ESPN’s John Gasaway uses statistics to confirm what Anchor of Gold readers have known for a long time: SEC refs, they call more fouls.
Across the sport of basketball, foul rates have been dropping for years. Whether you’re watching Division I, the NBA, the WNBA or all of the above, the story has been essentially the same. You are now seeing fewer fouls being committed than you witnessed early this century.
There is however one prominent exception to this rule. While attempting a normal number of 3s, the SEC has been the most foul-prone major conference in each of the past five seasons. During that same time span, the league has finished in the top five nationally for foul rate four times.
Ah, but John doesn’t want to go quite so far as to blame the referees (as we would do.) Instead, it’s... Frank Martin?
While it’s conceivable that SEC officials blow an occasional whistle that should have been silent, an additional noncontradictory possibility is that the league’s style of play is itself different. In head coach Frank Martin’s eight seasons, for example, South Carolina has been one of the 50 most foul-prone teams in the nation seven times (based on all games).
Eh, maybe. But actually, from 1997-2012 (per KenPom’s numbers), the SEC regularly ranked toward the bottom of Division I in free throw rate. Then it zoomed up to 16th in 2013 before posting seven straight years in the top 10 of Division I. (It is, of course, notable that the SEC’s free throw rate in 2019 was basically equivalent to its 2012 number, but that that went from 26th to 9th among Division I conferences.)
And, yes, the trend started when Frank Martin became South Carolina’s head coach. But that can’t entirely explain it. For instance, in 2015-16, South Carolina’s defensive free throw rate was basically in line with the league average, and somehow the most-whistled team in SEC play was Kentucky.
So I don’t really know, but the fact that this isn’t changing and that no officials are being disciplined or having assignments cut suggests that the SEC wants the games to be officiated in this manner. And perhaps we should start asking questions about why that is.