Siding with schools like Tulsa and Charlotte is much of the Big Ten, including such high priests of grind-it-out basketball as Izzo and Dick Bennett, who stepped down as coach at Wisconsin last week. The Big Ten coaches draw an almost Jesuitical distinction between physical play (good, they say) and rough or dirty play (not good—but not us, either). "Bumping a guy or keeping an arm on a guy but not displacing him, to me, that's not a problem," says Izzo, who may be rethinking his habit of sometimes having his Spartans practice in football gear.
To some extent Bennett and Izzo brought the new limits upon their teams. Their Pleistocene semifinal at last spring's Final Four led to the current reforms. "Did you like that better than 19-17?" Williams asked the press after his Jayhawks ran up their NBA-like total in that win over UCLA last month. He was citing the half-time score of that Michigan State-Wisconsin game, which the Spartans wound up winning 53-41.
Is Williams's zeal for returning decorum to the game driven by respect for Naismith and his original rules, or by self-interest, given that the Kansas offense is based on movement and cutting? Texas's Rick Barnes, who coached infamously physical teams at Clemson, and with the Longhorns has had such notorious musclemen as Gabe Muoneke and Chris Owens, suspects it's the latter. "The NCAA committee has coaches like Roy Williams on it, guys from elite programs with the best talent," he says. "A guy like Dick Bennett should be on it. The game is meant to be played a lot of different ways. When Wisconsin and Michigan State went at it, they played on pride and energy. People who criticize that game haven't played the game and don't understand it."
But for now, the purists have carried the day, leaving players to make like pitchers and hitters adapting to an umpire's strike zone. "Our players didn't believe the referees would call those fouls," says North Texas coach Vic Trilli, referring to the examples on the NCAA video. "Neither did I. So far, they have."
The question is whether they'll continue to do so. Four seasons ago the rules committee tried to crack down on traveling, but after a month or two the officials' vigilance evaporated. Come March, refs may well call tournament games the way NHL referees work playoff games in sudden death—with their whistles squirreled away. "Nobody really notices if a star fouls out in November," says Duke forward Shane Battier. "If stars are fouling out in March, there'll be an outcry."
But if Hank Nichols, the NCAA's capo di tutti zebras, and the conference officiating supervisors who report to him keep the point of emphasis sharp, the new interpretation figures to reward teams with:
Depth. Illinois went into Greensboro, N.C., last week and, despite playing before a Duke crowd and with three ACC officials, nearly beat the No. 1 Blue Devils. Why? The Illini have four solid post players, and Duke has only one. If not for Coach Mike Krzyzewski's deft deployment of foul-plagued Carlos Boozer down the stretch, the Blue Devils wouldn't have come away with a 78-77 win. Connecticut, though physical, figures to prosper for the same reason Illinois should. "We want to suffocate an offense with our defense," says coach Jim Calhoun. "But [the new emphasis] plays to something I think will be an advantage for us—depth."
Old-fashioned post players. The three-point shot was supposed to stretch defenses, open up the floor and make physical inside play an anachronism. Instead, at 19'9" the three is a reward so out of proportion to its degree of difficulty that offenses have relentlessly fed the post, waited for defenses to collapse and returned the ball to a spot-up shooter for an open three. For a big guy that's not much of a purpose in life. "When was the last time you saw a drop step or hook shot?" says Krzyzewski. "I'd like to see big men do the things Walton and Kareem did, instead of just making power moves or rooting each other out of the post. Otherwise, we've turned all our big people into offensive linemen." Indeed, Kansas' Chenowith, freed from forearm shivers in the post, has begun to unfurl an effective hook shot.
Off-the-dribble scorers. Players such as guard Jason Gardner of Arizona and swingman Byron Mouton of Maryland don't need screens to get their shots, and they're suddenly more valuable as the big lugs setting picks draw closer scrutiny. In a game with UNLV on Nov. 20, Illinois was whistled for seven illegal screens in the first half. "We teach screeners to put a body on someone," says Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson. "We don't teach using shoulders, elbows, hips, but we screen hard. Like holding in football, you could call something on every play."
Adaptability. This will be a factor at least until officials begin to whistle more consistently. New Mexico coach Fran Fraschilla, who watched that Illini-Runnin' Rebels game, says, "A couple of those [illegal screens] were laughable. The next night I'm watching UCLA play Cal State-Northridge, and they're absolutely killing each other, and the refs let it go." So Fraschilla now finds out before each game if the conference officiating supervisor will be in the stands and advises his players accordingly. "If a high-profile guy like Hank Nichols is there, you go in thinking you're already in foul trouble," he says. Foul trouble, of course, forces man-to-man teams into playing zone, yet another reason teams will have to be adaptable.