How much has fouling increased?

The top storyline of the 2013-14 season so far is pretty clear: On the college basketball corner of the Internet, you couldn’t toss a free throw this weekend without hitting two or three complaints about the number of foul calls. Before the season, the NCAA instructed officials to be stricter about monitoring defenders who put their hands on offensive players, and it’s clear coaches and fans believe those guidelines have disrupted the flow of games.

Boston College and Providence raised eyebrows by combining for 55 fouls in Friday’s opener, with both teams drawing more whistles than either side in any of BC’s 33 games last year. Granted, those numbers were padded in overtime — but that only exacerbated the problem, as 15 of 20 points in the extra frame came from the free-throw line. “It should have been a great college basketball game, and it was just choppy,” BC head coach Steve Donahue said after the game.

One game does not make a trend, however, and none of Sunday’s three games at TD Garden was absurdly foul-filled, maxing out at 44 whistles in the BC-UMass tilt. So let’s dig into the nationwide data and see if fouls are actually more frequent this year. (If you saw similar work by Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Eisenberg yesterday, keep reading anyway, because my analysis includes (1) slightly different methods, (2) a longer history, and (3) pretty graphs.)

Notes on methodology:

  • For previous seasons, only the first weekend of games is included — which is necessary for a fair comparison, because fouls historically occur more frequently in the first weekend (about .5 per team game above the full-season average).
  • Foul rates are calculated on a per-possession basis — which adjusts for the fact that teams are playing at a faster average pace so far this season and also avoids the thorny issue of overtime games (which could skew per-game statistics). The chart below shows fouls per 70 possessions, which is roughly the 40-minute average per team.
  • Data obtained via TeamRankings.com’s great database of daily statistics. (Only games between Division I teams are included.)

NCAA_Basketball_Fouls_2013-14_Beanpot_HoopsCoaches and fans are right: Foul rates have increased substantially from 2012-13. In last year’s opening weekend, teams averaged 18.4 fouls per 70 possessions; in 352 games through Sunday night, teams had averaged 20.7, a 12 percent increase. (On a straight per-game basis, the gap is a bit wider — closer to three fouls per game — but that’s partly due to the increase in possessions per game.) Furthermore, this year’s whistle rate is about a full foul per 70 possessions greater than any opening weekend of the past decade.

That is a meaningful difference, which will show up in free throw attempts, foul-outs, and maybe even game duration. This year’s foul rate should come down a little bit throughout the season, as it has in the past — but barring a drastic adjustment by referees or players, it will settle at about 20 fouls per team per 40 minutes, higher than any recent year.

Before the hand-wringing resumes, however, let me show a different cut of the same chart:

NCAA_Basketball_Fouls_2013-14_Beanpot_Hoops_2This year, fouls per 70 possessions are up by 1.13 from 2011-12. Last year, fouls per 70 possessions were down by 1.16 from 2011-12. (Guess I must have missed all the complaining last November about how the game was out of control and not enough whistles were being blown.) In sum: Fouls are indeed more frequent than ever before — but it feels like a dramatic change in part because last year’s rate was aberrantly low.

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