Is the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team unfairly officiated?
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Arkansas basketball fans have voiced their displeasure with officiating pretty regularly throughout the season so far. Razorback head coach Eric Musselman has been crafty with his criticism, hiding his opinions through veiled statements of astonishment.
“I can’t recall a home game that I’ve ever coached that an opposing team had 36 free throws attempted,” Musselman said after the Alabama loss in Bud Walton Arena on January 11th.
Later in the press conference he added: “We went to the foul line five times in the second half in a really physical game. So, you know. But it’s been that way since league started, so we’ve got to try and play through it.”
While it may seem like Arkansas is getting an unfair shake, is that actually reality? To be clear, this is not about any one game or specifically responding to Musselman’s comments from that particular game. Rather, this is a question I attempt to answer based on the entirety of the season.
So far this season, the Razorbacks are shooting 22.0 free throws per game, which ranks 27th nationally. Arkansas is putting opponents on the line for an average of 20.9 free throw attempts per game, as well, giving teams plenty of opportunities at the charity stripe. So at face-value, barely one attempt is separating the Razorbacks and their opponents from the line per game. Granted, that is with zero context and zero additional, necessary data.
On the season, Arkansas has shot more free throws than its opponent 12 times so far. Four of those were in conference play (Texas A&M, Ole Miss, @ Missouri, @ Auburn) with the only loss coming against Auburn. In the eight games where the Razorbacks shot more free throws than their opponent in the non-conference, they went 8-0.
Officials aren’t treating Arkansas any differently or officiating them any harsher than normal or than other teams.
The Razorbacks are still getting to the free throw line, and when they defend without fouling, especially shooters, there is no free throw discrepancy. When there is, it’s normally in Arkansas’ favor. Foul counts are typically even. Arkansas’ free throw attempts are high. There’s a pattern of Arkansas fouling more in the second half. It’s not unfair – it’s fixable.
For starters I think it’s relevant to ask: in the losses where Arkansas shot fewer free throws than its opponents, was it because of how the game played out as a whole, or more so the final stretch?
The first loss of the season saw the Razorbacks fall in Maui to the Creighton Bluejays 90-87. The Bluejays shot 29 free throws to Arkansas’ 17. A whopping ten of Creighton’s free throw attempts came in the final 0:37 of the game, eight of those with Arkansas fouling and putting them on the line to extend the game. The Bluejays ultimately iced the game hitting seven of those ten free throws.
In terms of foul calls in general, Arkansas was called for 22 fouls while Creighton was called for 16. Again, five of those were in the final seconds of the game. Additionally, Creighton has demonstrated throughout the season that they can defend without fouling and also don’t put opposing teams at the charity stripe.
So far this season, the Bluejays rank first nationally for fewest fouls per game with 13.0. They also come in second for free throw attempts allowed per game (11.2) and free throw makes allowed (8.0).
Creighton was in the bonus (after the sixth Arkansas foul) with 15:09 to go in the game, though Arkansas didn’t enter the bonus until 5:16 remaining. Does that seem lopsided? Of course it does. I’ll touch on the second half bonus later.
Ultimately, Arkansas shot 11 second half free throws to Creighton’s 28.
The loss to LSU in Baton Rouge was a rough one for Arkansas for a multitude of reasons. The Tigers have been trending in the wrong direction since this game and are now at the bottom of the SEC, making the loss a Quad 3 loss on the Razorbacks’ NCAA Tournament resume. Free throws and officiating didn’t really affect this game at all.
Arkansas shot just two fewer free throws than LSU — 10 to the Tigers’ 12 — and both teams shot a porous 50%. Total fouls were essentially a wash, too, with Arkansas called for 14 to LSU’s 13.
For one, Alabama does play a style of basketball that warrants a great deal of free throw attempts. They rank seventh nationally with 24.7 free throw attempts per game and fifth nationally with 17.8 makes at the charity stripe per game. The 23 free throw attempts by Arkansas exceeds its season average and is over three more than the 19.7 attempts per game the Crimson Tide allow.
Four of these free throw attempts came with under 0:38 remaining in the game, and Alabama made all of them. Arkansas picked up its sixth foul of the second half with 12:51 remaining, while Alabama picked up its sixth foul with 6:58 to go.
The Crimson Tide shot 17 second half free throws, making 14 compared to Arkansas’ five. Over the course of the entire game, Arkansas committed 12 shooting fouls, while Alabama just committed seven. That alone will cause a disparity in free throw attempts, especially with the number of fouls essentially being the same.
The Commodores typically do not get to the free throw line, shooting just 17.9 attempts per game, and they also do not defend without fouling exceptionally well, averaging 17.0 personal fouls per game.
Vanderbilt shot 36 free throws to Arkansas’ 24 in Nashville. There was a stretch in the first half where the Razorbacks actually shot seven consecutive free throws with 0:49 remaining. Arkansas knocked down five of the seven and eventually held a 42-34 lead at halftime. The Razorbacks took a double-digit lead in the second half before falling to Vandy by 13.
Arkansas shot 14 first half free throws compared to Vanderbilt’s 13, but had it not been for the flagrant and technical foul situation, the Razorbacks would’ve been at eight or so first half attempts. Regardless, in the second half, Arkansas shot 10 free throws to the Commodores’ 23.
Again, at least six of these attempts came at the end with Arkansas attempting to extend the game. Even removing those, what led Vanderbilt to shooting 30+ free throws over the course of the game?
In this game, the shooting foul disparity was actually in favor of the Razorbacks, with the Commodores committing 12 shooting fouls to Arkansas’ nine. The Razorbacks picked up their sixth foul with 8:02 remaining in the game, while Vanderbilt picked up their sixth foul with 3:43 remaining.
Regardless of foul counts or free throw attempts in this game, Vanderbilt was significantly better from the field, from behind the arc and from the free throw line than Arkansas, and any minor free throw attempt disparity would not have changed the outcome, most likely. But, we do see again a second half free throw disparity in favor of the opposition.
Another game where Arkansas led in the second half before ultimately losing. The Razorbacks held a 10-point lead with just 5:52 remaining in the game before falling, 79-76. The free throw count? 40 to 26 in favor of the Tigers.
On the season, Missouri commits 19.0 fouls per game but only gets to the free throw line an average of 19.2 times. Neither of those are great numbers nationally, yet the Tigers somehow managed to find success getting to the charity stripe against the Razorbacks.
Eight of Missouri’s 40 free throws came in the final 30 seconds as Arkansas tried to extend the close game. The Tigers shot 28 second half free throws to Arkansas’ 14.
Missouri picked up its sixth foul with 13:51 remaining in the second half, compared to Arkansas committing its sixth foul with 9:57 to go in the game. For once, Arkansas was actually in the bonus before its opponent in the second half. The Razorbacks also committed 13 shooting fouls to Missouri’s seven.
Between extending the game because of a narrow deficit and nearly doubling the Tiger’s number of shooting fouls, the free throw discrepancy here seems pretty valid.
Arkansas played a great game on the road in Waco, and despite of a valiant effort, still came away with a loss. Fans were quick to take to Twitter talking about officiating and the free throw disparity, but let’s look at that game just as we have all the others.
Baylor ranks 15th nationally with 23.0 free throw attempts per game and 10th nationally with 17.3 free throw makes per game. The Bears foul a decent amount with 17.8 fouls per game and allow 18.4 free throw attempts per game. Against Arkansas, they committed 19 fouls and put Arkansas on the line 11 times. The Razorbacks, on the other hand, committed 24 fouls and put the Bears on the line 24 times.
Again, six of Baylor’s free throws came in the final 30 seconds of the game as Arkansas tried to extend the game. They made five of six. The Bears shot 15 second half free throws to Arkansas’ four. The Razorbacks picked up their sixth foul with 14:38 remaining in the second half; the Bears picked up their sixth with 0:37 remaining. Arkansas committed seven shooting fouls to Baylor’s six.
The free throw attempt numbers are again inflated because of extending the game. If it weren’t for those three fouls and six free throw attempts, the foul total is almost even and the free throws are separated by just seven.
Now that I’ve angered you enough for looking at the losses, has it been the same in victories, too?
South Dakota State: Arkansas shot 15 free throws compared to SDSU’s 20, while the Jackrabbits were +4 in second half free throw attempts.
Louisville: Arkansas shot 19 free throws compared to Louisville’s 19, while the Cardinals were +1 in second half free throw attempts.
LSU: Arkansas shot 12 free throws compared to LSU’s 16, while the Tigers were -3 in second half free throw attempts.
I only make a brief mention of those games for a few reasons: (1) the teams Arkansas beat in these matchups were not good, (2) there are only three instances where the Razorbacks shot fewer free throws than their opponent and won, so at this point it is more of an anomaly than something to track, and (3) the games were so lopsided it wouldn’t have really mattered anyway.
What about games where Arkansas shot more free throws and won? Are the characteristics that set up their losses in games they shot fewer free throws rectified and inverted?
San Diego State:
Still on paper the biggest win of the year for Arkansas, the Razorbacks closed the Maui Invitational with a bang, defeating the Aztecs in overtime 78-74. On the season, San Diego State is fouling just 16.7 times per game and allowing opponents to shoot just 16.0 free throw attempts per game. Arkansas shot 38 free throws to the Aztecs 23 in this matchup.
Four of the Razorbacks’ free throws were a result of the Aztecs extending the game in overtime, where Arkansas made three of four. Arkansas shot 22 second half free throws to San Diego State’s ten.
The Aztecs picked up their sixth foul with 9:12 to go in the game, while Arkansas committed their sixth foul with 8:07 remaining in the second half. Arkansas committed just six shooting fouls compared to San Diego State’s 13.
A tightly contested matchup and the game where Trevon Brazile was injured, Arkansas relied heavily on its ability to get to the free throw line to seal this victory.
UNC-Greensboro fouls a decent amount with 17.1 fouls per game, and they also put teams on the line for 17.0 free throw attempts per game. Arkansas shot 33 free throws to Greensboro’s 11.
Four of the Razorbacks’ free throw attempts came at the end as Greensboro tried to extend the game, and Arkansas made all four. Arkansas shot 27 second half free throws to the Spartans’ four.
Greensboro picked up its sixth foul with 11:51 to go in the second half, while Arkansas picked up its sixth foul with 3:45 to go. Arkansas committed seven shooting fouls to the Trojans’ seven.
After getting manhandled last season, the Razorbacks went into Tulsa looking for revenge and found it this season. Arkansas beat the Sooners 88-78, but the game did not seem that close.
The Sooners are one of the best teams in the country at defending without fouling, only committing 15.3 per game, and allowing a modest 16.9 free throw attempts per game. In this year’s matchup, the Razorbacks shot 19 free throws to Oklahoma’s nine.
Oklahoma didn’t try to extend the game. The second half free throw total was fairly even, with 10 for Oklahoma and nine for Arkansas. The Razorbacks picked up their sixth foul with 6:15 to go in the game, while the Sooners picked up their sixth with 3:39 to go. Oklahoma committed six shooting fouls to Arkansas’ three.
What to take away:
The goal here was to provide more context and as much data as possible to allow readers to draw their own conclusions. Obviously while watching a game live, fans are less likely to be objective or willing to accept calls. Emotions get in the way of things and opinions are formed based on feeling and impulse. There’s nothing wrong with that.
I’m also not naive enough to think this provides full context. That would take much more research and analysis, which maybe I can provide at a future date.
Does Arkansas put teams on the free throw line a lot? Yes.
Are some of those bad calls? Sure.
Is Arkansas being unfairly officiated? Not at all.
The areas fans seem to scream up and down about on social media as being unfair towards the Razorbacks are the exact areas those same fans are silent about when it benefits the Hogs.
Overall, it seems like Arkansas needs to get better in a few areas: (1) coming out of halftime not being overly aggressive, (2) not committing as many shooting fouls, and (3) when driving, try to finish the shot rather than just seeking out contact for a foul call.
It is pretty consistent this season that Arkansas allows teams in the bonus early. It’s happened all season across wins and losses. That says more about the aggressive nature of the team to me than anything.
Fouling shooters is an easy way to get your team in foul trouble and put teams on the free throw line. It really is that simple.
For the most part Arkansas does a great job of getting to the free throw line – it’s 25th nationally in attempts per game – yet fans want or expect more. Some of that may be justified, I suppose, and if there’s really an area to improve it’s to go up at the rim trying to make the shot first.
For comparison’s sake, here is where this year’s team ranks with other Musselman-era Razorback teams:
Fouls and Free Throws under Musselman
*season not yet completed
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