As they prepare for their final road game of the season Tuesday at Texas A&M, Frank Martin’s Wildcats can anticipate several difficulties. It’s Senior Day in College Station, it’s also the school’s last Big 12 home game, and although the season has been disappointing, the Aggies still present a quality lineup led by Khris Middleton and David Lobeau.
One other reality promises to work against the Wildcats Tuesday. It’s a road game. That fact alone creates a high likelihood that K-State will have to overcome foul disadvantages.
Through 75 conference games played as of last Wednesday, Big 12 officials have called an average of 19.69 fouls on road teams, nearly three more fouls per game than have been called against home teams.
The Wildcats know the feeling better than most. In their eight conference road games to date, Frank Martin’s players have been cited for an average of 21.88 fouls, 21 percent (3.75 fouls) more than their home opponent.
If the Wildcats operated at similar foul disadvantages at Bramlage Coliseum, then K-State’s physical, bruising style of play would be an obvious explanation. But that is not the case. When K-State plays a conference game at Bramlage, the Wildcats have only been called for 19.71 fouls per game this season. Their opponents, meanwhile, have been called for 23.14.
In other words, K-State is called for 11 percent more fouls when the Wildcats go on the road than at home, while opponents are called for 27.6 percent more fouls here than when they play K-State on their home courts.
It turns out that this pattern of whistles favoring the home team is not unique to K-State. As the accompanying chart illustrates, every Big 12 team except Iowa State has been called for more fouls on the road than on its home court in conference play this season.
What will stand out to Wildcat fans in those numbers is the significant home-road disparity involving the Kansas Jayhawks and Missouri Tigers. When the Jayhawks go on the road, they are called for nearly 32 percent more fouls than when they play at Allen Fieldhouse. When Missouri’s Tigers play at Mizzou Arena, they pick up on average just 12.88 fouls per game, easily the lowest number of any conference school and 30 percent fewer than when they go on the road.
That very reality was one of the things that made K-State’s win Tuesday in Columbia remarkable. K-State was whistled for just 16 personal fouls, five fewer than the home Tigers. The Wildcats became just the second conference team this season — following Baylor — to shoot more free throws in Columbia than the home team. It was also only the second time this year — Stillwater being the first — when K-State went on the road and shot more free throws than the home team.
Among the 75 conference games played through Feb. 22, the home team had been called for more fouls than the road team just 19 times, about one time in four. The average foul disparity in those games was 4.1. By contrast, the road team out-fouled the home team in 52 of those games, and the average foul disparity was 5.6.
It turns out that a general home team foul advantage is more or less a natural occurrence in college basketball. Maybe it’s the fans, or maybe it’s that road teams tend to trail more than home teams and thus tend to foul more in an effort to catch up. The latter could be a factor: home teams have won 62 percent of Big 12 conference games this season, road teams have won 38 percent. But whatever the cause, the pattern is widespread enough to approach universality, and it is not confined to a single season or area.
Using data provided by statsheet.com, The Mercury examined the records of 18 veteran officials who regularly work Big 12 conference games while also working in other leagues. Since the start of the 2007-08 season, those 18 officials worked more than 5,900 games in various conferences, and their crews called nearly 220,000 fouls. The average home vs. road disparity of those calls favored the home team by 2.18 fouls per game, or about 12 percent. Of the 87 referee-seasons for which data was included, more fouls were called against the road team than the home team in all 87.
Teams’ inherent home advantage in fouls called manifests itself at the free throw line. K-State averages 6.75 more free throws during games played at Bramlage than on the road. The Wildcats’ opponents average 5.5 more free throws in games played on their home court than at Bramlage. Again, this is more or less the normal state of things. Nine of the conference’s 10 teams — all but Texas Tech — are averaging more field goal attempts in conference home games than during road games this season. Some of the discrepancies are substantial: 9.75 more attempts for Texas at the Erwin Center than on the road, 8.5 more attempts for Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum, and 8.3 more for Oklahoma State at Gallagher Iba.
The Longhorns’ free throw experience this season has been virtually enchanted. In their home game against Kansas State, Texas shot 48 free throws, the Wildcats just 12. They shot 31 free throws at home against Texas Tech, their opponents just 14. The split was 29-11 in Austin against Oklahoma State, and 31-16 against Texas A&M. In games away from Austin, Longhorns’ opponents have shot 9.29 more free throws than they have, the second largest spread (trailing only Texas Tech) among conference teams. In Austin, the Longhorns average 10.75 more free throw tries than their opponents, the largest spread in the conference. And the difference isn’t ascribable to any one particular ref. The first eight conference games played in Austin were officiated by 16 different men.