The 29-6 free-throw disparity in favor of Ohio State in Tuesday night's game with Michigan State has received a lot of attention. But the real surprise in that number is the rate at which the Buckeyes got to the line, not their avoidance of being whistled themselves. As the Big Ten Geeks noted in their recap, quite a number of them had to get significant bumps in their normal free-throw rates to accomplish this. But as far as not fouling goes, OSU has been doing that for years.
In a column from earlier this season, Luke Winn called attention to Ohio State's preternaturally low opponent free-throw rate. He noted that Matta's teams have been doing this for a while, even before he came to OSU. A striking section at the end of that column, where Ed Hightower is reported as feeling he needs to "show the ropes" of Big Ten basketball to newcomers, may have obscured the point of just how amazing and unprecedented a season Ohio State is having on defense.
OSU is currently 1st in the nation in keeping opponents off the line (20.1 def. FTR) but they're also 9th in opponent turnover percentage. In fact, they're only the second team in the last five years (Siena 2010 being the other) to have a defensive turnover percentage with a HIGHER figure than their defensive FTR. Scatterplot after the jump.
The scatterplot below should give you an idea of just how much of an outlier Ohio State has been this season. It plots defensive FTR against defensive TO rate (with the FTR axis reversed, since lower is better) for the last five years in Division I (all schools). Ohio State is without peer in its ability to maximize turnovers while minimizing foul shots.
Although there's a weak (but still non-zero) correlation between these two metrics, it gets much stronger when you compare apples-to-apples. Opponent free-throw rate gets much higher than turnover rate and at the extremes is probably subject to other factors. Essentially, a team that is undisciplined or simply overmatched is going to commit a lot of fouls regardless of how good they are at forcing turnovers. If you exclude such teams the relationship becomes much stronger, and also makes it clear how unusual Ohio State is this year.
And it really is just this year. As Winn notes, "Ohio State would be the first elite team of the one-and-done era with this kind of statistical profile." This includes other Ohio State and Xavier teams of Matta, as well. Winn provides the chart of the national rank of Matta's teams in oppostion FTR to show that it has always been very good: 1st nationally 3 times and never lower than 34th. Here's that same chart for oppostion turnover rate:
|Defensive Turnover Percentage Rank of Thad Matta Teams, 2002-2011|
OSU has gone from middle-of-the-pack to elite in two years. Undoubtedly the obvious explanation applies here: the current group of veterans (Lighty, Diebler, Buford, Lauderdale), having honed their craft and learned Matta's system for several years are able to be increasingly aggressive in coverage without getting called for fouls. But Matta is also giving significant playing time to three freshmen this year, newcomers to his system, one of whom, Aaron Craft, is their primary turnover producer. So there are, I think, other factors at work.
At this point I will mention that I went public a month ago on Twitter and more recently in my Ohio State preview with my skepticism regarding OSU's style of defense. Although what they've accomplished is amazing, I think it also reflects the degree to which officiating relies on expectation and anticipation. Operating in a situation where events are happening at lightning speed and judgments must be rendered instantaneously, referees are going to be guided by instincts and experience to at least some extent. Draymond Green has amazingly quick hands, but he doesn't look like a guy who would. And he doesn't help his cause by being publicly displeased with the resulting calls. The genius of Matta's "foul-phobic" program is that it's not just confined to the management of players. As Winn's article makes clear at the end, it also includes cultivating a reputation for foul-phobia that includes efforts, from players and coaches, designed to help manage the expectations of referees as well. Rather than lament this situation, other teams, including Michigan State, might do well to get involved in some of this expectation-management themselves.