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UNC Basketball: Flagrants and free throws

Officiating was a mess on Saturday, but it doesn’t mean all their calls were wrong.

NC State v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Twitter can be a really nasty place during a heated sporting event.

I’m not saying anything you don’t already know, but the level turned toxic on Saturday evening thanks to a couple of factors in UNC’s 80-69 win over NC State. First, the scary incident involving Terquavion Smith that saw him wheeled out on a stretcher, and the second was the huge disparity in free throws — 39-12 — in favor of the Tar Heels.

Let’s put this out there at the start: thank goodness Smith is OK. The Wolfpack sent out an update on Sunday morning indicating that there was nothing broken, and that for the most part, the moves were out of an abundance of precaution. Anytime any player states they feel pain in their neck on a fall and that pain extends to numbness in an arm, you have to go full-out to make sure that you don’t do irreparable harm to someone so early in their life. Thankfully, Smith was really close to a pretty good hospital, able to get checked out quickly, and by the end of the night was back home in Raleigh celebrating downtown. It really was the best case scenario.

Because he’s OK, we can actually break down the call on him to see if Leaky Black deserved to get his Flagrant 2 foul called. We can also look at the stats to try and understand the free throw disparity. This won’t be a defense of officiating, mind you, we’ve all seen instances where college officiating needs a complete overhaul just due to the inconsistency in how games are called. In fact, we should all be prepared for the free throw disparity to be very different in Raleigh next month as the PNC Arena environment will likely affect how that game is called.

That said, there are good explanations for why both controversial issues happened, and it’s not just “the officials are horrible.” Let’s dig deeper and explain.

The Flagrant Two

First, the officials’ hands are kind of tied on this one. It’s actually pretty hilarious to read about the fact that the NCAA added language last offseason about the F2 as it’s also in the same article indicating they were going to crack down on flopping this season. Yeah, about that.

Anyway, let’s see the actual wording of what a Flagrant 2 is (page 49):

Flagrant 2 personal foul. A flagrant 2 personal foul is a personal foul that involves contact with an opponent that is not only excessive, but also severe (brutal, harsh, cruel) or extreme (dangerous, punishing),while the ball is live. In determining whether a foul has risen to the level of a flagrant 2, officials should consider the following:

a) The severity of the contact;

b) Whether a player is making a legitimate effort to block a shot. Note that a player may still be assessed a flagrant 2 foul on an attempted blocked shot when there are other factors, such as hard contact to the head or the defender winding up or emphatically following through with the contact. Depending on the nature of the contact, or the result of the contact, this foul also could be considered a flagrant 1 or common personal foul;

c) The potential for injury resulting from the contact (e.g., a blow to the head or a foul committed while the player was in a vulnerable position) Depending on the nature of the contact, or the result of the contact, the foul also could be considered a flagrant 1 or common personal foul;

d) Any contact by the offending player to the groin area of an opponent which is not clearly accidental; and

e) Any foul similar to the foul described in Rule 4-15.2.c.1.g in which the contact, or the result of the contact, is not only excessive but also severe or extreme.

Got that? For our purposes, we need to focus on a, b, and c and the less said about attacking someone’s groin the better.

Here’s the actual play:

So, according to the rules it doesn’t really matter if you’re making a play on the ball. You could almost call this the Gerald Henderson rule, where you can’t smack someone and get away with it cause you were in the area of the basketball. Thus, Leaky going for the ball here isn’t a factor.

You can’t debate whether or not he made contact with the face. We’ve seen it several times at this point that when a player makes hard contact with the fact, it’s going to get at least a flagrant 1.

Where this ultimately ended up being upgraded to a 2 was section c: the potential for injury due to the contact. Smith was on the ground, both athletic trainers had come over, put him on the backboard, and he was going to be stretchered out. I’d say that in the moment that sure seems like the event created a pretty significant injury.

Thus, put yourself in the officiating crew’s shoes. They know the rulebook there, they know what a flagrant 2 is, they see a player making clear and direct contact with the head and making the player incapable of controlling himself on the fall, and due to that he suffered an injury that required significant medical attention. In the end, you can’t blame them for making this call. Note that section b specifically says even if the attempt is legitimate, which it was, you can still give an F2.

Were the officials reacting to the scene? Probably, but if it had come out that Smith had indeed suffered some sort of fracture on the neck, back, or tailbone, he would be out for a long time and it would have been directly related to Leaky’s foul. According to the NCAA, that’s basically why they HAD to assess this as a flagrant 2.

This isn’t a hill to stand on as a fan. Much like targeting is over-protective, and like checks to the boards in hockey now can result in a player ejection when it used to just be “good play,” this rule is rooted in the idea that a player has the right to go to the basket as safely as possible.

The good news here is that Leaky won’t face any sort of suspension. As Leaky is not the type of player with a track record, and the replay shows he was clearly going after the ball while Smith, arguably, just went up in a way that made it easier for him to get hit, the ACC is going to let the ejection be enough.

Again, it’s great to see Smith was ultimately alright. And while scary, and honestly probably the reason WHY it was upgraded to an F2, it’s good to see that procedures are well in place to protect the players in these situations.

The Free Throws

OK, now that I’ve upset UNC fans by defending the Flagrant 2, let me wade into the waters of defending the 39-12 free throw disparity. Yeah, I can hear the clicks of this post closing now.

Let’s start with this: this was known as State’s weakness going in. Hubert Davis said it postgame that they knew State was called for a lot of fouls, their strength was going to the free throw line, so they would exploit that advantage. Before the game, the numbers genius that is Dadgum Box Scores tweeted out just how bad that disparity was.

So yes, that’s basically a +140 difference from UNC to NC State in terms of of the free throw margin. On average, that’s about ten per game.

Carolina knew this, they strategized for it, and executed it. If anything they emphasized it more in the second half when the disparity was much higher. Need proof? Why don’t we actually look at when the fouls were called.

In the first half, the refs didn’t start whistle-happy. The first whistle for a foul didn’t come until under 18 minutes, but then State fouled three times from 18-17 minutes. The next foul on State didn’t come for four minutes, 13:36. After that, you don’t get to foul seven until 8:05 left, and from that point on the Tar Heels get free throws. They only got four more fouls over that final 8:05.

So, in the first half the fouls were a little more spaced out, and to add to this, Carolina attempted thirteen three-pointers. When you attempt a three-pointer, you aren’t trying to feed the ball down low, nor are you driving to the basket to try and make an aggressive defense pay. Some of this could be due to Bacot’s foul trouble, requiring him to sit a good chunk of the end of the first, but the Tar Heels weren’t driving the ball either. That said, things started to change a little for the Heels by the end of the half and they were picking up that the refs were rewarding them for trying to get to the basket.

In the second half, the point had been made: it only took four and a half minutes for the Tar Heels to get fouls 1-6 on NC State, they only took five three pointers the entire half, and when you look at who actually shot the free throws, it shows you what type of fouls NC State was giving. Caleb Love took the most with ten, and both RJ Davis and Armando Bacot took, and made, six. Leaky Black attempted the other four. When the players getting your free throws are the center and the two point guards, that means there is a concerted effort to get to the basket and force the defense to make a play. NC State is an aggressive defense, and that aggression was ticketed with fouls.

So the Tar Heels adjusted to how the game was being officiated, and State did not. It’s just that simple. You can argue with how the foul calls occurred, but the fact remains that the officials made it pretty clear early on that if you were going to play an aggressive defense going to the basket, any contact was going to result in a foul. On top of that, State didn’t attempt to defend by getting into a space early and drawing offensive fouls, typically a way to offset an offensive team’s aggression. They also didn’t really do anything to try to deny entry down low, either on the drive or to Bacot.

It’s not a grand conspiracy. It’s good coaching on one end and a coaching mistake on the other.

The question is going to be how State adjusts to this next month. The home crowd will be livid at every single foul called. Ultimately it’s an issue of whether or not Keates changes up his defense to force more offensive fouls on Carolina, hopes that the home court advantage forces the refs to swallow the whistle more, or if they try to pack the inside more to deny the Tar Heels entry passes to lower the potential for fouls. We’ll see.