The hidden disadvantage facing college basketball's road teams

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A decade before he led Virginia Commonwealth to the Final Four, Shaka Smart was a low-level member of Dayton's staff who had been handed a frustrating task by his boss, coach Oliver Purnell. Smart's mission: Buy every brand of basketball the Flyers might be forced to use on the road that season.

"I just remember walking into the store, going from aisle to aisle and hoping to find all the different basketballs," said Smart, now the head coach at Texas. "I remember that."

Former Wisconsin power forward Nigel Hayes remembers when his coach, Bo Ryan, took advantage of the NCAA rules and used a basketball made by a small company in Puyallup, Washington, called Sterling. No other major conference team used it, perhaps giving the Badgers a psychological edge.

"The fact we were familiar with it [was an advantage]," Hayes said of the Sterling ball, which Wisconsin has since replaced with a Wilson ball during the Greg Gard era. "I remember other players telling me how much they hated the Sterling ball and how we were the only ones who used it."

"It was good when we played Wisconsin [with the Sterling ball]," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo quipped. "We just went out in the backyard, got a rock and tried to shoot with it."

Preparing this ball "strategy" is a common assignment for basketball staffers around the country, and among the NCAA's highest-revenue sports, it's a scenario unique to men's basketball.

When Roy Williams goes to Cameron Indoor Stadium, his North Carolina team must use whatever basketballs Mike Krzyzewski has selected for that edition of the UNC-Duke rivalry. Kansas, for example, keeps a rack of 15 basketballs representing the five or six basketball brands the team will use throughout the season. The Jayhawks play with a Wilson basketball, so opponents headed to Allen Fieldhouse will probably use a Wilson in that week's practices. Facing Indiana? They will probably practice with Adidas.

Imagine Alabama coach Nick Saban telling LSU's Ed Orgeron which football his team had to use during their recent SEC clash in Tuscaloosa. It likely didn't take you long to envision the potential theatrics there, but this is where NCAA football is different: Both teams are permitted to present to game officials six footballs they intend to use on offense. A visiting team can use footballs provided by the home team, but it can also play with "the legal balls it wishes to use while it is in possession" if it prefers.

Why are NCAA basketball rules different? Does the brand of basketball really matter? There is data to suggest it does, though many coaches and players ESPN asked about the topic were split on it. As with many elements of college basketball, the lack of a standard ball for the regular season -- or a coherent rule around it -- is a conversation that begins with coaches and revolves around business.

'The ball shall be spherical'

The NCAA rulebook (Section 16. The Ball Art. 1) lays it out simply: "The ball shall be spherical. Spherical shall be defined as a round body whose surface at all points is equidistant from the center except at the approved black rubber ribs (channels and/or seams)."

The ball must also have a circumference of 29.5 to 30 inches. It must weigh between 20 and 22 ounces. Any ball that meets those standards is legal, even if the seams and stitching vary. That's where the chaos ensues. Although most fans don't notice the differences, players accustomed to repetition certainly do.

Although the bulk of college basketball's Power 5 schools use Nike basketballs, the manufacturing giant has different versions of its standard ball. Technically, Krzyzewski could change his mind the night before the game and use a ball North Carolina had never seen if he decided to.

"It can get weird sometimes, just making the adjustment," Michigan State All-America guard Cassius Winston said before the season. "Sometimes it takes a half. Sometimes it takes a couple of practices to make that adjustment. It's a big deal, but at the same time, it is what it is. That's how it's been, so you kinda just work with it."

"It was good when we played Wisconsin [with the Sterling ball]. We just went out in the backyard, got a rock and tried to shoot with it."
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo

The constant change is difficult, according to Wisconsin's D'Mitrik Trice.

"One day you might play at Nebraska and be using an Adidas ball, and then you go to Ohio State and you're using a Nike ball, and you're playing at home and you're using a Wilson or Under Armour ball," Trice said. "It's hard to get used to the different sizes of them because they all have different feels, different ripples in the ball. It's honestly difficult at times."

Nolan Richardson, who coached Arkansas to the 1994 national title, said he never worried about the basketball his team would use whenever it left Fayetteville, though he admits he never liked balls that had "wide seams."

"There's definitely a different feel," he said. "But I always said that every goal is 10 feet high. Now, if you raise the goal above 10 feet, now we've got a problem."

Grant Riller, who averaged 21.9 points per game at Charleston last season, said it's a reality that players have to learn to ignore.

"A lot of players have a preference, but at the end of the day, it's a basketball," Riller said. "It's not anything new to us. It's a difference, but at the same time, it's not a difference."

In spite of those sentiments, don't expect coaches to disregard anything that might give them even a minor advantage over their contemporaries.

"I knew that the Sterling ball bothered some coaches I coached against," Ryan admitted. "Maybe it did. It was all in the spirit of coaching."

The data makes a case ... on both sides

Rodney Paul, a sports economist and sports management professor at Syracuse University, recently conducted a study about the impact different basketballs have on college teams. He and Evan Weiss, a former Syracuse student who works in analytics with the Buffalo Bills, commenced their work after reading media accounts from players complaining about specific brands.

Paul's study found that teams using a different ball on the road could experience more than a one-point differential from their "expected scoring," the latter gleaned from betting data, Paul said. Two-pointers were more affected than 3-pointers. He also determined that what he calls the "Under Armour effect" was real for players accustomed to using Nike basketballs.

"I don't think [the effect of the basketball is] huge by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think it is something that has a noticeable effect based on the data we analyzed."
Syracuse professor Rodney Paul

Paul acknowledged that opposing defenders and road environments have an impact, too, and it's impossible to pinpoint one variable as the most significant component in the disparity. It's just more difficult to play on the road, which is why the NCAA recently created the NET metric for tournament selection; the metric increased the value of road wins compared with their value in the RPI.

To reduce any loss or weakness to the brand of a basketball would be overstating things. But coaches make every effort to ensure that their players prepare with the right balls to minimize any advantage for the opposing team, real or imagined.

During the 2014-15 season, when it still used a Sterling ball, Wisconsin's opponents made 42.4% of their field goal attempts (276 Division I teams exceeded that number overall in the 2018-19 campaign) at the Kohl Center in Madison but made an above-average 38% of their 3-point attempts in the same venue, per ESPN Stats & Info.

During the 2012-13 season, Michigan's opponents made 40.1% of their field goal attempts and only 30.8% of their 3-point attempts with an obscure ball brand called "The Rock" in Ann Arbor's Crisler Arena.

In those years, respectively, Wisconsin and Michigan reached the national title game. The Badgers and Wolverines were also ranked 35th and 37th, respectively, in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.com during those seasons. Did opposing teams go cold because of the defense they encountered -- or the basketball?

During his time at Wisconsin, Bo Ryan amassed a 223-27 record at home and a 91-76 record on the road. John Beilein was 161-42 at home and 53-77 on the road when he was at Michigan. Were those marks on the road tied to the basketball or just the basic challenges every team endures on the road?

"I don't think [the effect of the basketball is] huge by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think it is something that has a noticeable effect based on the data we analyzed," Paul said.

Shoe deals and side deals

The proliferation of basketballs is tied to the role of shoe companies in college basketball. Deals with apparel companies determine the sneakers and jerseys teams wear, and the influence of shoe companies has been a prominent theme in the recent FBI probe into illegalities in college basketball recruiting. Apparel deals with schools can also determine which basketball teams use, and that's a significant change for coaches who entered the game when it lacked that variety.

"There were only one or two when I started coaching," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said.

Northwestern and Maryland use balls provided by Under Armour, their apparel manufacturer. Georgia Tech went with a Russell Athletic basketball before making the switch to Adidas apparel last year. Indiana uses Adidas, too.

But coaches can and do deviate from a university's brand. Ryan told Adidas, his school's former sponsor, that he wanted to make his own deal to use a Sterling ball at Wisconsin, and the apparel company gave him the green light. Huggins uses a Spalding ball, but West Virginia has a contract with Nike. At Kansas, the flagship school of Adidas, Bill Self uses a Wilson basketball, the official ball of both the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments. A few schools use a brand called MacGregor.

Last year, the NCAA extended its deal with Wilson through 2020-21 to provide basketballs for the Division I, II and III men's and women's postseason tournaments.

The most polarizing views still center on The Rock, a basketball manufactured by a New York company called Anaconda Sports. The consensus: Coaches and players dislike it.

The Rock, the bulk of people interviewed by ESPN suggested, has a harder exterior than other basketballs, which gives it a different feel than that of the other brands used in the sport. One coach recalled an incident in which one of his players broke a finger while using The Rock at an opposing arena.

"The Rock," Baylor's Scott Drew said. "It was a rock."

Beilein first used the ball as a Division II coach at LeMoyne early in his career. He eventually developed a financial and promotional relationship with the company that produced The Rock and began to market his own version of the product known as "The Beilein Ball," which he designed. His deal with Anaconda Sports persisted after Michigan signed its megadeal with Nike three years ago. Beilein's preference did not earn many glowing reviews, but it wasn't opponent sentiment that moved the university away from the ball.

When Michigan signed a new deal with Nike in 2016, the apparel giant asked the Wolverines to discontinue use of The Rock and placed language in Michigan's contract that compels the school to use a Nike ball at home.

Even some of Beilein's former players didn't care for The Rock, though Michigan evolved into a national title contender that finished in the top 50 in field goal percentage inside the arc in seven of Beilein's last nine years with the program.

Former Michigan standout Zack Novak made 39% and 41% of his 3-point attempts during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, respectively. During the 2011-12 season, Novak made 28.3% of his 3-point attempts at home and 53.7% of his 3-point attempts on the road, per ESPN Stats & Info. But he isn't convinced that his program's basketball helped him or his teammates.

"I was lukewarm on The Rock," Novak said. "It wasn't as soft hitting the rim as the Nike ball, but I liked the way the seams felt. I don't think it gave us much of an advantage. It also meant that for every road game, we were pretty much guaranteed to play with a new ball. Goes both ways."

Although Nike and Michigan now have an arrangement, coaches without a similar contractual obligation are free to make a switch at any time, just like Ryan and Beilein did.

Bill Self said he switched to a Wilson basketball in recent years because it's used in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments, and that if the NCAA ever switched to a different basketball in the postseason, he'd switch to the same ball.

"See, I do think it makes a difference," Self said.

Coaches lack unity on topic

If the ball is ever to be standardized in college, the discussion -- like so many issues in the game -- will have to begin with coaches. Rick Leddy, spokesman for the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC), says conversations about a standard ball have been raised but never matured due to the conflicts created by the contracts schools had signed with various apparel companies.

"I do recall some comments several years ago about teams using balls linked with apparel companies throughout the season and then having to switch to a Wilson ball for the NCAA tournament," Leddy said. "But it seemingly was dismissed because of all the contracts and sponsorships in place."

"I'm disappointed in that a little bit," Izzo said. "I think there should be some standard. In the NBA, I believe, there is a standard. In the NFL, I believe, there is a standard. In college football, I don't think there is. But we've got to buy all these balls and buy about six of them. We've got different balls from different teams we could play."

Iowa's Fran McCaffery said Nike has the best ball. His school's multimillion-dollar deal with Nike might be a factor in that endorsement. But he says he'd prefer one basketball for the entire season ... but is not convinced it will ever happen.

"I don't think the players like it," McCaffery said. "I don't like it. I don't agree with it. But you start dealing with 'This school is with Nike, this school is with Under Armour.' I get it. We all get it. So I don't think it's going to change. But whatever the basketball that's used for the NCAA tournament, they should use that for games."

Even the coaches who doubt that there's much impact in using different basketballs admit that the superstitious or psychological, if not performative, effect is real for some players.

Nebraska coach and former Iowa State sharpshooter Fred Hoiberg, a 40% college 3-point shooter who thrived from distance during a 10-year NBA career, says a basketball brand can affect a game, which is why he'd like to see a permanent change.

"I get it," he said. "I understand why it happens with some different sponsorships, but I would like to see a standard ball. They all have different feels. There's no doubt about it."