A few months before he invented basketball in December 1891, Dr. James Naismith jury-rigged what is believed to have been the first football helmet. Naismith knew sports, and curtailing rough play in football and rugby became a personal crusade of his. Small wonder, then, that when he came up with his new game, the good doctor made sure it was free of ruffianism. One of his original 13 rules outlawed "shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping or striking in any way the person of an opponent."
This season, in what NCAA men's basketball committee chairman Mike Tranghese calls college basketball's most significant action since the introduction of the three-point shot in 1986, the rules committee is invoking Naismith's name in its own crusade to eliminate rough play. The rules committee is so determined to succeed that it has made the crackdown the sole point of emphasis for officials and declared that referees will be chosen to work the NCAA tournament based on their willingness to call games according to the doctrine of original intent.
Few dispute that "gangster acts," as Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton calls them, have plagued college basketball over the past few seasons. But the new strict constructionism has thrown the game into a state of confusion, as evidenced by these early-season examples:
?When Louisville hooked up with UNLV in the Maui Invitational on Nov. 21, three of the Cardinals' pivotmen fouled out trying to guard Runnin' Rebels center Kaspars Kambala. By the final minutes of Louisville's 86-85 overtime victory, Kambala had dropped in 21 of 22 free throws and scored 37 points, and if he felt anything rubbing up against him in the post, it was the insubstantive frame of the Cardinals' Marques Maybin, a 6'3" guard pressed into emergency service as a center.
?In what might be filed under the category of Be Careful What You Wish For, during Kansas' 99-98 defeat of UCLA in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic on Nov. 9, Jayhawks coach and rules committee chairman Roy Williams witnessed the disqualification of his starting center, Eric Chenowith. Four other Kansas players accumulated four fouls each, and the Jayhawks gave up the most points they'd surrendered in a decade.
?As Cincinnati brought the ball into the forecourt while trailing by a point with 31 seconds remaining in its Nov. 21 game against Marshall, referee Tom O'Neill busted Thundering Herd swingman Tamar Slay for seizing a fistful of Bearcats guard Leonard Stokes's jersey 20 feet from the ball. This was just the sort of off-the-ball infraction that the refs would have ignored in recent years, especially near the end of a close game. Stokes proceeded to sink two free throws in the Bearcats' 79-75 victory. "They called something," Slay said. "Don't know what it was. Guess it's going to be like that all year."
The NCAA even produced a video to help all the Division I teams prepare for the crackdown. It spells out the rules committee's edicts barring players from bumping or grabbing an opponent as he cuts through the lane. It also says that an offensive player without the ball may no longer be rooted out of position in the post by a defender, and that once a man on offense gets the ball anywhere on the court, all hands and forearms must come off him. Banned, too, are shoulder pops and hip checks on screens. In the enforcement of these strictures, referees have already whistled as many as 55 fouls in a game this season. "One reason for the emphasis is to open up the game and have more drives and scoring opportunities," says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "The problem is, we'll be doing it with our team managers."
To hear some of the principals, what's going on right now is nothing less than a battle over the essence of the game. The two sides in the debate don't break down as neatly along conference lines as one might expect, with the finesse-minded ACC and Pac-10 here and the brutes of the Big East and Big Ten there. But they do correlate roughly, as it were, with the interests of college basketball's haves and have-nots.
In one camp you'll find the purists. They tend to come from the game's aristocracy, programs favored with talent that performs best when it may run free. Virginia coach Pete Gillen articulates their position when he says, "The game isn't meant to be hand-to-hand sumo."
In the other camp are many of the mid-major schools that must use hustle and toughness to close gaps in talent. The new emphasis "would have killed" the fierce defenders at Tulsa who reached the South Regional final a year ago, says the man who coached the Golden Hurricane, Bill Self, now at Illinois. Similarly, UNC-Charlotte stole a bid to the 1999 NCAAs by stringing together four wins during the Conference USA tournament, and coach Bobby Lutz concedes that the 49ers used bruising tactics to keep three of those four opponents from shooting better than 40% from the field: "We were physical enough to disrupt what the other team was trying to do. That gave us our best chance to win—fight for position in the post and not let guys cut freely through the lane."