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.
“It is really hard for teams to run good offense when you get chucked in the middle of a cut. That is going on way too much.”
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.
“The NBA has decided, by edict, that they are going to eliminate rough play and they have and the game is much better to watch,” Bilas says. “It is much easier for the great athletes to get to the basket.”
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.”
Division I coaches were recently issued a questionnaire concerning things such as the widening of the foul lane, illegal contact away from the ball, and whether there is consistency of calls under the basket with regard to charging. Depending on their responses, some changes may occur. Coordinators of the various conference officiating crews also received the questionnaire.
Adams says a wider lane is a possibility. A move to an wider trapezoidal lane was passed by the Basketball Committee about four years ago, but overturned by another NCAA committee because of the cost implementing new lanes at more than 330 Division I schools.
Others think smaller, less noticeable changes are needed.
Bilas says a no-charge arc, similar to the four-foot half circle the NBA has under its basket, would allow for less contact on drives to the basket. He does not like the idea of “absolutes” or the idea of widening the lane.
“Officiating college basketball is an art form, which is why you need to have experienced officials who are allowed to use their judgment because if you go by a black and white rule, like absolutes, you are not going to get through a game,” Bilas says . “It is like telling an umpire how to manage the strike zone. Absolutes are not the answer.”
It has not been difficult — in most cases — for officials to call flagrant fouls for elbows that have been thrown in recent weeks. Expect the NCAA Basketball Committee and conference officials to be more aware of elbows and questionable sportsmanship and to discuss how it should be handled.
“I would be surprised if next year we didn’t have a point of emphasis in college basketball about sportsmanship, something to raise everybody’s consciousness about the behavior at our games,” Adams says.
There is also some concern about the workload of officials. What was once a part-time job has become a nice living with many refs making $1,000 to $3,000 a game, which includes a game fee, per diem, and travel.
But while coaches must give their players time off during the week, some officials have been known to work 10 straight days. They are independent contractors, paid by the game, and some pile on the work.
How fit are they to reign over a bruising Big East game on Day 10 after working an ACC game on Day 9? Can the official keep control of a college game and not let it deteriorate into a scrum?
Fit and rested referees are going to be key if Adams can keep his mandate moving forward.
“We have to stick to our guns regarding freedom of movement and we have to support it at the conference level,” Adams says. “The guys that go in there and call fouls and keep the game from deteriorating into a slugfest, those guys should be recognized for their efforts, not criticized.”