There have been a rash of flagrant fouls and flying elbows this season, which have caused alarm among NCAA and conference officials. Those elbows, and one notable face stomping, however, are part of the bigger issue of how physical the game has become, particularly in heated conference games.
Don Shea, a regional supervisor of NCAA basketball officials until he retired in 2008, thinks the game has simply become more bruising.
“The college game,” Shea says, “has become rougher than the pro game.”
Shea says that post play has been the focus of college basketball referees for years. The organization has worked to clean up the pushing and hard fouls around the basket. What has happened, he says, is that the game has gotten harder to police inside because of the size of players and a too-narrow foul lane, among other reasons.
The intensity of the post play then infects the rest of the game, Shea says. Pretty soon, tempers are flaring out on the floor, not just under the basket.
Coaches on the sidelines are chirping away at officials and the student sections, at ground level and close to opposing players, are taunting and pouring on more gas. Soon, there is a cauldron.
“It is not just the idea of elbows, it is more along the lines of bumping the cutters, allowing contact on drives. There is way too much of that," says Jay Bilas, an ESPN analyst who played at Duke.
John Adams, who is in his first season as the NCAA coordinator of officiating, says he has a mandate to promote “freedom of movement” over the old mantra of “advantage, disadvantage,” which most interpreted as if you shoved somebody and it didn’t result in a missed shot or turnover it was OK.
Adams says he wants some uniformity to the game with a series of “absolutes” that don't vary from league to league. For instance, two hands in the back of a dribbler is a foul, whether it is in the Big Ten or the Big East. He wants eight to 10 “absolutes” within the next five years.
“We are trying to move the game to a more graceful, finesse game than it has been in the past,” Adams says. “We recognize it gets too rough. We have created absolutes so all the referee has to do is recognize the play and it is a foul. He doesn’t have to think advantage-disadvantage, north-south, none of that.
“Coaches are for it. That’s where I got the idea.”
As for the physical post play, it has been cleaned up somewhat by natural order: Big men bolt to the NBA, thus there are fewer head-to-head conflicts in the paint.
But when two experienced post players like UConn’s Hasheem Thabeet and Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair are together, it can be a testy situation with tempers flaring, which is what happened in a recent Big East game. There was a flock of flying elbows.
Even the game's biggest and strongest players are affected. Consider Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, a 6-10, 250-pound forward. He received six stitches after taking an elbow to the face against Rice, was tripped on a fast break against Utah and punched below the belt against USC. Saturday was another blow, when an elbow to the head against Texas gave Griffin a concussion.
Florida coach Billy Donovan says there is no question college basketball has become more physical. He thinks officials must find the right balance of calling fouls and just letting players play.
“It is a hard thing to really figure out,” Donovan says. “What you could probably do is have college basketball turn into teams taking 40 and 50 free throws.
“If you go to an international lane and you will get more of a pure game in terms of passing and cutting. But because our lane is narrower than NBA lane it is without question a very hard game to officiate without breaking the flow.”
Duke coach said that after winning his second gold medal in men's basketball would be his Team USA finale. That may not be the case anymore.
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