LEXINGTON, Ky. — You might’ve noticed, if you can see through bleeding eyeballs, that there are a lot of fouls being called in the SEC this season. Just this week, the Kentucky-Mississippi State game featured 52 fouls, while Tennessee-Ole Miss and Florida-South Carolina had 55 fouls apiece.
Kentucky’s six conference games have averaged 45.7 total fouls; there have been 144 called in the Wildcats’ past 120 minutes of basketball. It’s been ugly, and it’s an SEC-wide epidemic. Tennessee, Auburn, Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina all average more than 20 fouls per game and rank 265th or worse nationally.
South Carolina comes to Lexington on Saturday.
ESPN college basketball stats guru John Gasaway crunched the numbers Wednesday and found that the SEC has by far the highest free-throw rate (free-throw attempts over field-goal attempts) of any major conference: 42 percent in conference play. The next closest is the Big East at 35 percent.
So what does Kentucky coach John Calipari think of all this?
“People must be fouling,” he said Friday, perhaps to the surprise of his frustrated fan base. “Let me just make my position clear: I think we’ve got to keep calling fouls. I mean, does anybody really want the game to go back where we’re just beating the crap out of each other? I don’t think anybody does. I support what they’re trying to do. As a matter of fact, I was one of the voices behind it: Call the fouls. Now we all adjust how we coach.”
That does not mean Calipari has no issues with officiating. Every big man on his team was in foul trouble by halftime of the Wildcats’ most recent game, some of them because of whistles for little or no contact.
“Now, you’ve got to make sure they’re fouls. There are some replays that you look and you say, ‘Well that wasn’t even close to a foul.’ Those shouldn’t be called,” Calipari said. “If one team’s fouling and the other team’s not, that’s when you have those (phantom) kind of fouls called, because you’re feeling like, ‘I can’t call them all against the other team.’ Why not if they’re fouling every play?”
He empathizes with officials, who he said are “not perfect” and have a difficult job, especially calling games featuring the high-octane Wildcats. They must make calls at a dead sprint sometimes, and they’re just trying to follow orders.
“They’re being told to call fouls,” Calipari said. “The only issue is there’s some that aren’t fouls that they’re calling. If you look and everybody’s like, ‘Wow’ — the TV, the people, the fans and everybody says, ‘No one even touched anybody; how’d they call that?’ — probably not a foul they should’ve called.”
The ones that should? Those that prohibit freedom of movement, Calipari said. He has long been a proponent of that, as have many coaching colleagues.
“We don’t want a guy driving and getting banged three times before he shoots the layup, and you say, ‘Why did he miss the layup?’ Well, probably the guy’s finger in his eyeball and his knee in his thigh,” Calipari said. “So I’m about calling fouls that are fouls. If the game is physical, it should be called.”
Kentucky’s next game is Saturday. The Wildcats play host to South Carolina at 6 p.m. ET. TV: ESPN. The No. 24 Gamecocks are 15-3, 5-0 in SEC play, and No. 24 in national rankings. At 16-2, Kentucky is 6-0 in the SEC and No. 5 in the latest Associated Press rankings.