in favor of the home-town Bulldogs.

For the most part, the studies just confirm common knowledge. Crowd noise in support of Butler and against Michigan State will probably end up giving the Bulldogs an extra boost. The fact the Butler is playing a pseudo-home game may also give the mid-major squad confidence and an emotional edge.

It’s pretty safe to say Butler is going to get some type of advantage from playing close to home. How large that advantage will be, though, is hard to say.

One source, it seems, thinks the home-court edge will be pretty important. Las Vegas lines have Butler as a 1.5-point favorite.

If Butler fulfills these odds and then manages to pull off another win in the NCAA Championship on Monday, many would consider it to be one of the most noteworthy upsets in tournament history. But in the crazy tournament we’ve had, having a mid-major school like Butler win kind of makes sense. I guess you can say a Butler victory has a homey feeling to it.

About the author


View all posts


  • Being from England, football (soccer) is my main sport. Again, there is a statistical home advantage and nobody has managed to pin down why it happens. However, one suggestion is that the home team is familiar with the stadium, the changing rooms, even the pitch. This was seen in the late 90’s when Arsenal played Champions’ League games at Wembley and really struggled, even though the stadium is still very close to their home.

    If this is the case, Butler wouldn’t get an advantage since although the game is near to their base, they are no more familiar with the Lucas Oil Stadium than Michigan State.

    • Good point. Another possibility is that there is some referee bias. Especially in football (soccer), referees have been studied and seem to call more fouls for the home team. It be a conscious bias, but it also might have something to do with crowd noise again, since a crowd outburst might make a foul seem more severe. A couple other interesting studies are “Alone Against the Crowd” by K. Page, “The influence of crowd noise and experience upon refereeing decisions in football” by A. Nevill, and “Referee bias contributes to home advantage in English Premiership football” by R. Boyko.

  • Great piece, Jake, but one line sticks out.

    “One source, it seems, thinks the home-court edge will be pretty important. Las Vegas lines have Butler as a 1.5-point favorite.”

    If you are implying that Vegas has Butler as a 1.5-point favorite because of their proximity advantage, you would be wrong. Most predictive models which make this game a neutral site have Butler at about 55-57 percent to win the game without any advantage.

  • Hard to tell if this distance hypothesis holds much weight here. Indianapolis is only about a 4.5 hour drive from East Lansing. 3 out of the last 4 big ten tournaments were held at canseco fieldhouse and there were no shortage of MSU fans attending those games. My suspicion is that MSU will have quite a large “homefield” crowd as well. I’m thinking regression toward the mean. Butler’s success is noteworthy, but 24 wins in a row versus successively more talented teams is bound to catch up with them soon. Besides, MSU in the final will make for a much more interesting game versus Duke (who I am all but certain will make easy work of WVU). I’d love to see Izzo take on Coach K.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *