130306_UR_vs_VCU_044

Why do fans cheer? Because not everybody is Larry Bird. Let me explain.

One night in 1989, Bird and the Boston Celtics were playing the Los Angeles Clippers at the perpetually outdated L.A. Sports Arena. The San Diego Chicken – presumably hired because anything was better than watching the Clippers back then – went to great lengths to mess with Bird’s mojo.

At one point, Bird was fouled and stepped to the line for two free throws. The aforementioned Chicken countered by unfurling posters of swimsuit models under the basket. Bird, a cocksure, otherworldly shooter, laughed…and then hit both free throws.

You couldn’t get to Larry Bird. He’s one of the most accurate free throw shooters in NBA history. But not everybody is Larry Bird. Most basketball players are human.

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Fans cheer for a lot of reasons, but paramount among them is the belief that doing so can have an impact on the game. Because a game can come down to one nervous, rushed or distracted free throw that dances perilously on the rim. For the most part, we know this instinctually. It’s just understood that a raucous home crowd benefits the host team.

“I think it has some type of effect,” says VCU senior Rob Brandenberg. “I’m not going to say it’s 100 percent guaranteed, but I do think after a while, especially if a fan can get to you…it depends on the player, really.”

Can we actually quantify the value of a home court advantage, outside of the obvious categories of wins and losses? I suppose we can try.

Our laboratory for this experiment will be VCU’s Verizon Wireless Arena, where the Rams have sold out every game more than two years running. The endzones of the arena are reserved for student seating. Over the years, the east end zone has served as a de facto headquarters of the Rowdy Rams. While efforts have been made attempt to mold the west end of the arena into the same frenzied, eardrum crushing, wall of humanity as the east end, anybody who’s been to a game recently will freely admit the difference between the two sections. The Rowdy Rams, flanked by VCU’s magnetic pep band, have turned the east end student section into a black and gold zoo.

As fate (or smart planning) would have it, VCU opponents spend the second half shooting at the east end basket, all the while staring into the teeth of what was recently named college basketball’s best student section. Can that make a difference in the outcome of games?

Microsoft Word - free-throws-fans-notesConsider this. During each of the last three seasons, VCU opponents have shot worse from the free throw line in the second half of games – while facing the east basket – than in the first half.  Overall, opponents have shot .692 (234-of-338) in the first half at the Siegel Center the last three seasons and .671 (342-of-510) in the second.

Of course, that information alone doesn’t prove much. Players get tired, their legs weaken, it happens. I’d imagine the same thing happens to the Rams, except for the most part, it hasn’t. In three of Shaka Smart’s four seasons, the Rams have shot better at the line at home in the second half than the first. Over the last three seasons combined, VCU is shooting .691 (244-of-353) from the line in the first half of home games and .706 (356-of-504) in the second. Intriguing, but we’re not there yet.

VCU plays an up-tempo, pressing style. Opponents will wear down after a long game, and VCU’s probably more conditioned for that sort of thing. If that’s the case, if Havoc-wrought fatigue is causing opposing teams to wilt at the free throw line in the second half of games, then we should see that trend continue when the Rams are on the road; except we don’t.

Microsoft Word - free-throws-fans-notesIn the last four seasons, VCU opponents have shot better from the line in the second half than the first every year. Overall, it’s a difference of .724 in the second half, compared to .646 in the first. In fact, the Rams have also shot better in the second half of games on the road in three straight seasons.

If it’s not fatigue, what’s that leave? It’s not an ironclad case, but I’m willing to bet that tidal wave of gold, with the Peppas, a living, breathing boom box and dancing cardboard cutout heads, is at least partially responsible.

So fans, go ahead, cheer your hearts out. The game may depend on it.

Full report: free-throws-fans-notes

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