Are college basketball referees biased?

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When BYU Athletic Coordinator Tom Holmoe announced BYU would join the WCC in most sports, many predicted the men’s basketball team would dominate the conference.

Now that the 2011-2012 season is over, Coach Dave Rose and his team find themselves in unfamiliar territory: a third place finish in the WCC and a nerve-racking Selection Sunday when they nearly missed being chosen to compete in the NCAA tournament for the first time under Rose’s tenure.

Despite the Cougar’s 25-win season, many fans are upset with the team’s lackluster performance in games against St. Mary’s and Loyola Marymount, blaming the losses largely on officiating. At BYU’s home game against St. Mary’s on Jan. 28, fans chanted “Worst refs ever!” after seemingly questionable calls in the second half.

Other fans called it “church ball officiating.”

The need for officiating in any sport is obvious. The job of an official is to make sure a game is played fairly and within the rules of play. Because officials are human, one may ask, do referees have inherent biases when they officiate college basketball games? Do they call games in favor of ranked teams over unranked teams or vice versa?

Because of complaints about this year’s officiating, The Universe teamed up with several BYU statistics professors to answer these questions by investigating whether there is a significant difference between officiating in the WCC and officiating in other conferences and if a team’s fouls per game was in any way correlated with its final RPI ranking.

Even though referees affect more aspects of a game than foul-calling, officiating between conferences was compared by juxtaposing the number of fouls referees tend to call in each of the 33 Division I NCAA men’s basketball conferences. All raw statistics were gathered from Statsheet.com.

Findings:

  • Teams from BCS conferences averaged 17.18 fouls per game in 2012, while teams from mid-major conferences averaged 18.32 fouls per game. Jonathan Christensen, a master’s student studying statistics, confirmed to The Universe that the number of fouls called against teams in BCS conferences is statistically different than the number of fouls called against teams representing mid-major conferences. However, the difference is not practically significant because the two averages only differ by approximately one foul per game.
  • Over a 10-year period, WCC teams have averaged 18.83 fouls per game, slightly above the national average of 18.1 fouls per game.
  • BYU’s previous conference, the Mountain West Conference, averages 18.41 fouls per game, also above the national average.
  • Throughout the last 10 years, Big Ten teams had the lowest average fouls per game at 17.2.
  • During that same time span, the Southland conference had the most fouls per game at 19.93.
  • BYU averaged 17.7 fouls per game in 2012, the fourth smallest average in the WCC behind Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and Loyola Marymount. That average puts them almost at the exact center of all 345 Division I teams in fouls per game.
  • BYU’s opponents averaged 19 fouls per game in 2012.
  • When BYU wins, it averages 17 fouls per game. When it loses, it averages 22 fouls per game.
  • Of the top two percent of teams with the fewest fouls per game called against them, all are from a BCS conference except one.
  • Of the bottom two percent of teams with the fewest fouls per game, none are from BCS conferences.

After consulting with various statistics professors, it was determined that there is a significant statistical correlation between a team’s average fouls in a season and its final RPI rank, although the correlation is somewhat weak in strength.

“There is a significant relationship,” said Samuel Otterstrom, a professor of statistics in BYU’s Department of Geography. “It’s just not highly explanatory.”

Gilbert Fellingham, a professor in BYU’s Department of Statistics, clarified why the negative relationship between fouls called and RPI ranking isn’t explanatory.

“This isn’t a cause and effect thing,” he said. “These things just happen to work together.”

Fellingham, a former high school basketball referee himself, said the correlation between fouls called against a team and its final RPI ranking could be due to a number of causes other than referee bias.

“It’s incredibly difficult to call basketball,” he said. “There may be enough difference in the speed of the game between conferences that affects this difference [in fouls per game by conference].”

Other reasons for the difference in officiating could be attributed to style of play. Teams in some conferences may be more aggressive than teams in others.

Del Scott, chair of the Department of Statistics at BYU, said the data used by The Universe also has an underlying bias. By using a team’s average number of fouls per game, it removes the game to game variability in fouls committed by that team during the season.

For example, the BYU men’s basketball team averaged about 18 fouls per game during the 2011-2012 season. But BYU committed as many as 26 fouls in games against Utah State and St. Mary’s and 28 fouls while competing against Gonzaga. On the other hand, BYU only committed 10 fouls in its game against Cal State – San Marcos on Dec. 27.

Statistics professors speculated that a losing, lower-ranked team may commit more fouls than its opponents because it doesn’t score as much, and as a result, it spends more time on defense allowing more opportunity to commit defensive fouls, which make up the bulk of fouls called in any given game.

If this were true, then there would be a negative correlation between a team’s points per game and the number of fouls it committed throughout the season. Interestingly, no correlation was found between those two variables, making that argument lack hard evidence.

So were the officials calling biased fouls against BYU in those losses? In other words, do officials unfairly call more fouls against lower-ranked teams? The numbers indicate that they probably don’t. In games BYU was losing, BYU’s opponents had about the same number of fouls as BYU before Cougar players started intentionally fouling in the final minutes of the game, thus boosting the number of fouls called against them.

While there is a correlation between a team’s fouls per game and its final RPI, one cannot make a decisive statement about what causes that correlation or that the correlation is evidence of referee bias. Many factors are involved in a team’s final ranking and in how referees call fouls.

The other question raised by BYU fans during the loss to St. Mary’s on Jan. 28 perhaps deserves attention as well: are WCC refs the “worst refs ever?” or are refs in one conference worse than another?

Another look at the numbers indicates that there is no evidence to support that statement.

First of all, most officials call games in more than one conference. Many referees in the WCC also officiate games in the Pac-12, the Big West and the Big Sky conferences among others.

Of the top 30 referees that called the most fouls last season, one came from the WCC. Of the three that officiated the BYU – St. Mary’s showdown in Provo, one ranks No. 129 nationally in the number of fouls called per game, the other ranks No. 144 and the other doesn’t even rank in the top 200 for most fouls called per game. One of those referees, Jim Giron, called 17 technical fouls this year (more than the other two). That is nowhere near the 30-plus technical fouls other referees have called throughout the year.

WCC Director of Officials David Libbey declined to comment on the story.

It should be noted that aspects of foul-calling such as the nature of the foul and when a foul occurs aren’t included in this analysis simply because they are too difficult to take into account when comparing referees or fouls called for more than 360 teams. By looking strictly at the numbers, however, it is clear that WCC referees don’t call more fouls than their peers in other conferences.

While most people agree that referees have a human element to their foul calling, the overall difference in the number of fouls they call against teams in different conferences is minimal.

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