I remember it like it was yesterday, really. It was the first week of January in 2011. I was stuck in a hotel room and due to a massive snow storm and high winds. I had a TV and that was it - a TV that was only getting reception on a couple channels for whatever reason, Iím presuming the wind had something to do with it. Being that it was a Saturday at the beginning of January, surely their would be a high profile basketball game on somewhere, right? Nope, I was wrong. I was stuck with one game, and that game was San Diego State taking on Utah.
At the time, San Diego State was unbeaten, while Utah was going through a pretty rough stretch, so to say that I would have tuned into this game if I had other options available would probably be a bold-faced lie. But, I had nothing else to do, and Iím sort of glad I didnít.
I learned quite a bit in a brief two hour span, something that I hadnít really taken into account into any analysis that I had done prior to this event: Playing in Altitude is a bitch.
San Diego State was a great team in 2011. They were tall, lengthy, and athletic, and used all three traits to form one of the better full-court press defenses I have witnessed over the last decade. The press confused teams, sped up the game, forced plenty of turnovers, and played to every single strength Fisher and his team wanted to play to. As I tuned into this game, they didnít try it once. Utah, going through a rough part of their season, experiencing a couple injuries at notable guard positions, you would think that San Diego State could have put this game in the frying pan in the early stages so I could get a nap in because well, I had nothing else to do. But they didnít, and I found it odd.
What I also found odd, is that San Diego State star and current NBA star Kawhi Leonard willingly asked to come out of the game numerous times, and appeared as if he was going to throw up each instance. This is one of the best players in the country at the time playing in the first conference week of his final year with an undefeated season on the line whoís asking to come out of the game. I found that odd, too.
After staying awake for what seemed to be an extremely boring half-time show where I could catch up on other scores, the 2H began. Steve Fisher is the type of coach who never, and at this time, rarely if ever used his bench. He is mostly known for 6, sometimes 7 or 8 man rotations, but rarely goes beyond that. This game was different. At the first whistle, he subbed. At the next whistle, he subbed again. And the pattern continued, and I would have had to think that he subbed at just about every dead ball and/or blown whistle. The 2H took forever because of this, but San Diego State eeked out a ten point victory. I found the substitution pattern to be, well, odd. Could this be the worst conditioned undefeated team Iíd ever seen? Or was their something else?
There was something else, and itís name is altitude. Just seeing the toll it took on such a great team really alerted me to dig deeper. I had always known about altitude and other weather corrections following all sports but just never thought it would have such an impact on a game played indoors in a gym on a court that resembles just about every other court these kids have been playing on since they were young enough to pick up a basketball.
It sounds weird. It feels weird.
But, it matters.
Analysts have studied it quite a bit. Statisticians have, too. Heck, even Scientists have contributed their versions by testing foul shooting and how it corresponds to altitude (Note: I wasnít going to waste half a a day on reading how foul shooting is effected by altitude, but there is a 50+ page thesis available online if youíre interested in it). All in all, the analysis has shown that altitude does matter.
As it currently stands, there are approximately 12 teams who hold significant advantages over their opponents when they play at home because they play in altitude. For purposes of this study, Iíve included only those above 5,000 feet. Their elevations, and statistical advantages for the last five years are below:
college basketball analysis
There are certainly some shocking numberís in here, and while Iíve just focused on the altitude schools, keep in mind, the average NET PPP for all Division I schools the past five seasons is just a +0.045. Iím no mathematician, but letís break this down for a minute:
Home Team NET PPP (0.045) multiplied by the average possession total of the past five years (66.5) and we come up a nice little number of 2.99. That 2.99 represents the statistical advantage the home team earns each night just for playing at home. Ever wonder where the average of 3 points per home court comes into play? Of course, thatís an average possession game. In the event that a game should project to play to fewer, or more possessions, the statistical home court advantage would increase or decrease. Interestingly enough, Denver holds one of the greatest NET PPP of any team in the country the last five seasons when playing at home for one sole reason - altitude. When you put the NET PPP to the average possession total, you come up with a home court advantage of nearly 10.5 points! No home crowd, no rowdy student section, no tight or loose rim is worth 10.5 points, but according to the numbers, the results over the last five years in altitude truly show that much of an advantage.
Taking the experiment a step further, we can compare how a teamís results at home have compared with a teamís results in games played elsewhere. Take a look at Northern Arizona here, which should at this point shock the living daylights out of you. The record isnít all that great, just 37-25, and appears to be about average in terms of wins and losses. At home, theyíre outscoring opponents by an average of 0.10 PPP the last five seasons, but elsewhere, theyíre losing games by an average of -0.11 PPP. Thatís right; the same roster plays 0.21 PPP BETTER AT HOME! I tried to find any other reason as to why this could be and why the significant advantage. I looked at injuries, rosters, styles, and just about every other thing that would impact the results as drastic as what the numbers truly show. I found nothing. And the more remarkable thing is that while most will point to a raucous crowd or great student section being a great indicator of a home court advantage, that certainly isn'tí the case at Walkup Skydome who only seats approximately 7,000 people. Do you want to know what Northern Arizonaís average attendance was last season? They didnít sell out all 7,000 for any game. In fact, they had trouble topping 7,000 for the year. Their average attendance was 646 people per game!
Now that weíve confirmed that altitude does in fact impact the course of a basketball game, itís time for a little rant. The NCAA loves the NCAA Tournament. Itís probably safe to say we all love the NCAA Tournament. Teams compete all season long for win after win, conference championships and conference tournament championships. They fight, they grind, they duel, and they battle for a chance to get in the NCAA Tournament, trying to get as high of a seed as possible.
Then the NCAA awards some teams the opportunity to go play in altitude for their chance to advance in the tournament. Itís stupid, really.
Ask Gonzaga and Mark Few how altitude treated them this year in Salt Lake City. As #1 Seed in this yearís NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga posted two of their worst offensive games of the year. They snuck by #16 Seed Southern, but faltered against Wichita State, who by all accounts, was probably happy playing in the altitude because they had done so a few times in previous years and had great success doing it (odd, yet another story for another day). Gonzaga was probably robbed. Likewise, Belmont was, too. It was their sixth trip to the Dance in the last eight seasons, and three of those contests have been played in altitude. As a committee member who draws up the tournament bracket, do they pinpoint jump-shooting teams and send them into altitude for a reason? Tough draw. Or how about the biggest upset of this yearís first round in the NCAA Tournament? The Harvard/New Mexico game occurred in altitude. Itís safe to say the West Bracket of this yearís NCAA Tournament was a mess, and while Wichita Stateís run to the Final Four was well-deserved, itís tough to gauge how much of a role altitude truly played in their run to the final weekend of the tournament.
It wasnít just last year, either. The 2011-2012 season saw two noticeable upsets in the tourney with games played in altitude. Oh, and how about the 2010-2011 tournament? #12 Seed Richmond takes down #5 Seed Vanderbilt, #13 Seed Morehead State takes down #4 Seed Louisville, and #11 Seed Gonzaga takes down #6 Seed St. Johnís. The only other game played in altitude was BYU, who by all accounts plays in altitude anyway.
And because it matters is why I have an overwhelming appreciation for Steve Fisher and San Diego State basketball. Outside of the teams listed on the previous page who play their home games in altitude, there really isnít a team who has played more games visiting altitude locations than San Diego State has over the years. Theyíve played on average 7 or 8 games a year (sometimes as many as 11 or 12) in altitude because of conference affiliation and non-conference contracts they fulfill every year. From what Iíve charted, the overall record of 54-145 in San Diego Stateís existence is far from impressive But over the course of the last five years, theyíve been the best team in the country and by a wide margin. The own a offensive points per possession total of 1.11 in altitude, and their 23-7 win/loss record in that same time frame supports that.
Maybe Fisher has it figured out as I found out that lonely, snowy day back in January 2011. Donít play to your team strengthís - play to what the altitude will allow you to play. Then comes the success as Fisher has found out.