Tourney time is nearly here, and with it looms the question that is probably at the forefront of every mind that follows college basketball: How will fouls affect the tourney. ....what's that? Oh, that's not the first thing you think about in the morning and the last thing you think about before going to bed? Well, then maybe I was wrong. But since I grabbed all of this info anyway, I may as well share it.
First, some caveats. All of this data is pulled from statsheet.com. Unfortunately it doesn't look like all of the weekend games have been captured yet, but the data available should still provide a good feel for the situation in each conference, especially since it's all been normalized to a per game basis anyway. Secondly, as I was pulling this stuff together and considering it, I came to the conclusion that this is likely to tell us less than I had originally hoped about how the games are called. Players will adapt to the refs and overall foul numbers are not likely to differ all that much (which you'll see is true as you scroll down). That doesn't mean this info is of no use, but take it with a grain of salt.
First up, I did the obvious thing and looked at how may fouls each conference averaged per team per game. This is considering just the top 8 conferences: B1G, B12, Big East, ACC, AAC, A10, SEC, PAC12. I would have kicked the SEC to the curb since they've only got 3 teams in the tourney, but one of them is a favorite for the title so I figured I'd keep them around. I looked only at conference games, for two reasons. First, schedules vary greatly from team to team prior to conference play, and fouls would be expected to vary along with that schedule. If Wisconsin played all cupcakes and was up by 40 with 10 minutes left I would expect fewer fouls than a closely contested game. I also anticipate that taking this approach will mitigate the effect of late game fouls when teams were trying to play catch up, since for every team that's playing foul-and-shoot in conference play there's guaranteed to be another conference team that's assiduously avoiding fouling since they're up by a just a few points and don't want to give their opponent a chance to score while the clock is stopped. The second reason is that the early noncon games are tuneup games for the refs too and that's especially true with the rule changes this year. By the time conference play starts, both the teams and refs should be comfortable with the new rules and we should get a better look at the numbers.
As usual, click to get a larger, actually legible version.
As you can see, fouls are grouped fairly well, with an overall spread of just 1.5 fouls per game. I suspected the B1G would be on the low end when I started doing this and I was right. At the time I figured it would be because the refs let teams play a little more in the B1G, which seems anecdotally to be true. However, this could just as easily be the result of happening to have two of least foul prone teams in the nation: Wisconsin and Michigan.
In a quest to find some other indication that the B1G is more physical than most leagues, I drilled down into individual ref tendencies. Your average ref will call games for a number of conferences, but each conference has its old standbys, the guys who call more games a year than the rest. Those guys set the standard for reffing in each conference. Figuring the other refs who bounce from league to league may be throwing off the numbers, I decided to look at just the top refs for each league. Below is the average number of fouls called per game (on both teams combined) by all refs who called at least 10 games for each conference. (Note: the AAC only has a few refs who were used for 10 games or more, so those numbers are even shakier than the rest due to the really small sample size.)
As you can see, the B1G and ACC still have the fewest fouls called per game. Yet once again, it's simply impossible to conclude that the refs are allowing one league to play looser than another. The totals are relatively close and you can't tell from raw numbers just how any given team is playing.
Look Ahead for Tourney Team
But what's the point of pulling this data together? Isn't it to get a feel for how the teams in the tourney will fare? Why don't we look at how the tourney teams from each conference match up foul-wise to see if anything can be gleaned about the future.
Thanks to the low foul rates of both Wisconsin and Michigan, the B1G's foul rate is exceptionally low. How this will affect the B1G, and Wisconsin specifically, depends on the current state of reffing across the NCAA. Regardless of how each conference is officiated compared to the others, I believe the NCAA will be reminding the refs to be quicker with the whistle on hand checks and minor contact. In my opinion, the refs across the college basketball landscape have gotten away from that as the season has progressed, so when the calls tighten up in the tourney we're going to see some surprised teams. The conferences that can weather that change the best should be able to put more teams deeper into the tourney. That bodes well for the B1G, since our tourney teams as a collective foul less than anyone else among the big eight conferences. Specifically, that bodes well for Wisconsin and Michigan, who are among the least foul prone teams in the country.
To play devil's advocate however, we've seen Wisconsin struggle at times when the games are called looser and allowed to be more physical. If that's how this tourney goes, we're going to need to adjust quickly.
In order to look ahead at possible matchups, here's the average number of fouls per conference game committed by each tourney team in the 8 conferences I looked at. Definitely click on this one to view it larger.
American doesn't show up obviously, but then I don't think we're too concerned with that matchup. (Please don't prove me wrong guys.) However, you'll notice that a possible 2nd round matchup with Oregon pits two teams at opposite sides of the spectrum. With a tightly called game we'd expect to spend a lot of time at the charity stripe. Although they don't show up on this chart, BYU is a very similar animal. They've averaged 20 fouls per game in conference play in the WCC, which would be good for the 9th most out of any team if it was included. In the Sweet 16, Creighton falls roughly in the middle of the pack.
As for the other B1G teams, MSU is expected to make a run but could suffer if the officiating is tighter than they're used to. On the plus side, they're a pretty deep team since a lot of bench guys go starter minutes due to all of the injuries this year. On the flip side, Michigan is very Wisconsin-like in their foul tendencies and would benefit just like we would.
Any thoughts now that you have this info?
Also, I'm curious whether anyone agrees with me that the B1G seems to have gotten back to its old physical ways as the season progressed. Obviously we're biased and have seen more B1G games than anything else, but let me know in the poll what you think.