Loren Tate: Home's not as kind as before

Loren Tate: Home's not as kind as before

The golden maize colors, pulsating on the Crisler Center sideline, seemed to envelop visiting Michigan State on Sunday.

Every time Nik Stauskas or Caris LeVert nailed a tough jumper, the roar became more deafening. Down 11 early, Michigan charged within 36-34 at halftime and, when it reached 52-51, the Wolverines sent their fanatics into delirium with a 13-0 burst.

With the Big Ten lead on the line, Michigan won 79-70. Big Mo ruled. It was a triumph seemingly enhanced by uproarious sideline passion that sent brain functions of the competing teams in opposite directions.

In glorious high definition, this arrived on the home TV as just another case of the time-honored, homecourt advantage! Compared with other years, that’s been a missing ingredient in the Big Ten this winter.

For example, when Michigan invaded Michigan State’s Izzone on Jan. 25 — admittedly, the Spartans were without Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson — the Wolverines shocked the White Out crowd with a blistering 50-point second half.

And little more than three weeks later, on Feb. 18, the Big Ten looked back to Jan. 25 in publishing a stunning statistic: Road teams won 20 of 37 games (54 percent) during that period.

What happened to familiarity ... sleeping in your own beds? What happened to unruly fans distracting visiting shooters? What happened to refs providing a little home cookin’?

Fairly smooth road

Small sample, you say.

OK, after winning 94.7 percent of their home games (mostly setups) prior to Dec. 31, the Big Ten race shows 38 road wins out of 85 this season. That’s 44.7 percent, incredible by past Big Ten standards.

Remember the old bromide for winning the conference? “Win your home games and split on the road.” Coaches generally have accepted this concept.

Just last season, the top five teams were 38-7 (84.5 percent) at home with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan each going 8-1. This season, the top five teams (Iowa has replaced Indiana) are 24-12. That’s a lot of home losses for the leaders.

Let’s take Wisconsin. The folks donning cardinal colors have grown accustomed to leaving the Kohl Center in a happy mood. In 10 conference seasons from 2002 through 2011, the Badgers went undefeated at home five times, posting a decade-long home record of 81-7. Imagine the shock when Bo Ryan’s gang lost consecutive home games to Michigan, Northwestern (huh!) and Ohio State.

That Jan. 29 upset by the Wildcats was their first in Madison since 1996. With Penn State bumping Ohio State that night, it marked the first time those two posted road wins together since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten.

Surprises galore

Most viewers of the scene offer the same reason for what’s happening. The bottom teams are better, and the top teams aren’t quite as good. On any given day ...

Said Ryan on Monday:

“I think there’s one simple answer. It’s the talent level and the abilities of the teams 1 through 12. If the home or the away team doesn’t play well, the other team’s going to come out on the left-hand side. I just think that’s how strong our league is as far as overall depth.

“Maybe a few teams at the top aren’t getting the same attention as our top teams last year received, but that’s the easy answer for me, and it’s not based on anything other than having experience playing so many of these teams and watching them play. Whether you’re home or away, you have a down (moment) and you’re going to be on the right-hand side of the score and not the left.”

That’s the consensus in these parts. The Big Ten is more balanced, top to bottom. But it means something different to outsiders. The Big Ten has lost its mojo, its dominance. The conference is no longer No. 1 in the country. Indiana has sunk to Purdue’s level. Illinois, which beat No. 1 Indiana here last season (and again this season), carries a five-game home losing streak into the Nebraska contest Wednesday.

Michigan State can’t get healthy, and neither Wisconsin (9-5) nor Ohio State (9-6) could sustain perfect records that carried into 2014. Wins by Northwestern (anywhere) only make the loser look bad. Iowa’s incessant late-game troubles have the Hawkeyes 4-3 at home, and Easterners aren’t sold on Nebraska yet.

Inside these walls, we’re witnessing an extraordinary streak of erratic shooting ... good one night, bad the next ... and the location doesn’t have much to do with it. For those inside the footprint insisting the league is better, there are many more outside who have the opposite opinion.

We’ll discover who is right just like we always do: March Madness is tell-all.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.