As ACC fouls drop, the pounding players take rises

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 16, 2013 

There might be more bruises in college basketball nowadays – more hand-checks on the perimeter, contact in the post, more obstacles for cutters trying to move along their intended path.

In the ACC, though, fouls – at least ones that are called – have decreased in recent years, this season reaching their lowest point this century.

During the past nine years, about seven fouls on average – 3.5 per team – have gone missing from ACC games.

The fewer fouls that are called, the more physical the game seems to become. Coaches like North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Miami’s Jim Larranaga have bemoaned college basketball’s increased physicality. Some believe it’s hurting the game.

Asked how officiating has changed, Larranaga put it like this:

“I think referees should call fouls when they’re fouls. The game hasn’t changed, the rules haven’t changed. It’s just the way the game is viewed by the people who are officiating.”

The decrease in fouls amid increased physicality is the most notable conclusion of a News & Observer analysis of ACC foul statistics dating to the 2000-01 season. Using figures available on the website statsheet.com – a subsidiary of the Durham-based company Automated Insights – The N&O searched for trends in ACC foul statistics dating to 2000.

Among the findings:

• Since 2000, North Carolina and Duke have both the largest positive foul differential – the difference between fouls drawn and fouls committed – and largest positive differential between free throws they’ve attempted and those their opponents have attempted.

• The six ACC teams with a positive foul differential in league play since 2000: UNC, Duke, Boston College (which didn’t begin ACC play until the 2005-06 season), N.C. State, Wake Forest and Maryland. The six ACC teams with a negative foul differential since 2000: Virginia Tech, Florida State, Clemson, Miami, Virginia and Georgia Tech. Virginia Tech and Miami didn’t begin ACC play until the 2004-05 season.

• In ACC play since 2000-01, Georgia Tech is the only team that’s had a negative foul differential every season.

• The six teams that have taken more free throws than their opponents in ACC games since 2000: UNC, Duke, Boston College, Wake Forest, Maryland and N.C. State.

The six teams that haven’t attempted as many free throws as their opponents in conference games: Virginia Tech, Florida State, Clemson, Miami, Virginia and Georgia Tech.

Changing game

The overall decrease in fouls, though, is perhaps most representative of how college basketball has changed in recent years. In ACC games during the 2000-01 season, teams committed an average of about 20 fouls per game. That number held steady through the 2004-05 season.

After that the number of fouls began to decrease.

It was a slow decline at first, barely noticeable. In ACC games, teams committed an average of about 19 fouls during the 2005-06 season, and then 18.5 during the 2008-09 season and 17.5 during the 2010-11 season. Entering the ACC tournament this weekend in Greensboro, teams had committed 16.8 fouls per game.

Part of the reason can be attributed to the pace of play. College basketball is a slower game now than it used to be. During the 2003-04 season, ACC teams averaged 71.8 possessions per game in conference play. Entering the conference tournament, they averaged 65.8 possessions per game this season. The rate of fouls, though, has decreased, too.

“There’s a lot more contact that’s allowed now than it was even four, five years ago,” Mark Gottfried, the N.C. State coach, said. “I think the contact around the rim – the offensive player makes an offensive move, and there’s a lot of contact that’s allowed. I think that’s changed a lot. …

“Go put a tape on from 1995 and watch it. You’ll see it. It won’t take you but 10 seconds to see the difference and how much contact is allowed, especially around the basket.”

The decrease in fouls illustrates a shift, as Larranaga said, in how the game is officiated and what constitutes a foul.

In the paint, players fight for position with hands, elbows and shoulders. Contact has become an accepted part of the sport.

There’s less of it on the perimeter, but still a lot more than there used to be – a lot more than Williams, the UNC coach, remembers from earlier in his coaching career. For years, Williams has criticized increased contact in college basketball.

“The game is too physical,” Williams said earlier this season. “And I’ve said that for 15 years. I think you’re able to do more with your hands to stop people from cutting, to stop people from dribbling.”

Overall, amid the increased physicality, space to drive seems to have become scarcer in college basketball. It’s more difficult for players to penetrate for easier shots and more difficult for players to find cutting lanes.

Decrease in scoring

Increased contact has helped lead to a decrease in scoring. Seven ACC teams – more than half the league – have failed to average 70 points per game this season. As recently as the 2008-09 season, 11 ACC teams averaged more than 70 points per game.

“It reminds me a lot of the NBA kind of in the late ‘80s, when you had Detroit and the Knicks, and the scores got really low,” Chris Collins, the Duke assistant coach, said earlier this week. “They got into 70s, especially with the really good, physical teams.

“And one of the things the NBA is trying to do is try to make the game more free-flowing and athletic. And my personal opinion is that’s what basketball is meant to be.”

When Collins played at Duke in the mid-1990s, the game was far less physical than it is now. During his years as an assistant coach, he has watched players, more dedicated to training, become bigger, stronger and faster.

More contact

Officials have had difficulty adjusting, and over the years more contact has seeped into the sport. The increased physicality has altered the way coaches teach the game, Collins said.

“I think with making sure you have body contact on guys in the post, making sure guys on the ball, there’s resistance,” he said. “Because you want to use your ability to be physical on the court, if it’s being allowed. So I certainly think that you always coach to try to use to the advantage the way you can be successful.

“Especially inside in the paint, people are teaching very aggressive physical defenses, and they should.”

Collins isn’t alone in his preference for a more free-flowing version of the game. That’s what Larranaga wants. And Williams. And Gottfried. And on and on.

Larranaga, the Miami coach, said last week that friends of his in the NBA have told him the college game is more physical than the NBA game these days.

“And I don’t think that should be,” Larranaga said. “I think the game does get more physical as you get older, bigger bodies. … But then it shouldn’t turn around and be all of a sudden the college game is so physical that it’s more physical than the NBA game.”

The ACC, citing its policy of not commenting on officiating during a season, declined to make John Clougherty, the league’s director of officiating, available for an interview. Over the years, the conference’s officials have had to answer questions about bias, and about why some teams seem to receive more calls while others don’t.

The answers to those questions are usually obvious enough: On average better teams are fouled more, and foul less, because they’re better. But now a new question has emerged: Why isn’t the game being officiated like it once was?

“You’ve got guys who are bigger, stronger, more physical at every position,” Collins, the Duke assistant, said. “I think because of that, it makes it harder for the referees, because the referees want the game to flow. So it’s a fine line between trying to clean it up and disjointing the game versus letting guys play through contact.”

Like most coaches, though, Collins hopes change comes. It’s not likely to happen over one season, or even two or three.

It took time to reach this point, and coaches believe it will take time for the game to become less physical, and more like it once was.

“One of the concerns is that you don’t want games to turn into a free-throw shooting contest,” Larranaga said. “I think that’s something that officials are smart enough to avoid. They don’t want teams shooting 40, 50 free throws a game.

“Yet, I think coaches have taught their teams to be more and more physical. I think the old theory was if we foul every time they can’t call them all.”

Or even as many as they used to.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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