Towers’ Take: On road, teams must overcome refs as well as opponent

Georgia basketball-JJ Frazier-Yante Maten
Yante Maten (1) and J.J. Frazier (30) tend to go to have fewer calls against them and go to the line more on Georgia's home court than away.

ATHENS – Georgia plays host to Vanderbilt tonight in men’s basketball. I can already tell you what’s going to happen.

The Bulldogs are going to win and a lot of that will have to do with foul distribution. The Commodores will have more fouls called against them, Georgia players will shoot more free throws and make more free throws and that will likely be the difference in a narrow victory.

It’s a familiar refrain. As in, it happens in pretty much every SEC game you watch. It happened in inverse this past Saturday at Florida when the Bulldogs lost a game in which they roundly out-played the Gators. Between the whistles, anyway.

And there are always a lot of whistles, aren’t there?

That’s why we all show up, isn’t it, to watch the referees blow their whistles and to watch players shoot free throws? At least, you’d think that’s what game organizers are shooting for.

Seth Emerson, our Georgia beat writer, touched on this subject – best that he could at least – when he talked to the Bulldogs’ players and coaches this past Monday in advance of tonight’s game. Of course, the responses to his questions were cryptic because, you know, commenting on officiating is prohibited by the SEC, as it is in every other NCAA Division I conference. Nobody seems to mind when players and coaches compliment referees, by the way; that just rarely if ever happens. But to be critical of them is a no-no, or else one is subject to reprimands and/or fines, not to mention, you’re never going to get a break on those block-charge calls.

So head coach Mark Fox put a gag order on his players talking about the officiating in Florida – or the Florida game at all – in the lead-up to tonight’s game against the Commodores. However, reading between the lines, Fox did  point out the foul disparity in the contest against the Gators and it’s effect on the eventual outcome, a 80-76 loss in overtime.

“Our kids really competed and at the end of the night we held them to 40 percent shooting while we shot nearly 50 percent,” Fox said. “We won the rebound battle by nine but we were minus-11 free throws and minus-14 attempts to them, so that balance was hard for us to overcome as a team.”

In other words, Georgia beat the then No. 23-ranked Gators on their home floor before a raucous crowd in every aspect of the game except for fouls and free-throw shooting. A couple of what I would describe as ticky-tack fouls contributed to the Bulldogs losing leading scorer and rebounder Yante Maten, who fouled out with nearly four minutes in regulation and played only 19 minutes overall. He still managed to score 15 points, but he was not on the floor to help Georgia maintain its narrow lead at the end of regulation and, of course, in overtime.

It’s the great unspoken rule in college basketball: The home team is going to get the benefit of the doubt; the home team is going to get most of the calls. And if that home team happens to be ranked and favored, well, you can be just about certain that the foul distribution will be to its advantage.

And it’s not just theory. Granted, it’s a small sample size this season, but I enlisted the help of my SEC Country colleagues to take a snap-shot look at foul distribution in the league so far. No one will be surprised by the conclusion of the data.

Some bullet-points:

  • A little more than two fouls are called on road teams per game than home teams. That also works out to more than four free-throw attempts per game for home teams than road teams;
  • Georgia has an average of 6.7 more fouls called against it in away games than in home games. Only South Carolina has a bigger disparity (10.0);
  • Only three teams (Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt) have had more fouls called against them in home games than road games;
  • All three unbeaten teams (Florida Kentucky and South Carolina) rank in the conference’s top five for fewest fouls called against them at home.

Now I understand that there are all kinds of factors that go into foul calls. Certainly the better teams — that would therefore have the better records and rankings — have the better players. So many of their players might be a step quicker, more agile and/or more athletic, resulting in less fouls. That’s certainly plausible.

And some teams, such as South Carolina, are defensive-oriented in nature and simply play more intensely and aggressively on that end. So it would follow that they get fewer calls against them at home than when they’re on the road.

But should they? Isn’t a foul a foul whether it occurs on one’s home court or as a visitor?

Certainly there is the human condition to consider. Home-court atmospheres – some more intense than others – must have some effect on how refs call a game. How else do you explain these officials who gesture wildly and strike a pose as they turn to signify that the ball is going the way of the home team?

Ultimately, it’s all up to the referees to judge. And I’ll assert here that I don’t believe there are enough good ones these days. I’ve been covering this league long enough to recognize a lot of these guys and sort of predict what kind of game it’s going to be based on the crew that’s calling it. Doug Shows, for instance, is a guy you’re generally glad to see on the floor. You feel like he’s going to call a good game and not be swayed by crowds or grousing coaches.

I used to feel the same way about John Clougherty, Gerald Boudreaux, Andre Pattillo and Don Rutledge. All those guys went on to supervise officials for leagues when they hung up their whistles. Pattillo, now athletic director at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, still monitors officials for the SEC office at UGA home games. That means he effectively grades these guys and sends a report to the league office.

And we must keep in mind that these are part-time gigs for these men and women in the striped shirts. Shows, for instance, works as an investment and insurance adviser at a bank in Rome, Ga., according to a profile done by the Lexington Herald-Leader a few years back.

But as the data shows, it is what it is. The majority of the time you can expect the home team to get most of the calls and to shoot most of the free throws. Georgia’s at home tonight. That’s good for the Bulldogs; sucks for Vandy.

SEC Wide averages

Connor Riley contributed to this report.

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