On one bench was a mid-tier MAAC team that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in six years. On the other bench was a long-struggling Big East squad projected to finish second-to-last in the conference this season.
Nothing about Saturday's matchup between Niagara and Seton Hall suggested it would wind up being the most discussed contest of college basketball's opening weekend until the game tipped off and the whistles began.
Seton Hall's 83-72 victory over Niagara lasted about 2 1/2 hours and produced an astonishing 73 personal fouls and 102 free throw attempts, both more than any game last season in either regulation or overtime. The foul-plagued contest immediately became evidence corroborating preseason concerns from numerous coaches that new rules cracking down on hand-checking and physical defense would turn this season into the year of the whistle.
In an effort to evaluate whether the Seton Hall-Niagara game was an outlier or the most egregious example of a trend, I charted the personal fouls from all 226 Division I games played this weekend and compared the results to last season's averages. What I found was that fouls per game have increased but perhaps not as dramatically as you might expect considering the attention a handful of interminable foul-fests received over the weekend.
Referees have called an average of 42.29 personal fouls per game this season through Sunday night, about seven more per game than last season. About 19.5 percent of games have featured 50 or more personal fouls and seven have produced 60 or more, numbers that suggest the new rules have been enforced with particular zeal a handful of times by certain crews.
The purpose of the new rules was to curb college basketball's downturn in scoring by weaning defenders off hand-checking or arm-barring and forcing them to play defense with their feet. The proliferation of rough, bruising defense is likely one of the culprits for scoring in Division I plunging to 67.5 points per team in a game last season, the lowest in 31 years or the entirety of the 3-point era.
Kevin Pauga, founder of KPI Competition Analytics, charted scoring over the first three days of the new season and found that teams averaged 73.1 points per game, an increase of 5.6 points per game over last season's average. Some of that increase is clearly a result of the additional fouls called, but Pauga's research suggested greater freedom of movement for offensive players had also contributed.
It's too early to draw any sweeping conclusions on the effectiveness of the rule changes, but the early evidence hints at a couple of things:
1. There will be more whistle-filled, 60-foul games in November and December than in past years as players, coaches and referees adjust to how games are called. 2. Scoring will probably increase in college basketball for the first time in years. 3. The overall impact of the rules changes may not be as dramatic as coaches initially feared.
Average personal fouls per game last season: 35.3
Average personal fouls per game this season through Sunday: 42.29
Average points per team in a game last season: 67.5
Average points per team in a game this season through Sunday at 7 p.m. EST: 73.1*
Percentage of games this season with 50 fouls or more through Sunday: 19.47
Games with 60 fouls or more this season through Sunday: 7 (Kansas-Louisiana-Monroe, Oklahoma State-Mississippi Valley State, Jackson State-Southern Mississippi, Wyoming-Tennessee Martin, Hartford-Quinnipiac, Seton Hall-Niagara, Loyola Marymount-South Dakota State)
Most personal fouls in a regulation game all of last season: 67 (Southern 78, Mississippi Valley State 74, Feb. 11, 2013)
Most personal fouls in a regulation game through Sunday this season: 73 (Seton Hall 83, Niagara 72 on Saturday)
Most free throws attempted by one team in regulation last season: 55 (Sacramento State against Southern Utah on Jan. 7, 2013 and Kennesaw State against Mercer on Jan. 5, 2013)
Most free throws attempted by one team in regulation this season through Sunday: 55 (Indiana against Chicago State on Friday)
Most personal fouls by one team in a game this season through Sunday: 37 (Niagara against Seton Hall on Saturday, Loyola Marymount against South Dakota State on Saturday)
Least personal fouls by one team in a game this season through Sunday: 9 (McNeese State against Michigan State on Friday)
Least personal fouls in a game this season through Sunday: 21 (Michigan State 98, McNeese State 56 on Friday)
* This season's points per team data comes via KPI Competition Analytics
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