NCAA hoops & circadian rhythms

One of my favorite NFL studies (Smith et al, 1996, with several follow-ups) looks at the results of night contests in which a West Coast team has played an East Cost team. Researchers have suggested that, during these contests, West Coast teams perform at a much higher level than the East Coast teams, even after accounting for the point spread set by sportsbooks.

Why might these results occur in night games? Writes this article from Deadspin,

Without knowing it, athletes on teams from the East Coast are playing at a disadvantage. Because of the circadian rhythm, which they can't control, their bodies are past their natural performance peaks before the first quarter ends. By the fourth quarter, the team from the East Coast will be competing close to its equivalent of midnight. Their bodies will be subtly preparing for sleep by taking steps such as lowering the body temperature, slowing the reaction time, and increasing the amount of melatonin in their bloodstream. Athletes on the team from the West Coast, meanwhile, are still competing in the prime time of their circadian cycle.

Unfortunately, in the NFL, night games between West Coast and East Coast franchises are few and far between. In 2014, for example, I only recall two such games, Seattle beating Washington and New England ousting San Diego. Relatedly, Danny Tuccitto found a similar issues with the schedule for Football Outsiders a few years back (bonus: Danny also shows a spreadsheet with the results of past NFL games).

All of this brings me to tonight’s Division 1 NCAA men’s hoop contest between Xavier (EST) and Arizona (PST), which tipped off at 10:40 EST. Given the late start, Xavier is currently playing well past its supposed prime for athletic performance, while Arizona, according to the circadian cycle, should be in much better position. This begs the obvious question – is it worth looking at circadian rhythms in the NCAA basketball tournament?

Going back to 2002, I extracted any NCAA men’s D1 tournament game that was played at 9:00 EST or later. I found 24 of them (note: I did this manually, and my identification of East Coast and West Coast time zones may be a bit off).

Here’s a screenshot of games: I counted West Coast teams at 11-13 ATS.

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 12.17.39 AM

At least relative to the game’s spread, there does not see to be an advantage for West Coast teams playing night games against East Coast opponents.

Of course, there are several caveats here. First, the advantage of playing at night could already be built into the line. Second, we are dealing with a really small sample size – only a few tournament games per year meet this standard – making it difficult to learn much. At any rate, if anyone is interested in studying this further, please send along your results. Other postseason games, and perhaps even regular season contests, would be interesting to look at.

For now, given that these athletes are often competing during night games all season, it certainly seems plausible that the effect of circadian rhythms is limited and/or negligible in postseason college hoops.

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