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Pac-12 Physical Play... Fair or Foul?

Does Scott Rueck have a point or is it all gamesmanship

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NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Albany Regional-Oregon State vs Louisville Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Scott Rueck caused a stir in Pac-12 hoops this week when he criticized officials for allowing what he considers a concerning level of physicality against his team during conference play. His comments didn’t sit well with Arizona State’s head coach and she fired back claiming “it was incredibly disrespectful and insulting”. Rueck’s remarks even earned him a public reprimand from the Pac-12 and worst commissioner in sports (Larry Scott). So what’s actually going on here? Is Oregon State’s head coach right? Or is this gamesmanship to give the Beavers an edge moving forward?

Here’s what Scott Rueck said: (courtesy of Kevin Hampton of the Gazette Times)

“We have played against a slugfest for 12 games now. I just was, right before I came out here, looking at an Instagram picture of (Mikayla Pivec) getting hammered on her arm without a call right off the bat to start the game and that set the tone, it let them swing all day. Which they were able to get away with... (Destiny Slocum has) been getting body-slammed to the ground on layups without a call. It’s a joke. It goes against everything that we have been taught, trained. We’re supposed to prepare our team to play freedom of movement based off of rules videos that we watch at the beginning of the year that everybody is supposed to play by... And if that doesn’t happen, what are we doing? I’m just wondering, what are we doing? It’s frustrating. I can’t sit here and say, oh, that’s why we lost. I can’t say that. But to say that it’s not a factor, of course it’s a factor... So it’s been very physical. It’s concerning, to be honest. It’s not a trend anybody wants. It goes against everything we want to be as a sport, so I have no idea. I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone.”

Trying to get a clear-cut yes or no ruling on referee disputes is a fruitless exercise, it’s too subjective. Physical plays, fouls, charges, freedom of movement, hand-checking etc. are all judgment calls. Scott Rueck, ASU’s head coach (Charli Thorne) and every fan watching the game is going to be extremely biased. In any event, I’ve been mulling over these comments and have tried digging into what caused Rueck to make such pointed remarks.

I’ll start off by saying that I don’t love the “blame the officials” angle. I think referees in general do a very good job. They are more unbiased than anyone involved in watching, coaching or playing the game. Of course there are exceptions, but more often than not the people criticizing officials are much too close to the action to provide an honest assessment on their performance.

Secondly, I think the injuries Oregon State’s team have sustained has as much to do with Rueck’s frustration as the physical style of play being allowed in the Pac-12. Imagine if the Beavers had a fully healthy roster with: Taya Corosdale (6’3), Kennedy Brown (6’6), Andrea Aquino (6’9) and Jelena Mitrovic (6’9). If Oregon State had four extra post players to throw out there that could be grabbing rebounds, blocking shots and setting screens, I don’t think a physical style of play would bother Scott Rueck. It might actually help Oregon State.

The Beavers are 19-5 on the season. Before tonight’s road game with USC they’ve played exactly half of their games against Pac-12 teams. Scott Rueck specifically mentioned the last 12 games as being a “slugfest”. In non-conference play Oregon State averaged 78 points per game and their opponents averaged 18.1 fouls per game. In conference play those numbers drop significantly; down to 66 points per game with opponents only averaging 14.8 fouls. Oregon State’s fouls on the other-hand have stayed about the same (12.5 to 13.3). Even more startling is the free throw discrepancy. In non-conference play Oregon State shot 320 free throws (26.7 per game) and in conference play they have only taken 162 free throws (13.5 per game).

In non-conference play Oregon State went undefeated with an average margin of victory of 25.3 points per game. Zero of those games were decided by single-digits and only two games were within 12 points when the final buzzer sounded. In Pac-12 play, the Beavers have played in nine games that have been decided by 12 points or less! It’s fair to say that blowouts don’t always lead to fewer foul calls, but they do eliminate end of game fouls & free throws when teams are trying to quickly get the ball back and give themselves a chance to win.

Watching these games it certainly seems like games have been more physical and they’ve obviously been more competitive. With the increased competition in the Pac-12 it’s hard for me to believe that Oregon State’s opponents should be called for almost four less fouls and 13 less free throws per game. Especially when you factor in the amount of close games they’ve been in. Despite Rueck’s comments I don’t think this physical-style of play is going to decrease anytime soon. As the Sun Devil’s head coach Charli Thorne said “The irony of all of it if people want to complain about us, this is probably one of the least physical teams I’ve had ever. I wish we were more physical.”