Referee czar attempting to clean up rough play in college hoops (cont.)
After one conference game last season, Adams confronted an official who had left a number of clear fouls unwhistled. "In our league, we don't call those," the ref replied.
"You need to," Adams shot back. "If you don't, you won't work the NCAA tournament."
That's the lone carrot Adams has to go with his freedom-of-movement schtick, but it's a powerful one: Several weeks later Adams caught a game worked by that same referee, who this time called fouls to the national standard. "Just like players and coaches, most officials dream of making the NCAA tournament and advancing," Adams says. "But I hope there's more motivation than that -- that if you care about the game, you'll want to improve it."
Last season Adams says he struggled to get compliance with his initiatives from only a handful of conferences, leagues he's understandably reluctant to single out. But any fan knows that the Big Ten and Big East have well-developed brands as bruisers. "Teams recruit certain types of players in certain leagues to take advantage of the way those leagues are officiated," says Adams. Give the film from the UConn-Pitt game last February a fair-minded review, and you'll conclude that the refs left 40 fouls on the floor.
Last month Adams turned up in St. Louis to watch Memphis meet No. 1 Kansas. For much of the game's first 30 minutes the Jayhawks maintained a high single-digit lead. But midway through the second half Memphis closed to within five, and the game took on a desperate quality. "We're on the border of order and chaos," Adams said from his seat courtside. "Right now is when the officials will earn their money."
Within seconds the referees called two fouls on Memphis forward Will Coleman, first for grabbing a jersey, then for an illegal screen. Adams nodded approvingly at each call. The whistles stalled out the Tigers' run, but only momentarily. Memphis had lost two small skirmishes to gain a better strategic position. The refs had reined the game in, and over a cleaner final 10 minutes this advantaged the smaller, faster, less-deep Tigers. They wound up losing, but only after a three-point attempt at the buzzer kicked off the rim. The system had worked.
If this season's initiatives fail to clean the game up, there are several more ways college basketball could protect against its continued devolution:
Ban underpadding, at least above the waist. Defenders in something just short of football gear aren't likely to respect the dainty prerogatives of cutters and dribblers.
Widen the lane. A wider lane would disperse bodies over a broader area and reduce back-to-the-basket situations, where the game tends to deteriorate into bump-and-grind. Indeed, the rules committee was ready to introduce a wider lane several years ago, only to abandon the move for fear of the cost of re-marking hundreds of courts.
Redefine the notion of what makes for a fairly whistled game. It might seem to be one in which each team is called for roughly the same number of fouls. But a team in a 2-3 zone won't commit nearly as many as one whose coach believes that physical play constitutes his best chance to win -- and the box score shouldn't reflect some false equivalence. Every ref in America should read a study released in November by Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, which found that the larger the foul differential between two teams, the more likely any subsequent foul will be charged to the team with fewer fouls. In other words, because referees by nature want to even out foul totals, aggressive play pays. As a remedy, study authors Kyle Anderson and David Pierce suggest educating officials about this tendency, and perhaps increasing the penalty for fouling.
Add another absolute or two. "I don't want to introduce too many absolutes too fast," Adams says. "It takes time to get a conceptual change like that to take." But he has a few candidates in his back pocket, including a forearm applied to the dribbler, and the wrapping of an arm around an offensive player.
Absolutes provide such a welcome "zone of predictability" that last season UTEP coach Tony Barbee essentially built his offense around one of them. A disciple of Dribble-Drive Motion guru John Calipari, Barbee had his players slash into the lane, knowing that they'd get a clear path to the basket if they could beat their defender off the bounce, or a whistle from Conference USA officials, who tend to follow the national guidelines, as soon as a defender used his hands to impede progress. The result: UTEP led the nation in foul shots attempted and made, and guard Stefon Jackson shot more free throws than any collegian since Pete Maravich.
Last season's Miners may not have been the most enjoyable team to watch. And this season, Lutz says, "Maybe we'll have to have some games with a lot of fouls called. But eventually players and coaches will adjust."
So far Adams is reasonably pleased. "It's early, but I sense a real feeling of cooperation [from conference coordinators]," he says. "We could do a better job on rough play in the low post. As the post goes, so goes the game. Rough play spreads, like the flu."
Adams admits that the real test will come after the new year, in the closed loops of conference play, when players and refs could easily return, winking and nodding, to their old permissive habits. "It seems that we always start the season with an abundance of whistles," says Barbee. "And by conference play it's basically football without helmets."
In January college hoops will likely find itself back on its own border between order and chaos. And that's when Adams will earn his money.