On The Road Again

Winning on the road. The old adage is that to win your conference, you need to win all your games at home and half of the games on the road. Statistically speaking, there's good reason for such a tireless cliche. In the midst of Ohio State's brutal three-game road trip, Kyle Lamb examines life on the road in the Big Ten.

It can be a trying time for a collegiate head basketball coach. On the rare occasion he’s fortunate enough to get home and climb into his own bed, he may encounter mood swings, fatigue, irritability, insomnia, depression and anxiety.

And his wife might also exert those symptoms if he’s unlucky enough to catch her at the wrong time.

It’s no dirty little secret that a coach’s life is extremely demanding. Moody and unpredictable is he who coaches equally unpredictable young men.

Such is the case of Ohio State fourth-year head coach Thad Matta preparing to take a youthful squad to East Lansing Tuesday night against preseason Big Ten favorite Michigan State – a team certain to be hungry after an embarrassing 43-36 loss on the road against Iowa Saturday night.

But don’t cry for Matta. It’s simply his turn, like it was Spartan coach Tom Izzo this past weekend, to encounter the displeasure away from the home court, seen nine times a year – up from eight thanks to the increased 18-game conference schedule.

Like Izzo, Matta’s team also experienced first-hand life in a hostile environment. Losing to Purdue 75-68, Matta must now regroup his men for a tough contest inconveniently sandwiched between Saturday’s meltdown and the upcoming non-conference consolation prize against Tennessee in Knoxville.

“I think going on the road Saturday was another eye-opening experience for our guys,” Matta said Monday morning on the weekly Big Ten coaches’ teleconference.

If Saturday was an eye-opener, then tomorrow is an eye-gouger.

Though the Buckeyes (12-4) are riding a two-game win streak at the Breslin Center, the Spartans aren’t likely to be nice hosts. In back-to-back victories, en route to Big Ten Championships, Ohio State has done something that few teams have done since Izzo arrived – beat him at home.

Opened in 1989, the Breslin Center has been one of the most intimidating homecourts in all of college basketball. Entering the 2007-08 season Michigan State had a streak of 145 consecutive sellouts and an all-time winning percentage of 86.5 percent.

Since Izzo took over for retired Jud Heathcote in 1995, the Spartans are 86-14 at home in the Big Ten.

But when it comes to winning road games in the conference, every dog has its day.

Even Izzo, who’s led Michigan State to four Final Fours, the most of any school during his tenure, has found sledding difficult when playing outside of East Lansing. In the past five seasons, six including the lone road game he’s played in the conference this season, Michigan State is 16-25 on the road against Big Ten competition.

“It’s not like sleeping in a hotel is unlike sleeping in your own bed if you ask me,” Izzo said of whether a team’s psyche should be different on the road, “but you have to be mentally tougher to handle the crowds and you have to have great leadership. There’s going to be a stretch during the game where things aren’t going to go your way and you’ve got to handle them.”

Not many teams in the Big Ten have been up to that task.

In the past five seasons, six including the first week of the 2007-08 campaign, only a pair of teams has managed .500 or better away from home. Those teams are Illinois (23-19) and Ohio State (21-21).

During that same timeframe, Wisconsin has the best overall record (60-23) and is 20-21 away from the Kohl Center. Meanwhile, Illinois is 59-25; Michigan State is 53-30 and Ohio State is 51-33 during that same stretch.

In terms of differential from overall percentage to road percentage, the Spartans are winning 24.9 percent fewer games on the road than overall. That’s the highest discrepancy of all the Big Ten teams.

Here’s the complete list:


Illinois (.154)

Indiana (.220)

Iowa (.191)

Michigan (.154)

Michigan State (.249)

Minnesota (.135)

Northwestern (.152)

Ohio State (.107)

Penn State (.074)

Purdue (.215)

Wisconsin (.235)


Though last year’s 63-54 victory against Michigan State is probably comforting to some Ohio State fans, it’s not likely to keep Matta from popping the antacid pills Monday night. Much like last season, Matta will take an inexperienced team north to the most intimidating place in the conference.

But will lightning strike twice?

It took a herculean effort by freshman center Greg Oden a year ago, 16 points and 11 rebounds, to upend the Spartans. This year, Ohio State will have to rely on senior point guard Jamar Butler.

Butler has been up to the challenge of late with games of 32 and 26 points, sandwiched in between a double-double where he had 11 rebounds and 10 assists despite not scoring a point.

“The kid Butler, I think right now, might be one of the top guards in the country,” Izzo said.

That might not mean much to Matta. Even with Butler, he’s trying to push his team over the proverbial hump and get them by the next two landmines. Michigan State hopes the third time’s a charm. That’s the rallying cry for Saturday with Tennessee suffering not one but two losses to the Buckeyes last year where they had a chance to win on a buzzer-beater.

“This is a unique stretch for us here,” Matta added of the barrage of road games. “We had something kind of similar for us earlier in the year where we played five games in 11 days. Some of those were at home.

“The big thing I’m looking for is steady improvement from our team,” he said. “After the Iowa game, we did not have the carryover we were looking for going into the Purdue game.”

Having the most wins over the past five years, Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan knows a little about consistency.

The Badgers have been dominant at home (40-2) and won enough games away from Kohl to sneak out a Big Ten Championship and a couple of second-place finishes.

“If you have a lot of people that believe in you (on your home court) then you do have a tendency to feel a little better about what you’re doing,” Ryan said. “People can say, ‘well, it shouldn’t be that way,’ or ‘guys should be ready all the time,’ but being at home about the eating or sleeping habits – you don’t miss any beats that way. So I think those are all the advantages that way.

“There are a lot of factors that make the records on the road and at home what they are,” Ryan added.

A lopsided number of wins for the home team is not something unique to the Big Ten.

The Big Ten teams are 149-309 (.325) on the road in the past five years combined. By comparison, a study of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) found that in the same span, SEC teams are just 162-329 (.330) when venturing away from the home floor.

“You’ve got to be a lot tougher mentally, I think, on the road with the crowd, the noise and the atmosphere can be a factor,” said Alabama head coach Mark Gottfried, whose Crimson Tide is just 14-27 in the SEC over the past five seasons despite having several solid teams. “I think college basketball in general is difficult to win on the road. The crowds are right on top of you.”

There’s one other factor that plays a small part you won’t hear coaches saying publicly.

That’s officiating.

Though not many conspiracy theorists are claiming conferences intentionally stack the deck for home teams, it would seem, at least unintentionally, referees are subconsciously affected by the energy and excitement in the arenas they officiate.

Studying all Big Ten games dating back to the 2003-04 season, the home team is averaging just 16.0 fouls called against them per game. Meanwhile, the visiting opposition is getting whistled for an average of 18.7 per game – nearly 2.7 fouls difference per game.

Nearly two thirds (65.9 percent) of all 370 games tabulated resulted in the home team drawing fewer fouls. Coincidently (or not), the road team is winning almost exactly one-third of the games on the road in that time.

Whatever the reason, Ohio State is at a major disadvantage Tuesday evening. It’s par for the course in BCS conferences.

And this week is a trying time on Matta.

Just ask his wife.


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