This column reflects the opinion of the writer and does not in any way reflect the views of The Stanford Daily.
Whenever there’s a controversial foul called in any college football or basketball game, it doesn’t take long for people on Twitter to start assigning the blame. And, whether these whistles occur during some #Pac12AfterDark showdown, March Madness regional or, heck, the NBA playoffs, the officiating in our conference has become synonymous with ridiculous, over-zealous penalization.
This characterization of referees in the Conference of Champions isn’t always unfair. In football, there’s quite a bit of surface-level evidence that Pac-12 officials are fonder of throwing flags than referees in other conferences, and many coaches have questioned both the number of penalties levied in the conference and the decision-making behind each one.
Basketball, however, is a very different story. Despite garnering almost as much criticism as their counterparts in football, Pac-12 basketball referees actually tend toward the conservative side when it comes to using their whistle, according to an analysis I ran based on data from ncaa.com.
In fact, the Pac-12 referee average of 34.6 fouls per conference game in 2016 is actually the second lowest across five major basketball conferences. This places the conference narrowly above the ACC (34.4) but well below of the Big 10 (35.9), Big 12 (37.2) and SEC (39.6) in terms of number of fouls called.
Furthermore, the distribution of different types of fouls was about the same in the Pac-12 as it was in the other conferences. Around 38.4 percent of all whistles in the Pac-12 were for shooting fouls and 8.9 percent were for offensive fouls, both of which rank right in the middle of the pack. The conference was also comparatively light on technical fouls this year, tying with the Big 10 for the lowest total with 30.
Of course, counting raw foul numbers is a bit unfair on the officials, as many basketball games include good deal of intentional fouling by players to keep the score close. While it’d be nearly impossible to totally exclude these fouls from an examination of officiating trends, I made a fairly rough attempt to reduce their effect on the results, effectively by removing fouls called in the last couple minutes of the second half and overtime periods of every game.
Low and behold, this evens things up a bit. The Pac-12 called by far the fewest fouls per game during the final possessions, possibly because there just wasn’t as much parity – and, by extension, close finishes – in conference play as there was in many of the others. Accounting for this effect significantly narrows the overall gap between the Pac-12 and Big 10/Big 12/SEC, while also placing the ACC almost a full foul per game below the rest of the field.
Still, this correction doesn’t prevent the conference from hanging on to its overall position as the second most conservative in terms of foul-calling.
It’s worth noting that a lot of the reason why there isn’t a ton of difference in fouls called across conferences is that many of the conferences actually share the same referees. Unlike in some sports, where each league will have its own set of officials, college basketball refs are “independent contractors” who can work in the Pac-12 one day and the Big 12 the next.
It is also a fair point that even if foul-calling in each conference is roughly the same, foul-calling in college basketball overall can still be fairly derided. I still firmly believe that the NCAA should adopt a “continuation” rule, which would increase the relative prevalence of shooting fouls and prevent so many baskets from being waived off (for now, I’ll have to be comforted with the fact that this analysis suggests the current policy is being implemented evenly.)
And, despite the evenness on the surface, it’s admittedly still possible that Pac-12 refs are still making large numbers of terrible foul calls that don’t show up in the stats. The even number of fouls by no means guarantees that the foul calls are of even quality; it’s totally conceivable that conference officials could be erroneously marking clean plays as fouls and marking fouls as clean plays at approximately the same rate, at least to some degree.
Even so, it might be time for us to go a bit easier on our local officiating crews. The next time you see a decision you disagree with, perhaps you should consider whether your objection really has anything to do with the specific conference involved.
Hey, come to think of it, perhaps I should, too.
Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu if you want to explain to him that West Coast bias can also be just as real as East Coast bias.