This Week In The Pac-12: Let's Talk About Refs

Will Pac-12 refs keep Monty smiling? - Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The hated, maligned, insulted, perhaps even under-appreciated companions of every season of our beloved conference!

My least favorite thing to talk about, think about, or otherwise spend time on, are refs. It's the opposite of fun. Few people (myself included) are reasonably qualified to judge the job they do, and half the time I want to seriously criticize them I end up having to thumb through a 100 page PDF of basketball rules.

But because of the general perception of poor quality refs in recent years, and the move by Larry Scott to install a new head of referees, let's take some time to consider the state of reffing in the Pac-12. Also, it might beat talking about UCLA winning the conference.

Why now? Well, in case you hadn't noticed, there has been a change in how refs are calling games this year. Let's dive into the numbers (all numbers via Kenpom):

2013, Conference Play Only

2012, Conference Play Only

Rank

Team

Free Throw Rate

Rank

Team

Free Throw Rate

1

Oregon

41.1

1

Arizona

47.5

2

Arizona

35.7

2

Washington St.

42.4

3

Colorado

34.9

3

Oregon St.

42.0

4

Stanford

34.2

4

Colorado

40.9

5

Washington St.

33.6

5

Arizona St.

37.7

6

Oregon State

33.5

6

Washington

34.2

7

UCLA

31.1

7

Oregon

34.1

8

USC

29.8

8

California

32.4

9

Arizona State

29.6

9

Stanford

31.7

10

Washington

29.5

10

UCLA

31.1

11

Utah

28.8

11

Utah

29.1

12

California

27.2

12

Southern Cal

22.8

League-wide FTR, 2013: 27.4, ranked 30th out of 33 conferences in the nation
League-wide FTR, 2012: 29.0, ranked 24th
League-wide FTR, 2011 (Pre-Larry Scott): 30.8, ranked 17th

For those unfamiliar with FTR (free throw rate), it's a pretty simple stat. It's just a ratio of free throws attempted to field goals attempted. So, in 2012, the conference leader shot nearly 1 free throw for every 2 field goals they attempted. You can see a clear decline in the amount of free throws attempted per field goal - every single rank on the list is lower in 2013 compared to 2012 except for last place (lol Kevin O'Neill offenses). And it doesn't seem to be a one-year trend - FTR has declined two years in a row from the fairly steady numbers seen prior to Larry Scott's introduction to the Pac-12.

Anecdotally, I certainly feel like the refs are ‘letting them play' more than they have in years past, and that's certainly what Monty seems to think: (scroll to the 11:30 mark in the press conference video below for his thoughts)


So the style of reffing has probably changed. But that doesn't make it better or worse. Are Pac-12 refs awful, in isolation or in comparison to their peers in other conferences? If you run a google search for "[conference] refs suck" you're going to get a whole ton of hits.* As it turns out, every single fanbase across the country thinks that their refs suck. But over the years, I've noticed a common thread amongst Pac-12 basketball ref criticism:

1. They call too many ticky-tack fouls, particularly non-shooting fouls or away from the ball fouls.

2. They don't call things consistently, either between teams or within the game itself.

If the statistical and anecdotal evidence are telling us the truth, then problem 1 appears to have been addressed. The conference that gets used as the platonic ideal of physical basketball is the Big East, and for what it's worth, the Big East has higher free throw rates almost uniformly across the board. Admittedly, it's virtually impossible to compare, because ultimately players tend to shape their style of play in response to how the refs call games (and vice-versa). Perhaps Big East refs still let more contact go, but also call more fouls because the teams in that league are that much more physical. In any case, I doubt that a Pac-12 team will lose in the tournament because they weren't prepared for a physical team getting away with borderline calls.

Hypothetical problem #2 is much harder to parse out, and it highly influenced by various subjective opinions. If you're a Cal fan, you might note that the Bears are dead last in the conference in free throw rate. Is that because the refs have, for whatever reason, incorrectly not called fouls against our opponents? Or is it because we're a guard oriented team with two jump shooters as our primary source of offense?

I would posit that it is impossible to call things consistently, both within games and within seasons. I can say that, personally, I have watched nearly every single minute of every single Cal game this year but one, usually with the benefit of occasional TV replay, and there are still plays where I have trouble deciding if I agree with a call or not. Refs will never see every angle and every incident. Even more confusingly, they're calling things on a deliberately sliding scale. If the Pac-12 has decided to tell refs to let more go, that means that we're drawing an arbitrary line at some certain amount of contact. When the rules are inherently subjective, the calls will be even more so. It's the single worst thing about basketball, because there's no solution.

The simple fact is that I don't have the time to watch enough basketball across other conferences to have any ability to compare and contrast. We say that Pac-12 refs are the worst because . . . because we're fans, I guess.

Unfortunately for the Pac-12, their basketball refs already have a poisoned reputation, and I doubt that perception will change any time soon. But I think there's reasonable evidence that some of the changes Larry Scott has made has brought positive developments, and it's entirely possible that the refs aren't as bad as we all remember.

*To be fair, it's tough to distinguish between basketball related hits and football related hits. Suffice to say that the point probably still stands.

Last Week In The Pac-12

It was a week that underscored how weird a year it's been. Stanford, Washington State and Utah all conspired to throw the title race into chaos, and only UW's failure to beat UCLA prevented the 4 way tie that, frankly, seems more appropriate. I've never seen a conference that has five teams that all feel like 7 seeds, but that seems to be what we've got. Plenty of good, not much great.

Game of the week: UCLA 61, Washington 54

Considering how dramatic the season had been prior to the final weekend, the games that ended up deciding everything turned out to be a bit dull. UCLA's 7 point win over Washington ended up being the closest, most dramatic game involving the contenders, and since it decided the title to boot it's almost a default game of the week.

Two or three months ago, UCLA would not have been able to hold UW to 54 points in a game. Laugh all you want at Howland (I do!) but if he can actually reach his players he'll be able to teach them to defend.

Player of the Week: Brock Motum

Washington State has had a miserable year and Motum has presumably played a role in that, but finishing the regular season with a 51 point, 21 rebound weekend has to feel pretty darn good. I'm not shocked that Motum had a solid game against UCLA considering how the Bruins have struggled in the paint this year. But Motum was even better against USC, and they have a few players that you'd think would give him trouble.

If Motum were coming back to team up with the quickly improving Royce Woolridge, the Cougars wouldn't be the worst sleeper pick in the Pac-12 next year. Alas, as has been the case of late, the Cougars seem cursed to again have one fun player surrounded by role players not quite good enough to make an above-average team.

Next Week In The Pac-12

CGB will have a variety of conference tournament material, as well as some All Pac-12 awards over the next few days.

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