Measuring Student Section Effectiveness: Big Ten

Can we determine the effectiveness of a student section? In one situation, maybe.

If a university has a particularly strong base of student support, you will likely hear the coach proclaim that the presence of a large and loud student section is “worth a few wins” for his program every year. For those who have spent time jumping and chanting in college arenas around the country, that slice of appreciation goes a long way. It’s validation for all those games spent losing one’s voice while wildly cheering. It’s proof that a person can have an impact on the game even from the stands.

At some point it’s worth wondering just how much of an impact a rowdy student section does make on a game. Ultimately, even if the crowd was threatening to blow the roof off of an arena on a particularly important possession, the credit for a missed field goal will still go to the defenders on the court. I’ve never heard a coach or player give the crowd credit for making a last-second stop (even if a crowd could “pump up” a player to make said stop).

There is one situation, however, where no one on the court can affect a shot: free throws. Student sections around the country have recognized this fact because many of their most compelling antics come during an opponent’s free throw attempt. On a micro-level, anyone who has observed or participated in these strategies can likely recall a time when they appeared to work. From a broader perspective, however, I’ve always wondered if the actual numbers would reveal this to be more fact or fan-crazy fiction.


To attempt to answer this question, I’ve focused on individual conferences. Here, teams know the environs of the arenas they visit, which should remove some of the other impacting factors involved when shooting free throws such as being unfamiliar with the “feel” of the baskets and arena structure. There is also some semblance of continuity in the scheduling. My pet conference for this has been the Big Ten, where teams visit all but one conference foe each year. Additionally, altitude differences are not much of a factor in this Midwestern league. Finally, the Big Ten is known for its strong student sections.

From here, I first compared the aggregation of visiting team free throw percentage to those same squads’ home free throw percentage over the last four years. The assumption here was that the home environment represents the ideal situation to shoot free throws and could thus act as a fine baseline. But the initial results were rather inconsistent, and this process didn’t much care for the fluidity of a single game.

After some more tinkering, I ended up with the method used below. For this method, I compared aggregate visiting team free throw percentage from the first half to the second half. The reason for this comparison is because visiting teams shoot their free throws “toward” the student section in the Big Ten after halftime. And as is visualized a few paragraphs below, every school in the conference has at least a portion of its student section located behind this end of the court.


The graph below represents the results of this tracking. Unfortunately, I could not go back four years for this method, mostly because didn’t start separating its box scores into halves until 2009-10. As a result, the chart includes just the last two seasons of data.

The initial thing one might notice when looking at this is the fact that visiting teams actually shot better on average in the second half of games. Across the board, teams improved their free-throw percentage by 2.6% from first half to second half, despite now shooting toward a crowd of crazies trying to force a miss. There could be numerous reasons for this, but one factor that intrigued me was that there were over twice as many free throws attempted in the second half than the first half in each of the two years studied here. This disparity was startling to discover, and the difference was far too large to only be explained by fouling in the last few minutes to extend a game. Perhaps the increased incidence allowed teams to “rise up” to their typical averages in these instances. This notion is supported by a recent article from True Hoop that found players shoot a higher percentage on their second attempts.

A fan might also question these results, as I have, based on the fact that they suggest Purdue’s Paint Crew has limited impact on free throw shooting. I’ve been to Mackey Arena to see these students in action, and they are among the most unified and massive sections I’ve ever seen. However, it could also be that they simply haven’t mastered the art of effectively impacting a free throw shot. As Wild Bill at Utah State has shown, it sometimes only takes one person.

The rest of the results aren’t as much of a stretch. Illinois and Indiana are known for their large and imposing student sections, and schools hovering around the league-wide average have been able to secure large crowds for big games. Seeing Michigan State just above the average is a bit strange, though I think the Izzone might suffer from a simple lack of sample size (-4.0% in 2010-11, +9.0% in 2009-10). On the bottom end, support at Iowa has waned over the past few seasons, and Penn State has often been the brunt of jokes for its lack of fan support for basketball.

The placement of the student section could very well have an impact on these numbers, but a crystal clear picture hasn’t yet emerged, at least in this conference. The following image represents the general locations of the Big Ten student sections as could best be discerned from official seating charts, student section websites, video evidence, and personal experience.

If there are any patterns present here, I have yet to notice them. A future study with more resources available might also include the student section’s distance to the court; for example, the Orange Krush at Illinois is notorious for actually hovering directly over the sidelines, whereas the Paint Crew is a bit more distant in order to rise higher in the stands.

At this point, a definitive statement on the placement of a student section can not be made. However, the folks at Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana should keep doing what they are doing as they are the only schools to consistently force visiting conference teams to under-perform at the charity stripe in the second half relative to the first. This could very well be partially caused by the students, but other factors have not been ruled out.

If there are better methods to test this basic idea, I hope they are generated as a result of this study. In the meantime, I plan to do this for a few other conferences to see how the results vary. If anyone has any suggestions for conferences to test, please let me know in the comments or through e-mail (preferably one featuring strong student support as well as a majority of sections placed behind baskets). If any team or conference-specific bloggers are interested in compiling a study and would like to know more about the methods, feel free to get in touch.


15 Responses to Measuring Student Section Effectiveness: Big Ten

  1. HippoChrisC says:

    I think your methodology is based on false premises. What’s your basis for saying that “visiting teams shoot their free throws ‘toward’ the student section in the Big Ten after halftime”? I know that’s not true at Michigan (where the students are on the side), and I’m pretty sure that the opposite is true at Michigan State (where the students, IIRC, are behind the basket at the same end of the court as the MSU bench). I think Wisconsin’s students sit behind both baskets, and Illinois’s may as well (though I’m not as sure about that). Perhaps your premise is true for some arenas, but I think it’s untrue in more instances than it’s true.

  2. Corey says:

    The basis is from official seating charts, student section websites, video evidence, and personal experience. I checked game footage or highlights from conference games as well to ensure that the switch did occur, and it was near universal. The one school I had a hard time figuring out was Ohio State as there was a news release about the relocation of the student section in 2010, and when I visited there this past season, there was no discernible student section that I could see (it was a game over winter break).

    As for Crisler, if you check out this seating chart, it shows student seating as well as the band behind the basket as I identified in my image above: The visiting teams shoot toward this goal in the second half. I didn’t find an official chart for MSU/Breslin, but there is enough video evidence out there showing that students are placed behind the basket as well as along the side.

    As I state in the last paragraph, if there are better methods out there, I hope this posts encourages more discussion on it.

    • George says:


      To more accuratly look at FT% by half you should consider the change in FT% of the individual person by half. I believe big men get fouled more often in the first half of games and shoot more free throws in the first half (typically at a lower FT% as they are big men). With that being said, I believe guards are fouled more often in the second half of games and shoot more free throws in the second half (guards typically have a higher FT%). Because better FT% guys are shooting more FT in the second half than the first half, you would expect to see the results you came up with.

      Perhaps you can tally first and second half FT% differential (difference between season FT% and game FT% per half) for each individual. You may have to make a min of 3 FT attempts per person per half to make an accuarate assumption.

      • Corey says:

        That’s certainly an interesting premise. Perhaps I am thinking too hard on what might be a simple answer, but what is the reasoning behind the notion that big men get fouled more in the first half of games? If that holds up, the concept may be worth testing. As I said in the post, I just hope some others are encouraged to do so as well!

    • Dan says:

      I’m pretty sure those charts are inaccurate. I’ve been to games at both Michigan State and Illinois and students sit all around the front rows in both, including behind both baskets. (I think the only exception in both cases is directly behind the opposing bench.)

      I’m not sure I buy the methodology even assuming that the charts are right, though; too many other factors (small sample size in the first half especially, difference in who gets to the line each half, etc.) could account for the variation, and there are much simpler ways to measure home court advantage (difference in efficiency margin at home in conference vs. on the road, adjusted for strength of opponent since it’s not a true double round robin) that consider more than just one facet of the game.

      • Corey says:

        Thanks for the comment. You bring up a good point about the charts. As I hope was clear in the post, these are not the definitive locations. I did my due diligence before publishing my best interpretations, and MSU and Illinois were two of the tougher interpretations along with OSU. I watched several videos from over the years including a boatload of highlights from the past two seasons. I found that for many games, both MSU and Illinois did have the wrap-around effect including both baskets, but for others it wasn’t a complete horse-shoe shape (often this includes the band as well). Lacking a designation on an official seating chart, I made a judgment call for what they might experience at the “typical” Big Ten game (for example we might expect the Izzone to be maxed out when Michigan comes to town in primetime but perhaps not maxed for a different team on another occasion). Ultimately, it would have been much easier had each school just had student section designated on its seating charts!

        As for the methods, I just want to remind this wasn’t about home court advantage, per se. The premise of the post was to see if student sections are effective when they are riled up, chanting, and dreaming up ways to distract shooters (most often at the free throw line). As the post says, the results are inconclusive, but interesting to look at nonetheless.

    • says:


      I actually run the Buckeye NutHouse, the basketball student section at Ohio State. While over break, we don’t have the student seating we have during the Big Ten season. During the Big Ten season, the NutHouse is located on the sideline, but also on the baseline in section 114.

      This change took place last season, which would throw off the Schottenstein Center numbers.

      This year, we will not have a student section for Northwestern (we are on break).

      I like the idea of trying to quantify the effectiveness of a student section!


  3. Sam says:

    Interesting read, but as you said, the findings don’t make a whole lot of sense that an away team would shoot a higher FT percentage in the second half of games. I think a better way to measure student section effectiveness as a whole may be to compare FG% against a certain team at home and on the road. For example, a couple years ago here at Michigan we lost at Penn State by 20 then beat Penn State at home by 20 less than a month later. Certainly injuries, refs, and arena outlay have something to do with this, but a 40-point swing is quite drastic.

    This also seems like a fairly unfair way to deem which student sections are the best, because once again you note the different placement of them. The Maize Rage is completely on the side of the court and only the overflow students are placed two sections to the left of the band (which is directly behind the basket). The Paint Crew, on the other hand, is directly behind the basket in the second half, and should have an advantage in hurting the other team’s FT%. Good read though.

  4. Mike says:

    Purdue is behind the basket, but they aren’t court level it’s like 8 feet up so it’s not really very hard for the shooter to tune them out.

  5. Duh says:

    Did you not hear about the study Sports Science did on crowd effectiveness? They found less than a 0.01 difference between field goal percentages at home and away in college.

  6. Joe says:

    Purdue sucks…This blog is awesome keep it up

  7. Joe says:

    Also Wisconsin’s student section is only behind one basket HippoChrisC

  8. Ryan says:

    Awesome study! I just want to see it updated with data from 2012-2013 so we can validate if “The Barn” (Minnesota) maintains its distinction as the worst place to shoot 2nd half free throws. Thank you!

  9. Pingback: Curtain of Distraction: Are ASU’s amorous unicorns and twerking donkeys the key to getting free-throw shooters off their game? | National Post

  10. Pingback: Curtain of Distraction: Are ASU’s amorous unicorns and twerking donkeys the key to getting free-throw shooters off their game? | WorWire

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