published Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

Will officiating changes be part of March Madness?

Kansas coach Bill Self talks with a referee during the second half of the Jayhawks’ game against Iowa State in the
semifinals of the Big 12 Conference tournament in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas coach Bill Self talks with a referee during the second half of the Jayhawks’ game against Iowa State in the semifinals of the Big 12 Conference tournament in Kansas City, Mo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
2014 NCAA Men's Bracket
2014 NCAA Men's Bracket

It's rule 4-17.4 in the NCAA basketball rules book. It concerns the block/charge call. And thanks to Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim's tirade inside Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 22, it has become the most discussed official's call of the 2013-14 season, at least until the NCAA tournament's First Four games begin tonight in Dayton, Ohio.

To briefly recall the event, official Tony Greene whistled Orange senior forward C.J. Fair for a charge when he collided with Duke forward Rodney Hood with 10.4 seconds to play. Boeheim's court-storming outrage over the call led to two technical fouls and his first ejection in 1,256 official games as a head coach, though he was once tossed from an exhibition contest.

Down two before Boeheim's blowup, Syracuse lost 66-60.

"The worst call I've seen all year," the Hall of Fame coach bellowed afterward.

"The kind of call that wakes a coach up in the middle of the night," noted University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's coach Jim Foster, also a Hall of Famer.

Even Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swafford didn't exactly rush to Greene's defense afterward, labeling it a "judgment call."

The original block/charge rule stated that a defensive player must have his feet set before the offensive player left his feet. This season's rule change, which was intended to make it easier for the official and seemingly aid the offensive player, is worded as follows: "A defensive player is not permitted to move into the path of an offensive player once he has started his upward motion with the ball to attempt a field goal or pass. If the defensive player is not in legal guarding position by this time, it is a blocking foul."

It has long been such a bang-bang play that John Adams, the NCAA's national supervisor of officials, noted before the season that video reviews showed referees getting more than 90 percent of all calls correct last season but only about 65 percent of the block/charge calls.

One unnamed official told Cleveland.com: "We had a power point seminar with 200 bang-bang, block/charge calls from last year. Last year those calls were 50-50. Now, maybe 25 out of 200 would actually be charge calls."

Yet polarizing as that rule remains, the increased emphasis on hand-checking, especially on the perimeter, has appeared to stir more controversy. Though intended to speed up the game and increase scoring -- the 67.5 scoring average per team during the 2012-13 season was the lowest in more than 30 years -- it quite possibly has slowed it, at least for this season.

Just consider that 51 fouls were called and 73 free throws were shot when Georgia out-slogged Ole Miss 77-75 in their SEC tournament quarterfinal game last Friday. In Kentucky's 85-67 win over LSU that night, 47 fouls were called and 65 free throws were taken. Not to be outdone, officials in Sunday's ACC final between Duke and Virginia called 43 fouls that resulted in 49 free throws.

Television games that used to last a little more than two hours are stretching toward two and a half hours, which is what Kansas coach Bill Self told ESPN back in November that he feared would happen.

"More free throws," he said, "don't make the game better."

Yet as scoring has increased by three points a game and foul calls steadily decreased throughout the regular season, others have been less critical.

"The intent has been good," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said earlier this season. "I think there have been more hand-checks called than before and there is less hand-checking going on than before. We've made some progress, but we probably have some ways to go."

Said University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Will Wade, whose Mocs face East Tennessee State tonight in the CollegeInsider tourney: "I thought [going into the season] that there were going to be more fouls, and I think there were, and it helped because we got to the foul line quite a bit. It was very beneficial to us."

The Mocs shot 67 more free throws in Southern Conference games than any other SoCon school.

Yet not every coach in every league believes the officials have continued the vigilance on touch fouls they showed early in the season.

Kentucky coach John Calipari has been particularly critical of the officials in league play, saying the games were called one way in December and another in February, telling the media last week, "Is this lacrosse or basketball? It's hard to have fun when you're being mugged."

Somewhat surprisingly, the NCAA's Adams agreed, telling the Lexington Herald-Leader last week, "What I've noticed is they're still doing a pretty good job on the perimeter. But it tends to deteriorate the closer you get to the basket. We're still having trouble with what I'd call rough post play and chucking and grabbing cutters. There shouldn't have been much difference going from December to March."

Yet before anyone assumes the beginning of the NCAA men's and women's tournaments, the NIT and other tourneys will again penalize overly physical play, UTC's Wade also observed, "I do think they're letting teams play a little more now. That's the way it typically is, especially in the NCAA tournament: They let you play. They don't want to foul out the best players in the NCAA tournament."

But Jake Bell, the SEC's head of officials, isn't so sure of that.

As he prepared to watch last Saturday's SEC tourney semifinals at the Georgia Dome, he said of Adams' master plan: "[The officials] know every game is being taped and evaluated by John Adams. These officials want to advance to the NCAA tourney as much as the players and coaches."

Tonight we'll begin to see just what that means. More fouls? Fewer fouls? Business as usual?

"Players, coaches and officials have to learn to work together on these changes," Bell said. "They need to be a team."

And when they aren't, at least a few officials have proven they don't mind sending players and coaches to the locker room before the game ends, even Hall of Fame coaches who've managed to go 1,256 games in nearly 37 seasons without a single ejection. No wonder they call this March Madness.

David Paschall and David Uchiyama contributed to this story.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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