Examining Ken Bone's road game struggles as WSU coach

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

The Cougars finished 0-9 on the road in Pac-12 play for the first time since 2003. We take a deeper look as to why Ken Bone's teams have struggled on the road since his arrival in Pullman.

With a 72-49 loss to the Washington Huskies on Feb. 28, the WSU basketball team finished with a winless conference road record for the the first time since 2003, which was Paul Graham's final year in Pullman. Watching the inability of the Cougars to put together competitive performances on the road this season during Pac-12 play, I started to wonder how much of Ken Bone's seemingly inevitable firing from WSU may be the outcome of an inability to play well on the road.

First, let me make it clear that winning conference games on the road is not easy for anybody. It is so difficult that Darren Everson wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal in 2009 calling conference road games the "toughest place to win in sports." Everson supports this claim by citing a .340 winning percentage for road teams that season. A recent tweet by David Hess made it clear that dominance on the road in conference play is not necessarily a requisite for a team winning the National Championship.

There are several obvious reasons why winning on the road can be so difficult. Travel, unfamiliar surroundings, hostile crowds, and the mysteriousness of 18- to 23-year-old minds capable of skipping across the universe several times over the course of a few hours ... all are factors that make winning on the road a different animal than winning at home That said, coaches, including Bone -- who has shown remarkable character by accepting responsibility for the program's shortcomings during his tenure despite several unlucky breaks -- know this and realize the ability to mitigate these factors is part of their job.

I actually was surprised at the lack of work about winning on the road. Jeff Nusser pointed me towards two articles by Ken Pomeroy on ESPN Insider and KenPom that talk about home court advantage. Pomeroy doesn't talk about winning on the road, per se, in these articles. Instead, he addresses the subject as "home court advantage." I have slept a few times since I took a course in Symbolic Logic to remember the exact formula that makes this true, but intuitive logic tells us that one team's difficulty winning on the road is the same thing as their opponent's "home court advantage." So it's worth following what he is saying, even if we are interested in the flip side of the coin.

In the more recent article from the KenPom site, Pomeroy offers a hint on why there is a lack of data on "home court advantage" since there is a longstanding awareness that a competitive advantage exists at home in comparison to the road (dating back to the 1903 World Series). He offers concrete proof of this advantage by showing how playing at home vs. playing on the road completely changes the percentage chances of winning against teams of varying quality.

Pomeroy's ESPN Insider article is a fantastic piece that offers a little more in the way of methodological analysis. He shows that, contrary to popular belief, the home courts of Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky do not provide these teams a strong advantage at home as compared to the road. What makes this article so cool is his surprising finding that Utah Valley State and Denver ranked first and fourth respectively in home court advantage, suggesting that elevation does matter. (So maybe the 2012 WSU loss to Utah, ranked No. 297 at the time, is more excusable? Meh.)

It is important to keep in mind that Pomeroy's article is not talking about a "home court advantage" in a way that indicates that any team's home court is the most difficult to play on than another. The ultimate punch line to his article is that Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky are difficult places to win because of the talent the schools traditionally have, not the hostile environment.

Home court advantage is simply how good a team is at home in comparison to their performance on the road. For example, let's say Stink Valley State University (SVSU) had a total of 60 games being measured, 30 at home and 30 on the road. At home, the average margin of difference over 30 games is -10, meaning SVSU lost at home by an average of 10 points every time they played. On the road, SVSU lost by an average 30 points (-30) over 30 games. The calculation for SVSU's home court advantage would be:

((30 *– 10) – (30 * -30))/60 = (-300 - -900)/60 = 10

So while SVSU would have a ‘home court advantage' of 10, which is more sizable than Utah Valley State's (7.33), it is very clear that SVSU stinks at home too. But, they are still much better when they play at home in comparison to the road. (I am assuming that familiarity with the regional odor plays a role in this).

The formula shown above will be used in Table A shows the annual ‘home court advantage' for the WSU. There are two reasons that I only measure as far back as 2003. First, it is the furthest year that the source of my statistics, KenPom.com, goes back on an annual basis. Second, after combing through the statistics between the 2003 team and the 2014 team on several stats, it is clear that after 11 years, WSU Basketball has come around full circle in terms of team performance.

Before looking at the data, please keep in mind that I am only looking at regular season conference play and that I count semi-home and semi-road games (e.g. Cougar games at Spokane Arena) as pure home and away games for the sake of simplicity and the fact schools have options for these types of games.

Table A: Annual Average Home Court Advantage

Year

Coach

Home Scoring Margin

Conference Home Record

Road Scoring Margin

Conference Road Record

Average Home Court Advantage

2003

Graham

-79

2-7

-156

0-9

4.27

2004

D. Bennett

0

4-5

-30

4-5

1.67

2005

D. Bennett

6

4-5

-8

3-6

0.78

2006

D. Bennett

-12

3-6

-69

1-8

3.17

2007

T. Bennett

84

7-2

24

6-3

2.16

2008

T. Bennett

43

5-4

42

6-3

0.56

2009

T. Bennett

15

4-5

-15

4-5

1.67

2010

Bone

-14

4-5

-96

2-7

4.56

2011

Bone

45

6-3

-37

3-6

4.56

2012

Bone

20

5-4

-77

2-7

5.39

2013

Bone

12

3-6

-79

1-8

5.06

2014

Bone

-48

2-5

-178

0-9

8.13

*All seasons have 18 games and are adjusted accordingly.

Table A gives us a clue as to way the Bennetts to reach high levels of success at WSU. They were able to achieve a remarkable consistency that made the Cougars about as tough on the road as they were at home. Being able to win on the road with some degree of parity with winning at home translated into solid overall records that got the Cougars into postseason tournaments.

Table A tells us part of the story behind the Bennetts' success, but not the whole story. As Jeff pointed out to me in some earlier data I showed him, we really cannot be "apples to apples" when comparing point margin differences between the Bennetts and Bone because of the differences in the style of play. Even during Bone's tenure at WSU, there is substantial variation between the pace of offensive play that he started with in 2009-10 and the pace the Cougars have played at offensively over the course of the past two years. Because of this difference, Jeff suggested that I go back in and pull efficiency stats.

Efficiency stats do more than just allow us "apple to apple" comparisons; they force us to look at both ends of the court. By doing so, we may be able to get a more nuanced understanding of how the Cougars have been disadvantaged on the road in comparison to home. In Table B, I calculate the differences between the average offensive efficiency at home and on the road. Team offensive efficiency is simply the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions. In Table C, I calculate the differences between the average defensive efficiency at home and on the road.

First, the offense:

Table B: Annual Average Offensive Home Court Advantage

Year

Avg. Home Offensive Efficiency

Avg. Road Offensive Efficiency

Avg. Home Court Offensive Advantage

2003

103.41

86.17

17.24

2004

101.8

95.29

6.51

2005

91.51

94.59

-3.08

2006

85.39

94.84

-9.46

2007

108.04

102.97

5.07

2008

109.98

108.89

1.09

2009

99.96

103.89

-3.93

2010

101.91

93.32

8.59

2011

105.08

95.8

9.28

2012

107.67

98.66

9.01

2013

105.57

98.63

6.94

2014

98.71

82.34

16.31

*All seasons have 18 games and are adjusted according.

Table B shows that the two worst Cougar teams over the past twelve years struggled mightily from the offensive end of the court when playing on the road. It also shows that poor offensive performance on the road has pretty much been the rule during the Bone era, as the Cougars have averaged a 9.38 home court advantage in offered. Granted to demand that any coach achieve the road consistency of the Bennetts is absurd, but it is clear that offensively, Bone's teams have been exceptionally bad on the road.

And the defense:

Table C: Annual Average Defensive Home Court Advantage

Year

Avg. Home Defensive Efficiency

Avg. Road Defensive Efficiency

Avg. Home Court Defensive Advantage

2003

116.38

110.35

6.02

2004

102.06

100.51

1.55

2005

90.33

95.5

-5.17

2006

88.24

107.4

-19.16

2007

92.23

98.56

-6.33

2008

100.87

101.93

-1.06

2009

97.24

107.5

-10.26

2010

104.23

107.17

-2.93

2011

98.41

101.92

-3.51

2012

104.01

111.44

-7.43

2013

104.43

112.72

-8.29

2014

106.43

115.1

-8.77

*All seasons have 18 games and are adjusted according.

Since defensive efficiency is a "low score wins" game like golf, lower numbers indicate a stronger defensive advantage at home, as compared to the road. On the defensive end of the court, the Cougars have always been much better at home, which is expected given the hostility road opponents face at Beasley. With the exception of 2011, WSU's defensive numbers have steadily fallen off over the last five years and they have become progressively worse on the road in comparison to home.

Now that we have send the differentials between home and the road for both offense and defense, let's look at how differentials between offense and defense look plugging in these same numbers and calculating the differences.

Table D: Offensive and Defensive Differentials

Year

H OFF EFF

H DEF EFF

H DIFF

R OFF EFF

R DEF EFF

R DIFF

HOME-ROAD DIFF

2003

103.41

116.38

-12.97

86.17

110.36

-24.19

11.22

2004

101.8

102.06

-0.26

95.29

100.51

-5.22

4.96

2005

91.51

90.33

1.18

94.59

95.5

-0.91

2.09

2006

85.39

88.24

-2.85

94.84

107.4

-12.56

9.71

2007

108.04

92.23

15.81

102.97

98.56

4.41

11.4

2008

109.98

100.87

9.11

108.89

101.93

6.96

2.15

2009

99.96

97.24

2.72

103.89

107.5

-3.61

6.33

2010

101.91

104.23

-2.32

93.32

107.16

-13.84

11.52

2011

105.08

98.41

6.67

95.8

101.92

-6.12

12.79

2012

107.67

104.01

3.66

98.66

111.44

-12.78

16.44

2013

105.57

104.43

1.14

98.63

112.72

-14.09

15.23

2014

98.72

106.33

-7.61

82.41

115.1

-32.69

25.08

As you might expect based on Tables B and C, Table D shows that consistent offensive performances on the road allowed WSU to keep efficiency differentials above or near zero in most years between 2004 and 2009, even though the WSU did noticeable difference in efficiency differentials throughout the Bone era. However, during this current season, the offense experienced an extreme drop in efficiency and the defense stayed close to par with previous seasons. This led to a significant increase between the home vs. road offensive-defensive differential of 25.08, more than eight points higher than the second highest year, 2012, that is measured in Table D

Finally, WSU playing playing in the Pac-12 tournament this Wednesday, I have posted a chart of their performances in the neutral Pac-12 setting. With only three wins in the first ten years of the tournament, you can look at the stats and decide whether or not this has been more like a home game or road game for the Cougs. Table E shows the outcomes and efficiency rating for individual games out averages out the efficiency statistics in years that the WSU has played more than one game.

Table E: Neutral Court Pac-12 Tournament Outcomes

Year

Opponent

Result

outcome

Off. Efficiency

Def. Effiency

Diff

2004

Stanford

L

L, 68-47

81.8

118.3

-36.5

2005

Stanford

L

L, 60-58

107

110.7

-3.7

2006

Oregon

L

L, 66-55

88.3

106

-17.7

2007

Washington

W

W, 74-64

121.3

104.9

16.4

2007

USC

L

L, 70-61

109.9

126.2

-16.3

2007

Average

115.6

116.55

-0.95

2008

Oregon

W

W, 75-70

123.6

115.3

8.3

2008

Stanford

L

L, 75-68

104.8

115.6

-10.8

2008

Average

114.2

115.45

-1.25

2009

Oregon

W

62-40

101.8

65.7

36.1

2009

UCLA

L

69-63

85.2

102.8

-17.6

2009

Average

93.5

84.25

9.25

2010

Oregon

L

L, 82-80

108.8

111.5

-2.7

2011

Washington

L

L, 89-87

118.3

121

-2.7

2012

Oregon St.

L

L, 69-64

97

105

-8

2013

Washington

L

L, 64-62

106.4

109.8

-3.4

Not surprisingly, the outcomes of these games have been much closer to road performances than home performances. Of note during the Bennett era is that for many Pac-12 Tournament games played, the defense experienced substantial drop offs in efficiency. During the Bone era, the overall numbers during Pac-12 Tournament games have been very similar to those on the road, which has resulted in the WSU losing in all four Pac-12 Tournament games Bone has coached in to this point.

Conclusion

The Bennetts were successful during their time at WSU not so much because they made the Cougars a dominant at home, but because they found a way to achieve parity on the road in comparison to their teams' performances on FrieI Court. Solid overall defense and parity on the road added up to success during the Bennett era. Given the Bennett's reputation for strong defense, I would have guessed that their ability to mitigate their opponents' home court offensive advantage would explain this parity between playing at home versus playing on the road. This was not the case. The parity they enjoyed on the road was the result of them being able to be remarkably similar offensively on the road as they were at home

The Bone era has been marked by much better performances at home in comparison to the road. These road struggles are the result of notable differences in the offensive performances of Bone's teams. The major inconsistency between Bone's teams offensively on the road compared to home puts a lot of pressure on the team to win at home. With the Cougars failing to be able to win at home with regularity over the past two seasons, the entire bottom of the program has fallen out. There is now a noticeable statistical resemblance between the 2003, the last season the Cougars failed to win a road conference game, and this season.

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