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Indiana vs. Kentucky: will the Georgia Dome be a factor?

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Last year's brickfest in the NCAA championship game between Butler and Connecticut revived the long standing theory that teams shoot more poorly in large domes than they do in traditional arenas. It's a popular perception that comports with common sense. Anyone who has watched a game in a dome, particularly from the rafters, knows that it's a vastly different experience, and it makes sense that playing in a dome would be different as well. What surprises me is that no one seems to have delved deeply into this issue statistically.

CBS's Jeff Borzello addressed the issue after last year's ugly title game. He noted that from 2003 through 2010, only four of 16 title game participants shot better in the title game in the season at large. That's an interesting statistic, but I'm not sure that it is terribly persuasive. First, wouldn't it be surprising if half or more of title game participants shot better from the field in the championship game than they did in the season overall? Thing about the typical major conference team's overall schedule. Most major conference teams play a comfortable majority of their games in the home arenas, and there unquestionably is a homecourt advantage. Also, most title participants play at least a decent number of overmatched teams in the pre-conference, which serves to inflate statistics such as shooting percentage. I don't think overall shooting percentage provides much of a comparison. It seems that there are any number of ways to evaluate it, some of which are beyond my competency and others for which I don't have time. One approach would be to compare title games played in domes to title games played in traditional arenas. This would be difficult, because every Final Four since 1997 has been played in a dome, as were several of the Final Fours between 1982 and 1996. Such an approach would be getting pretty far afield from the modern era of college basketball. Another approach would be to compare a particular team's title game shooting percentage to its performance in neutral site games against top tier opponents. The difficulty here is that many teams don't play any such games in a given season, so it seems that data would be scant. The final approach, and this is the one that is beyond my competency, would be to take a Pomeroy-style approach, throw a bunch of data together to predict the expected field goal percentages in a game, and see if those numbers lean one way or another in domes. I know that Pomeroy's formula predicts a final score and a pace. Does it go so far as to predict field goal percentage? I don't know. The bottom line is that while it makes intuitive sense that domes may have a negative impact on shooting percentage, I haven't found any convincing empirical evidence in that regard.

All that said, this will be a new experience for the vast majority of IU's players. It may be hard to believe for those of us who fondly recall games against Kentucky, Kansas, and others at the Hoosier Dome, but IU has played only one dome game in the past six seasons: a 70-54 loss to Gonzaga at Lucas Oil Stadium in December 2008, during Tom Crean's first season and when the current seniors were freshmen. As far as I can tell, IU's dome game was in 1986, when IU was upset by Cleveland State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. After that, such games became a close-to-annual occurrence. In 1987, IU played its opening round NCAA games in Indianapolis and the Final Four at the Superdome in New Orleans. From 1987-88 through 1990-91, IU played either Kentucky or Louisville in the Big Four Classic in Indy. In 1991-92, IU and Kentucky began rotating their annual series between Louisville and Indianapolis, as it remained through 2005-06. In the years when the Kentucky game was in Louisville, IU often played a dome game against someone else: Kansas in 1992-93, Evansville in 1994-95, Connecticut in 1996-97, Seton Hall and South Carolina in 1998-99; a non-conference game against Purdue in 2002-03. Adding in NCAA Tournament games, in the 21 seasons from 1985-86 through 2005-06, IU played at least one game in a dome in 19 seasons (2000-01 and 2004-05 were the exceptions). Friday's game will be IU's second dome game in the past six seasons, including this one.

Finally, the Indiana high school state finals were played at the Hoosier Dome from 1990 through 1998. In short, for many years, playing in a cavernous dome was fairly common for IU players in both high school and college. Now, only Tom Pritchard, Daniel Moore, and Matt Roth have played in such an environment, as far as I know (Verdell Jones III did not play in that game--I presume that was after the concussion he suffered against Cornell that season). Here's a link to my recap of that game, and what do you know? IU stayed in the game because of an "uncharacteristically awful shooting performance by Gonzaga," 3-18 from three point range, but IU was even worse, shooting 30 percent overall. So, that leaves us with yet another piece of anecdotal evidence. What seems certain, however, is that this will be an unusual environment for IU's players and it may require some adjustment. Fortunately, however, Kentucky has not played in a dome yet this season, either, although last season UK played the SEC Tournament at the Georgia Dome and a Final Four game at Reliant Stadium in Houston. If one or both teams shoot poorly, expect to hear Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg invoke the dome factor. If both teams shoot well, expect it to be ignored.