Let’s talk about fouls in a productive way.
N.C. State lost at Louisville 84-77 on Thursday night and many Wolfpack fans are concerned (OK, angry) about the free-throw discrepancy in the loss, specifically, and in ACC play, in general.
N.C. State attempted seven free throws on Thursday (and made five), while Louisville took 29 free throws (and made 24). So N.C. State was outscored by 19 points on the free-throw line in a seven-point loss.
Cue the outrage.
In six ACC games, N.C. State has attempted 91 free throws, compared to 164 by the opponent. That’s the widest margin in the ACC (by a lot).
But let’s put N.C. State to the side for a minute and check out some numbers for the 68 teams in the 2016 NCAA tournament field.
Raw foul numbers (or free throws) aren’t always an easy apples-to-apples comparison. Tempo matters (the more possessions, the more opportunity to foul), competition level matters (if you’re smashing an inferior team, you’re less likely to need to foul) and time/score matters (teams who are behind in the second half obviously tend to foul more and often intentionally).
There is a catch-all metric to compare teams: free-throw rate. If you divide the number of free throws attempted by the number of field goals attempted, you get the free-throw rate. Do the same for the opponents and you get a team’s defensive free-throw rate.
Thankfully, Ken Pomeroy tracks this statistic. This formula will give you a general picture of a team’s ability (or its opponents’) to get to the free-throw line.
The average defensive free-throw rate of the 68 teams in the 2016 NCAA tournament field was 33.9. The lowest rate was by Utah (23.0) and the highest rate was by West Virginia (55.3).
Kevin Keatts led UNC-Wilmington to a Colonial Athletic Association title in 2016 and was a No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament. UNCW’s defensive FT rate that season was 55.2. Out of the teams in the NCAA field, only West Virginia rated higher.
Take it a step further, out of 351 Division I teams, UNCW ranked No. 350 that season in defensive FT rate and West Virginia was No. 351. They were two of five Division teams with a rate of 50 or higher that season.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins and Keatts employ a similar style of play with full-court presses and pressure man defense. Keatts’ three teams at UNCW (from 2015-17) ranked No. 330 (47.5), 350 and 269 (39.7) in the category.
West Virginia annually ranks among highest teams in defensive FT rate. Oklahoma State, a pressing team under Brad Underwood in 2017, ranked No. 335. Underwood moved onto Illinois last season and the Illini ranked No. 350.
What’s the point?
Style of play is a major factor. Teams that press and play aggressive defense foul more. They just do. Those numbers aren’t lying or being manipulated to make a point. They are what they are.
Look at the difference in Keatts’ first two N.C. State teams. Last season, with a shorter rotation and not as much depth on the wings, N.C. State didn’t press as much. Its defensive FT rate was 33.7 (or No. 189 nationally).
In ACC play, N.C. State attempted 314 free throws, compared to 347 by the opponents. You’ll note, N.C. State had more of an established post scorer last season, in Omer Yurtseven, and attempted fewer 3-point shots per game (21.4) than this year’s version (25.5).
Note: The more 3s you attempt, the fewer free throws you are likely to get (as your rec league coach no doubt taught you, you get to the foul line by taking the ball to the basket).
N.C. State is deeper and pressures more this season, even in a halfcourt set. It has been more aggressive defensively this season. The defensive FT rate for this team is 41.3 or No. 316 nationally.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any bad calls or missed calls. Pick any block/charge to support your argument (see: Wisconsin). But it also doesn’t mean there is a conspiracy to call fouls against N.C. State.
N.C. State’s free-throw discrepancy is a function of Keatts’ style of play. If you’re an N.C. State fan, that’s a tradeoff you have to take. When a team plays harder, it fouls more.
You’ve already lived through the alternative. It was not pleasant. This is the lesser of two evils.