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Fouls and How UC Finds a Way to Avoid Them

It may surprise you, but UC fouled less often than most of the country in 2016.

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve ever watched a basketball game, you’ve probably thought to yourself at some point “I wish they didn’t shoot so many foul shots” or “All these foul shots at the end of the game really make it tough to watch this” or “I hope this finishes in time for me to watch Scandal.”

Regardless of your feeling about how and how many fouls are called in college basketball, infractions have a major effect on the game. In fact, they are sewn into the very strategy of the game at times. For example, if you are leading by three points with little time left on the clock and the opposing team has the ball and is in the bonus, you may foul the other team in order to force them to shoot two free throws, essentially making it impossible for them to get the three points needed to tie the score.

It was announced that the SEC, the Atlantic Sun and the American Athletic Conference, the current league of which UC is a member until that Big 12 invite comes down the pipe, will form a new officiating consortium. The main idea is to create more consistency in how referees are trained and provide for more collaboration. Consistency is something any fan should want. If something is called the same, no matter the circumstance, there is less room for squabbling about being cheated out of a possession, a basket or, at the very worst, a game. Until the onset of our robot overlords, human error will still play a part in calling fouls, but making strides to improve is always a nice sign.

But for UC, getting called for fouls was not much of an issue of 2016. That may seem surprising considering how aggressive the Bearcats are on the defensive end, but its true. They committed a total of 515 personal fouls over the course of the 2015-16 campaign, the 10th fewest at the Division 1 level. Interestingly enough, the AAC had two other teams who committed fewer fouls, with UCF (468) and SMU (472) each ranking No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. UC also ranked eighth nationally in fouls per possession (22.6 percent) and fouls per defensive play (19.8 percent).

Now, just looking at the lump sum of fouls does not give an entirely reliable indication that one team fouls less than the other. Tempo, number of possessions and style of play all play into that. Those things all probably helped UC, which might have picked up the pace a bit in 2016 but was still one of the more plodding teams in the AAC and the country as a whole. Obviously, fewer possessions mean fewer chances to foul. However, based on those fouls per possession numbers, the Bearcats weren’t just benefiting from fewer trips down the floor.

Diving a bit deeper into the numbers you’d find that the Bearcats were called for 20 or more personal fouls only five times last season and even had a game with fewer than 10. That came in a 65-56 victory at East Carolina on Feb. 27, when the team was whistled only nine times.

Octavius Ellis was the most frequent fouler, amassing 96 on the season and averaging 2.9 per game. Gary Clark, who played nearly 200 more minutes than Ellis and inhabited similar space on the floor, kept his foul total down to 76, which ranked second on the team. Obviously, frontcourt players are generally going to foul more often as they play closer to the hoop where most contact occurs. After all Coreontae DeBerry (7.9) and Ellis (7.0) were the team leaders in fouls per 100 possession. However, Clark tied for sixth (4.6) with Jacob Evans (4.6). Once again, the lesson is, Gary Clark is the absolute truth.

Whether or not UC’s small foul total is a symptom of its slower style of play or just apropos of nothing (unlikely since the team has had fewer than 600 fouls in four of the last five seasons), its clear that the Bearcats are able to play aggressive defense without sending opponents to the line very often.