Utah beat Washington State 62-60 in a 60 possession, overtime game on Thursday night. I was there. This is was I saw.

Imperfection denied

Heading into last night, no team in the nation had a better shot at going winless in conference than Utah. Their inaugural Pac-12 contest was a 40-point loss to Colorado, who is (despite now leading the conference at 2-0) probably somewhere between the 7th and 11th best team in the conference. By the end of the night, the Utes were off the hook. As was the third-most likely team, Grambling who beat Alabama A&M 60-55. The bottom line is that it’s very difficult to go through a conference slate winless, no matter how bleak the situation looks after non-conference play. The onus is now on Towson, who has a 29% chance of losing their last 15 CAA games. Despite being on a 34-game losing streak, I have the Tigers’ back. They will win a game in conference.

Upsets require breaks

As one might have expected in a Utah win, the Utes played better than normal. The ran a crisp offense in the first half and only committed three turnovers while racking up 29 points in 27 possessions. It also helped that the normally sloppy Utes encountered a zone during the entire half. This allowed Utah to take better care of the ball and also take the air out of it. The game ended with just 60 possessions in 45 minutes which undoubtedly boosted Utah’s chances as well. Furthermore, Washington State made just 10 of their 22 free throw attempts. The Utes played better than usual, and the Cougars (except for Brock Motum) played worse than usual, and that’s how these things happen. It should happen to Towson before the end of the season, too.

Utah probably can’t be considered the worst power-conference team of all time

I mean, for history’s sake, with the win they have become just a historical footnote. But for scoring-margin aficionados like myself, the remaining 16 conference games for Utah will determine whether this game was completely improbable or merely slightly unusual. Keep in mind, in two conference games the Utes have been outscored by 38 points. If Utah finished the season with an average scoring margin of -19, then yeah, this game is going to look out of place.

Fun with play-by-play data

At the under-12 media time out in the second half, Utah had committed eight fouls to Washington State’s one. Being obsessed with probabilities, I contemplated the chances that the next foul would be called against Washington State. You might be aware of this study, which showed that officials prefer to avoid lopsided foul counts. Not only was the foul count unbalanced at this point, but there were three other things going for a high chance of a Wazzu foul – 1) Utah would have the ball coming out of the break; 2) the game was at Utah, so the crowd was rather ornery to this point; and 3) Utah was trailing. It turned out Washington State would pick up two fouls on the ensuing possession.

The study referenced above looked at a 365-game sample. I went back and looked at every play-by-play for the last three seasons and came up with the following data demonstrating the tendency for officials to even up the foul count.

Probability of (x+1)th foul being called on Team A when first x fouls of game have been called on Team A

 x     n    n(a)   Chc(a)
 1  13084   7030    53.7
 2   7030   3410    48.5
 3   3410   1604    47.0
 4   1604    662    41.3
 5    662    253    38.2
 6    253     89    35.2
 7     89     28    31.5
 8     28      7    25.0
 9      7      1    14.3
10      1      0     0.0

x: number of consecutive fouls called against Team A since beginning of game
n: total number of cases
n(a): number of cases where Team A was called for the next foul
Chc(a): percentage of cases where Team A was called for the next foul

With over 13000 play-by-plays, we have enough of a sample to produce a smooth curve without any massaging of the data. The conclusion is obvious: After each consecutive foul on one team it becomes more likely that the other team will get whistled.

There are other factors contributing to this trend besides refs just giving into a coach’s complaints. Just how much of this is the result of a ref’s fragile psyche is up for debate. Nonetheless, the next time you see a lopsided foul count, you should expect the next call to go against the team that has been benefitting from the calls to that point.