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.