Houston coach Pat Foster calls the '90-91 season "the most physical year ever." LSU center Shaquille O'Neal nearly jumped to the NBA on the assumption that if he was going to get beaten up regularly by opposing teams, he might as well get paid for it. Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs describes the game's current style as "push and shove, block and tackle." After a typically rough Missouri-Oklahoma State game last season, Tiger coach Norm Stewart said, "Byron Houston had four takedowns and two reversals. Don't those count for two points each?"
Nowhere is this mutual pounding more evident than in the low post. A typical encounter took place last season between 6'9", 225-pound Anthony Avent of Seton Hall and 6'7", 240-pound Marvin Saddler of Providence. Avent set up on offense with his back to the basket, staying so low that he was almost sitting on the court. He leaned back into Saddler with such force that he would have gone skidding out-of-bounds had Saddler taken a step back. Not that Saddler had any intention of doing so. Instead, he tried to move around Avent to guard him from in front, which was hard to do because Avent's right arm was hooked around Saddler's hip in an effort to pin him back. At the same time, Saddler was digging his left knee into Avent's backside and inching him forward the way you might push a box that was too heavy to lift.
Referee Tim Higgins took a few steps back and forth along the baseline, occasionally craning his neck to get a better view of the action between the two men, like a boxing ref observing fighters in a clinch. Eventually Providence regained possession of the ball, and Avent and Saddler nearly fell to the floor trying to untangle themselves.
No foul was called, and by the current standards, probably none should have been. No advantage was gained by either player. The mugging was mutual. Play on.
There was a time when the play of Eastern teams and Big Ten schools was considered rougher than that of the rest of the country, but regional differences have now all but disappeared. In a California-Arizona game last season, Cal center Brian Hendrick and Arizona center Sean Rooks had several interesting skirmishes. At one point Hendrick came down the floor and tried to post up just outside the lane, but Rooks beat him to the spot, and the two bumped shoulders. They stood there for several seconds, pushing against each other like two men trying to move blocking dummies—and all the while they were oblivious to the action going on around them.
When New Mexico played Brigham Young last season, Lobos senior center Luc Longley and BYU freshman center Shawn Bradley locked horns for the first time. Longley proved more skilled in physical battle, and at one point he sent Bradley crashing to the floor as they fought for position. "He gave me a piece of advice later on," Bradley says. "He said to get used to it, because that's how the game is played."
But why? John Guthrie, the Southeastern Conference supervisor of officials, lays part of the blame on his own profession. "There aren't a whole lot of officials who officiate post play on a consistent basis real well," he says. "It's undoubtedly the most difficult area to officiate right now, tougher than the charge or goaltending."
For several seasons, the NCAA has tried to address the problem. The most recent attempt came during the off-season, when Division I officials attending the NCAA's six regional clinics were told about so-called absolutes—fouls that, according to veteran Big Eight and Big Ten referee Jim Bain, "officials are now directed to call every time. Offensive post people backing into a defender—it's a foul. The defender putting a knee in the back or a forearm in the rear—it's a foul, it's absolute. The NCAA recognizes the need to get the post cleaned up."
Many coaches are skeptical. "Every year at the committee meetings and rules seminars the NCAA says this is the year they're going to clean up the post, and every year it seems like it gets more physical," says Southern Mississippi's M.K. Turk.
Then again, most coaches believe officials are to blame for just about everything but the federal budget deficit. "There wasn't as much pushing and shoving 20 years ago, because you called the foul. It's as simple as that," says North Carolina coach Dean Smith. "I think we've got to get back to that."