Hokepoints: Rule Change Mythbusters

Submitted by Seth on January 28th, 2014 at 11:01 AM


The ref is seeing what you are: there should be a few more banners up there.

Somebody on the board over the weekend put up a thread mentioning some of the oft-repeated myths and memes in college basketball concerning this team or that player. I thought I would take a crack at a few of those surrounding the crackdown on handchecks and charges this year.

With the New Charge Rules Scoring is Up

Though there's still time to sort things out, but here's Adjusted Offensive ratings for all teams on Kenpom:


Missed SEO opportunity in not labeling this graph "Climate Change"

You can see something needed to be done, since offense had been declining steadily at all levels of D-I*, and bottomed last season. And you can see something was definitely done. I am comparing only the first half of this season to the entireties of the others so perhaps offense naturally declines as the year progresses and you play more conference foes who know your schemes. If so it hasn't affected Michigan that much. Here's the average points scored by Michigan and their opponents (some M's score plus Opp's score divided by 2) in regular season games over that period:

Another explanation for the increase in scoring this year is the exponential growth in Canada's swag markets over the last two quarters. [Fuller]
Season First 19 After 19 Diff
2003 68.8 67.7 -1.2
2004 65.6 66.5 +0.9
2005 63.7 61.7 -2.0
2006 67.9 72.9 +5.0
2007 62.2 62.4 -0.2
2008 68.1 63.5 -4.6
2009 66.8 63.8 -3.0
2010 65.1 59.5 -5.6
2011 64.4 65.0 +0.6
2012 64.7 62.0 -2.7
2013 68.9 69.2 +0.2
2014 70.8 - -
Avg 2003-'13 66.0 64.9 -1.1

A point less. Confirmed.


* [Except the '05 to '06 dip for the mid-majors, which was conference expansion. That's when Cincy and Louisville et al. joined the Big East, and the mid-majors replaced them by plucking football-first degree factories in Florida (UCF, FIU, USF) plus smallish rocky mountain schools and the Trojan Troy Trojans of Troy (We're from Troy!)].


[Jump for a few more]

The New Rules Have Slowed the Game

The theory was that more fouls, less reliance on transition (since your half-court offense can be efficient). As with the NHL the year they decided playing Jersey Grab-Ass can't count as hockey, foul calls were expected to be way up, and the pace of the game way down. In early November SI's Pete Thamel called it "a diet before beach season."

Tracking fouls is was kind of a bitch so I only went back to the 2009-'10 season. The NCAA does, however, still keep historical weekly stat updates so I could pull just the games played before 1/28 of each season.

Season Nationally Big Ten Only
Games PFs PF/G Games PFs PF/G
2010 6,992 130,155 18.6 224 3,818 17.0
2011 6,937 131,611 19.0 223 3,816 17.1
2012 6,974 127,410 18.3 230 3,917 17.0
2013 6,877 121,356 17.6 222 3,712 16.7
2014 6,795 131,651 19.4 222 3,975 17.9
Total 34,575 642,183 18.6 1,121 19,238 17.2

Know what? The fouls are following the scoring trends. There's about two more whistles per game this year than there was last season nationally and a little over one extra in Big Ten play, but it's not significantly different than historical norms. Even the supposedly rocky beginning wasn't so bad. As of 12/8 (a month into this season) personal fouls per game were at 19.8—high but not staggering.

Big Ten Officials Swallow Their Whistles

Beilein teams have never been much for fouling, or for getting to the line. This year Michigan is actually first in the country at fewest personal fouls per game (14.89), with just one other team under 15. That team is Wisconsin because Wisconsin plays half games, and the High Grublewalders of Rigel send locusts to the homes of any refs who dare blow their whistles at the Badgers.

I made a rough attempt at adjusting for tempo by dividing the fouls/game by KenPom's tempo stat, and Michigan is now 4th in the country at not fouling, just ahead of Iowa State and two spots ahead of (ARRGH TIMES A BILLION BILLION) Wisconsin. Results:

Penn State's historically been that weird team that fouls a lot AND gets called for it. [Fuller]
Conf Tempo F/G FPG/Kempo
Big East 67.0 19.6 0.293
Big XII 68.4 19.3 0.283
SEC 67.5 19.1 0.283
American 68.0 18.8 0.277
Big Ten 67.0 18.1 0.271
ACC 65.8 17.6 0.268
Pac 12 68.3 18.1 0.264
Mid-Majors 67.1 19.2 0.286
I-AA 67.3 19.7 0.293
All D-I 67.3 19.4 0.276

From eyeballing this it looks like better conferences just foul a bit less. The Big Ten is pretty normal with regard to whistles blown, although my stats might be thrown off by non-conference play being too big a factor in the above. So let's just see real quick if things have changed much since conference play began.

Pac officials appear to be a little more willing to call a foul on Arizona than ours were. [Fuller]
Conf F/Gm as of 12/28 F/Gm since Diff
Pac 12 17.9 19.2 +1.3
SEC 18.9 19.9 +0.9
Big Ten 17.7 18.3 +0.7
Big XII 19.0 19.3 +0.3
Big East 18.6 18.6 +0.0
ACC 18.4 18.1 -0.3
Mid-Major 19.0 19.3 +0.3
I-AA 20.0 19.1 -0.9
All D-I 19.5 19.1 -0.4

Nope. This one's busted.

Beilein Teams Don't Foul

When I made that fouls-per-game divided by tempo stat I tried a quick sort. This is still just the data from before 1/28 each season but the #1 least fouly team in the study was 2012-'13 Michigan. Out of 1,728 first-halfs of seasons by teams since 2009-'10, Michigan has the 1st (last year), 68th (this year), 117th (2010), 211th (2012), and 466th (2011) least fouling teams.

That's good for sixth in the country over that time. Five teams that foul less in their first 19 games of each season: Miss St, North Carolina, South Dakota, Notre Dame, and Iowa State. Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa are all pretty high.



January 28th, 2014 at 11:41 AM ^

I think in order to truly tell to what extent refs are calling every foul, every game needs to be UFR'd and who's going to do THAT?  It would take an army of Brians.

It's actually important, though, because while I won't go as far as say so-and-so is getting screwed in this game or that, by which I mean I don't think the refs are necessarily pro- or anti-anyone in particular, the inconsistency of calls has a huge, HUGE effect on the game, and my lack of enjoyment of it.  I follow the maize-and-blue but I can't bring myself to watch the games live because, and no hyperbole here, officiating has completely killed my taste for basketball.  Not the players, not the coaches, not the fans, not even the conferences or the odious NCAA.  It's the refs.  I know it's a tough job so maybe tweaking the rules to make the job easier is in order, but one way or another, it's THAT BAD.

Accusations of bias aside, it's downright confusing for players and aggravating for fans.  Some players are terrified of contact not because they're soft but because of phantom calls, others just go "eff it" and hack every play counting on the refs to not call every one.  Some games the post players are allowed to downright maul each other while guards get whistled for breathing.  It prevents the players from doing their thing, it encourages whiny coaches, it makes fouls an integral part of strategy, and all of that is basketball at its absolute worst.

I'll admit I'm more sensitive than most sports fans so as far as getting irritated I'm the canary in the cage, but just how long can it continue?


January 28th, 2014 at 11:59 AM ^

It'd be nice to get an interview with a few refs. Maybe the issue is that they focus on trying to keep the foul calling consistent between the two teams instead of being consistent to a particular standard. It seems like there's way too much leeway in how things are called, which might be contributing.

There's also the issue that some teams know they wont get called proportionally to the number of fouls they commit:




January 28th, 2014 at 12:25 PM ^

My perspective as a former official that was scratching the surface of DIII, NAIA ball before my day job could no longer allow it:

Maybe the issue is that they focus on trying to keep the foul calling consistent between the two teams instead of being consistent to a particular standard. It seems like there's way too much leeway in how things are called, which might be contributing.

To kind of answer your question:

Referees look to call fouls they see.  It starts with that premise.  Obvious, but worth stating.  Of course, there's gray area.  A foul is a foul because, by rule, it puts the offending team at an advantage.  Well, me touching a guys chest off the ball to see where he is isn't really giving me an advantage, but that same touch on an elbow of an airborne shooting would give me a signficant advantage.

So, the second goal is to have consistency within a game.  A certain level of contact called at one end needs to be called at the other.  The general rule is, the higher level of competition, the more light contact you can allow because at certain points, touching a guy isn't creating an unfair advantage*.

The third goal is an NCAA-wide goal: Consistency within the league.  This is where your handed-down directives and focuses come in.  FWIW, there are several "calls" that are/were supposed to be automatic: two hands (two pinkies even) on a ball handler, an armbar on a ball handler.  This year they are trying to make sure those automatics are called. 

Of course, there's growing pains.  If you call all those automatics, you might have a game with 70 fouls, 40 of which did not provide the offender an unfair advantage.  But you also might create the future where those fouls don't exists and players and coaches learn you must defend with your hands up and not out.  That's the growing pain we see now, though it's not nearly as bad as some think.

*Story told to me by NBDL official who has a WNBA championship game to his name (laugh all you want, but he turned down the option to work in men's NCAA to continue his path to NBA):  His first NBDL game the offensive player went up for a dunk and was grabbed - hand around arm just under the wrist - by the defender.  The ref called the foul, and-1.  The ref was marked down by the observer for calling the foul because the player's contact did not given him an advantage - the dunk went in with the offensive player hardly flinching.   Even though it was a total grab, at that level it wasn't a necessary foul call because there was no advantage created and the offensive player's actions weren't altered.  It was an interesting anecdote.


January 28th, 2014 at 12:41 PM ^

"Well, me touching a guys chest off the ball to see where he is isn't really giving me an advantage."

If by touching him, it helps you to locate him, isn"t that giving you an advantage?  It hinders his ability to create space from you (get open) without you having to take your eyes off the ball and other action.  That may or may not be worthy of a foul call, but it does give you an advantage.  IMHO


January 28th, 2014 at 12:51 PM ^

I could have been more clear.

Unfair advantage is relative.  Remember, basketball is NOT a non-contact sport.

Unfair advantage is usually described as preventing an opponent from doing what they want. 

If I'm on the weakside of a zone looking at the ball and my opposite hand is reached out to get a feel for a possible offensive player in that area, I'm not preventing that offensive player from doing anything.

That's the type of contact that is constant in a basketball game and different from the contact that creates an unfair advantage as described above.


January 28th, 2014 at 11:41 AM ^

I think the thing with Big 10 refs isn't their rate of fouls called, but how many they don't call. Perhaps it's just anecdotal, but the issue is that the style of play in the Big 10 deserves a higher foul rate than what's currently there. Maybe instead of the 18.3 F/gm the Big 10 should be closer to the SEC and Big XII at 19.9 and 19.3.

This is kind of like the Seahawks and MSU football defensive strategies: the refs can't and won't call every foul, so just play as aggressively as you want to.


January 28th, 2014 at 1:53 PM ^

Was just going to post something similar.  It's a near impossible analysis given the subjectivity, but, as you've stated, the hypothesis would be that more fouls are committed, regardless of whether they are called by the refs, in B1G games than in other conferences.  The reason that it doesn't show in Seth's analysis, is that B1G refs call a lesser percentage of those fouls when compared to their conterparts.

Someone else mentioned this, but a uber-detailed UFR of all games (including off ball movement - looking at you Gary Harris) would be needed to quantify that percentage.  Anyone up for it?


January 28th, 2014 at 11:51 AM ^

Hypothesis: winning percentage correlates with low foul rates. I'd expect that giving fewer intentional fouls at the end of the game would lead to lower foul rates for good teams.

For example, Saturday's game had 16 fouls for Michigan, 22 for State. Eight of those 22 came in the last two minutes.

How to verify this, I have no idea.


January 28th, 2014 at 11:59 AM ^

Seth, you're my homeboy and I'm a stat geek, so I feel compelled to encourage you to apply statistical hypothesis testing techniques to your analysis whenever possible. Its super easy once you know what to do and its not that hard to learn (assuming you don't already know how to do it). The Data Analysis Tool Pak in EXCEL is usually sufficient and readily accessible. I'm not saying these conclusions are not valid but it'd be helpful to know whether or not the data definitively support the conclusion. The answer is maybe 60 seconds away if you've set up your spreadsheet correctly.

Of course, maybe the whole mythbusting thing is just a bit, in which case, carry on.



January 28th, 2014 at 12:12 PM ^

Thanks so much for this!

I'm so tired of the complaining about the mythical B10 officials swallowing their whistles.  Apparently, the fact that there's no such thing as a B10 official wasn't enough evidence for some... Hopefully, this is.


January 28th, 2014 at 12:59 PM ^

It may be a myth but not because of this analysis. All this says is that "the number of fouls called in B1G games is comparable to those called elsewhere".

The real "whistle swallow rate" would be 1-(number of fouls called)/(number of fouls committed). We now have the numerator, but the denominator is unknown and the key to the whole thing, since the "myth" is "B1G games are much rougher but the extra fouls are not called".


January 28th, 2014 at 1:35 PM ^

This would be a correlation/causation issue though - "home court advantage" is statistically real, and fouls will tend to be committed more by the losing team (due to intentional fouling at the end of the game). So there's a plausible scenario where, through no fault of the refs, more calls would go against the visitors.

I think we need the "fouls called in the first 38 minutes of game time" stat.

kevin holt

January 28th, 2014 at 6:53 PM ^

I'm really confused about the first one. How does the change in scoring over the first and second half of the season mean anything about charges? I feel like I'm reading it wrong.