Conference play has started and it is a glorious thing. While non-conference play has its charms (who doesn’t love to see heavyweights go at it?), conference play has a special allure. Games are exciting when there is history, and that’s what conferences offer: a history of rivalries and past meetings that add a little bit of spice to each new meeting. And while old wounds may ache, it’s the new ones that sting: The best part of conference play is the home-and-away series; to better understand the meaning of Duke and Ohio State’s close scrapes this past week, we need to understand home cooking.
“Home cooking.” When we talk basketball, we understand that this phrase is a euphemism for home-court advantage, a catch-all for the widely-discussed yet still mysterious phenomenon. Teams win more when they play on their home court. This is a fact. It’s the “why” that’s much more complicated, and there are many explanations. The “home cooking” euphemism itself is a partial explanation, metonymy for all the comforts of home: sleeping better in your own bed, being able to stick to your own routine, and, of course, literally getting to eat a home-cooked meal. Taken altogether, the psychological benefits of these things (coupled with the converse disadvantage of opponents lacking these things) is supposed to account for the edge that comes with playing at home. Of course, savvier or maybe just more cynical people hear “home cooking” and their minds turn to matters more sinister than mom’s meatloaf. “Home cooking” to these folks means referee bias in favor of the home team. The innocent and idealistic amongst us shudder at the thought, but the harsh reality is that referee bias is real.
Kyle Anderson and David Pierce in a 2009 article published in The Journal of Sports Sciences outline a series of systematic referee biases in men’s college basketball. In addition to being more likely to call fouls on the team with the lead and on the team with the fewest fouls, referees really do call more fouls on the visiting team. Also, oddly enough, these effects are more pronounced when the game is on national television. But, of course, home court advantage is bigger than just getting a few fouls going in favor of the home team, isn’t it?