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Like many of you, I had a hard time watching the big Kentucky-Louisville game on New Year's Eve. Every few seconds, the game was interrupted by a tweet. Not the 140-character kind -- the kind that emanates from a referee's whistle. A total of 51 fouls were called, yielding 70 free throws. That's a lot of standing around. It was not a pretty way to ring in the new year.
John Adams, the NCAA's supervisor of officials, saw things differently. He even sent a text message afterward to one of the refs congratulating him and his crew for doing such a good job. "Players have a choice of adjusting or not adjusting to what the officials are doing," Adams said. "If they decide not to adjust, officials shouldn't give up."
This may sound like a boss sticking up for his guys, but Adams is nobody's shill. If you watched him on television during last year's NCAA tournament, you saw a man who was unafraid to criticize the zebras if the situation warranted it. Adams does not make or change the rules -- that responsibility belongs to a committee of coaches -- and he does not assign officials to games during the regular season. But Adams is using the one lever he does have -- the authority to determine who works what round in the NCAA tournament -- to try to clean up the game.
Now in his fourth year on the job, Adams is more dedicated than ever to preserving the four elements the rules committee has determined are paramount: rhythm, speed, balance and quickness. Many fans assume that NBA basketball is more physical than the college version, but any pro scout or general manager who watches a lot of college games will tell you the opposite is true. Starting with the implementation of stricter hand-checking rules, the NBA has done a great job of cleaning up its act the last few years. College hoops has come a long way, but it still is not where it needs to be.
"Our game will be better if players are allowed to run relatively unencumbered around the court," Adams said. "We've always had incidental contact and it's not going away, but if the contact causes a player's balance or quickness to be affected, it's supposed to be a foul. You don't want to give either the offense or the defense an unfair advantage."
High-profile games like Louisville-Kentucky might lead you to believe the refs are calling more fouls this year, but the data indicates otherwise. According to statistics provided by the NCAA, there have been 18.35 fouls called per game per team this season. That is the lowest since 1963, when the average was 18.20. Not surprisingly, this has had an effect on scoring. As you can see by the accompanying chart, there has been a basic correlation over the years between the number of fouls called and the number of points scored. When scoring peaked in 1975 -- a full 13 years before the arrival of the three-point line -- there were 20.2 fouls being called per team per game.
This correlation can't be completely attributed to extra free throws. The fact is, when refs are clamping down on physical play, it's easier for players to dribble, pass and shoot. The challenge is to establish the proper balance between the offense and the defense.
I don't like foul-filled games any more than you do, and I understand that there is a place for brute force. But basketball was conceived as primarily a game of finesse. James Naismith's eureka moment came when he decided that a player shouldn't be able to run with the ball. That's because he didn't want players getting hurt like they did in football.
Part of the problem in today's college game is that, unlike in the NBA, officials are essentially private contractors who are assigned and compensated by coordinators from 31 different conferences. It's hard to achieve uniformity, much less consistency, under that setup. What typically happens is that the games start out being called tight, but as conference play progresses the refs let more contact go. Then the postseason rolls around and officials revert to calling the action the way they did in November. That just throws everybody off.
Adams hopes that won't be the case this time around. "I think we're getting strict adherence to the interpretations deeper into the season, and that's a credit to the coordinators of the different leagues that are buying into this," he said.
As to whether this is the best job his guys have done during his four years on the job, Adams is reserving judgment. "It feels like we're making incremental progress, but I'd really like you to ask me that on April the third," he said. "Because we won't really know until then."
Here are a few other tidbits from my conversation with Adams:
Most people probably don't realize it, but the implementation of the arc under the basket for charge/block calls was done primarily for player safety. That is one of the three areas that refs are emphasizing. (Freedom of movement and sportsmanship are the others). Adams told me that the feedback on this change has been universally positive. "I haven't talked to anybody who is a stakeholder in our game who doesn't like the effect it has had," he said.
There are two recent trends which Adams is encouraging his refs to squelch. The first is the increasing prevalence of a defender walking underneath a shooter as he's launching an attempt (or a "try for goal" in zebraspeak). In this situation, the defender raises his hands to avoid contact up high, leaving the impression he's not fouling. His lower body, however, tells a different story. Said Adams, "It looks like they're playing good defense except they're just walking the guy off the post."
The second trend is the increased use of the so-called "arm bar" where a defender uses his forearm to prevent a dribbler from getting by him. If a defender's forearm makes contact, the ref is supposed to call it immediately.
The biggest problem Adams sees right now is not physical play. It's sportsmanship -- or a lack thereof. "When you have coaches out in the middle of the floor screaming and gyrating and gesturing, that strikes me as an institutional issue," he said. "Whether it's presidents or league commissioners or some combination, we all have a lot of room to improve sportsmanship dramatically."
Adams, however, did concede that a big part of this responsibility lies with officials -- not just to make better calls (which always helps) but to reduce their engagement with coaches. Adams recently posted a video showing Ted Valentine standing across the court with his back turned on a coach who was yelling at him during a time out. Valentine has a reputation for being one of the more confrontational refs, but if more officials followed his lead in that situation, then coaches would come to realize that it's pointless to argue so much. Then they'd have to go back to, you know, coaching their teams.
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