Welcome to Play-by-Play Theater, the
semi-regular very irregular feature where I mine play-by-play data from the past four-plus seasons to discover the wacky things that happen in darkest corners of the college basketball schedule.
Christmas week is not a time for major breaking news, but last Saturday there was an unusual occurrence worth documenting for future generations as Pitt played a foul-free first half against Cal Poly. Their first foul wasn’t acknowledged until Cameron Wright was whistled with 17:19 remaining in the second half. All told, 22:41 elapsed from the opening tip until Pitt’s first infraction was called.
The natural question to ask in these circumstances is whether this is some sort of historic occasion. As loyal fans of PBPT know, that can not be determined with any degree of certainty. But we do have data from 23,477 play-by-plays since the beginning of the 2010 season to give us a good idea about the rarity of such an event. I actually looked at a variant of this issue in a previous edition, specifically investigating the longest foul-free stretch overall. (Part of the reason this feature isn’t quite as regular as it used to be is that there isn’t a lot of unexplored territory left.)
These are the five games over that time where a team made it the longest before committing a foul:
Time elapsed before a team’s first foul
22:41 Pitt vs Cal Poly, 12/21/13
21:32 SMU vs UTEP, 1/6/10
19:58 James Madison vs. Winthrop, 12/1/12
19:55 Charleston vs. Wofford, 1/5/12
19:55 Notre Dame vs. North Florida, 11/14/09
Just twice in four-plus seasons has a team made it to intermission without a foul. Clearly one impediment to making it past halftime is the temptation to give a strategic foul on the final possession of the first half. Pitt avoided this by having the ball at the end of the half.
That SMU/UTEP first half was a doozy, by the way. SMU had zero fouls and UTEP just two. In theory, I love the idea of “letting the players decide the game”. Although, taken to an extreme, that philosophy leads to removing officials altogether and letting the players actually call their own infractions. That’s basically what happened in the first half of the SMU/UTEP game. And considering the final score of that game was 49-45, maybe that line of thinking is not all it’s cracked up to be.
The unusual part of the Pitt/Cal Poly game was that the Mustangs committed ten fouls before the Panthers committed their first. The rarity of this phenomenon has been documented here and elsewhere in the past. These kinds of streaks happen far less often than you’d expect by random chance. There’s some incentive for the officials to appear to be even-handed, and there’s incentive for the team racking up fouls to become less aggressive, just as the non-fouling team might feel they can take more liberties. And in the past four-plus seasons, this game represents the second time that one team has committed the first ten fouls in a game.
Consecutive fouls committed by one team to start game
10 Cal Poly vs. Pitt, 12/21/13
10 Auburn vs. Mississippi, 3/8/12
9 Nicholls State vs. North Texas 11/14/13
9 Presbyterian vs. Georgia Tech, 11/14/13
9 UNC Greensboro vs. Charleston, 2/15/12
9 Rutgers vs. West Virginia, 1/14/12
9 UMBC vs. UConn, 12/3/10
Unlike Cal Poly, Auburn got its work done quickly. Those ten fouls by the Tigers occurred over the first 9:48 of the game.
One also might wonder how long a game has gone before the first foul on either team was called. That honor goes to a November 25, 2009 contest between William & Mary and Hampton. The first infraction didn’t occur until there was 2:39 left in the first half. That’s when the Pirates’ Darrion Pellum was called for a foul in a first half that ended with just one foul on each team. This game stands as a rather incredible outlier, and therefore may not be eclipsed for a long time.
Time elapsed before first foul by either team
17:21 Hampton vs. William & Mary, 11/25/09
13:17 Notre Dame vs. St. Joseph’s, 11/16/12
12:26 Cincinnati vs. Syracuse, 3/9/12
12:05 Hofstra vs. Northeastern, 1/16/13
11:54 Virginia vs. Florida State, 3/7/13
The crew of Doug Sirmons, Dwayne Gladden and Harold Harris, Jr. may have invoked an officiating tradition of having the first person to call a foul buy dinner. Apparently, each of them is very cheap. If you are one that wants the players to decide the game, you got your wish for almost an entire half of basketball for one night in Kaplan Arena.