MUNCIE, Ind. -- The man watching the whistles for the NCAA is having a lively November. John Adams is national coordinator for basketball officials, and let’s just say he’s gotten an earful about the way the games are being called this season.
The subject is the new emphasis against defensive contact, calling for swift and certain punishment for four formerly winked-at uses of the arms or hands. A move designed to make college basketball a little less like college football.
Just Sunday, Georgetown beat VCU in a game with 84 free throws and 61 fouls. “You probably are having higher scoring games,” Georgetown head coach John Thompson III said to reporters afterward. “But the games are uglier.”
Then again, the same day Charlotte upset Michigan in a thriller and shot only eight free throws while doing it.
Box scores vary, but the issue has created a coast-to-coast buzz. So it seemed a good time to sit with Adams as he evaluated the officiating at one game. He’s often out there, in this arena or that fieldhouse, looking to fill his referee tournament roster for March, making his list and checking it twice. Also monitoring how the rules are being enforced.
If it’s Saturday, this must be Ball State. Actually Butler at Ball State, and Adams is on press row, evaluation sheets in hand.
“Most of it is positive,” he is saying of the feedback. “My question to coaches I know well enough to call is, is it sustainable? They all said to a man, yes, it’s good for the game. They expect this to go on. So shame on us if we don’t hold the line.”
By “us,” he means his guys. The officials. They’re the ones at the core.
“We’ve defined a group of rules and taken the guesswork out of it for not only the coaches and players, but also the referees. So now they have not a gray line, but a black line,” he says. “Personally, it’s gone smoother than I expected. I expected there to be all sorts of pushback.”
He’s gotten only two truly irate calls from coaches. The media clamor has settled down. “The short-term adjustment period is over,” Adams says. And his officials? “They’re more comfortable today than they were yesterday. More comfortable Friday than they were Thursday.”
So let’s see how it goes on a Saturday in Muncie.
First half, 17:40 on the clock. Whistle on Ball State’s Jesse Berry, as he tries to slow a Butler ball handler. Would that have been a foul last year? “Probably not,” Adams says. “But I’m not sure it’s a foul this year.”
16:34. Foul on Berry, trying to cut off a drive. “Once a ball handler gets his head and shoulders by his man, the entire onus is on the defender,” Adams says. “It’s like the burden of proof. It’s all on the defense.”
14:47. Foul on Ball State’s Zavier Turner, but the lead official did not blow his whistle. Adams makes a note to ask, did he get a good look at the play?
14:41. Media timeout, and Adams expands on the way the games are to be called this season.
“You have to judge between what is incidental contact and what is illegal contact, but that’s not the case with these four acts,” he says, pointing to a paper with the four no-nos on defense this season. “These four, when they happen, they’re fouls. They don’t require judgment as much as they require recognition.”
14:00. On a Ball State drive, there is contact with Butler’s Alex Barlow, but he does not use his arms or hands, and the play continues. The home fans cry for a foul.
“When an offensive player creates all that contact, they ought to wait to see what happens, which is exactly what they did,” Adams says. He jots down 10-1-4 on his sheet. That’s the new decree which is causing all the fuss. “It was enforced there exactly the way it’s supposed to be.”
9:30. Butler leads 12-11. “So much,” Adams says, “for high-scoring games.”
8:30. Mmmmm, possibly a missed call. Or two. “The early returns here are less than satisfactory,” Adams says. “It’s a little like trying to legislate civility. It takes time. You have to wait for people to get used to it.
“We’re doing better than the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.”
7:46. Media timeout, and Adams is talking about the growing pains of the adjustment this season. “One of the guys working in Chicago [at the Michigan State-Kentucky, Duke-Kansas doubleheader] called me and asked, 'Did we call too many fouls? Did we call too few?’ This is not about quantity. There is no right number.
“For years, the biological clock has been around 36 or 37 fouls a game. If you get to 42, there’s a feeling there’s too many fouls.”
6:08. Ball State’s Majok Majok works free for a baseline jam. “When you can’t guard like this,” Adams says, putting his forearm up, “that’s what you get. It allows athletes to make athletic plays.”
5:52. ”That’s a foul,” Adams grumbles. “That’s a foul.” But no whistle.
4:41. Foul on Ball State as Elijah Brown uses his hands. “Great call,” Adams says, and writes down the seal of approval on his sheet. 10-1-4.
4:10. Another correct call, on Butler’s Barlow. “He’s making a comeback,” Adams says of the official.
Halftime. Ball State leads 30-23. It was a half with only 15 fouls and 15 free throws. Adams discusses his own black-and-white striped road. He started in 1974 officiating junior-high-school games. “I passed my test, sent out 100 postcards, got 30 junior-high-school games and I was off and running,” he said. His career ended 15 years later because of knee problems. But he eventually became a conference supervisor of officials, and is now in his sixth year with the NCAA, always on the watch for more talent.
One thing he likes is having 53 first-time tournament officials the past five seasons, and nine men working their first Final Fours. The pipeline seems healthy.
19:02. Foul on Butler’s Erik Fromm. “One of the first things I do after a call is look at both coaches. If they don’t say anything and the kids don’t say anything, they got the call right. The kids are really a good guide. They usually know.”
18:20. The ball goes out of bounds after a scramble near the baseline. Butler ball. “A much harder play to call than people think,” Adams says. “You see all those hands coming at you, pick out the right hand.”
17:00. Berry taps Butler’s Kellen Dunham’s elbow as he shoots. Not a lot of contact, but whistle worthy. “One of our focus points every year is to protect the shooter,” Adams says.
15:51. Barlow makes a strong drive to the basket and gets fouled. “I don’t think you see that play last year. Crossover, then four dribbles to the basket,” Adams says. “That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve noticed; the number of guys driving to the basket.”
15:04. Adams notes there hasn’t been a block-charge call all game. Another tweak in the rules this year tightens the call on when a defender must be in place to take a charge. It doesn’t get harder for officials than the block-or-charge call.
13:22. Ball State’s Brown is hit an instant after letting a 3-point attempt fly. Foul. “Protect the shooter,” Adams repeats. He sends out videos to his men for study of correct calls. “I would use that play on a video next week. A textbook example.”
10:58. Brown drives to the baseline past a Ball State defender who last year could have put up a forearm to block the entrance, like a bar at an amusement ride line. Brown whips a pass out to Barlow for a 3-pointer. Nice, fluid play. “That,” Adams says, “capsulizes what this rule is all about.”
10:58. Butler has rallied from 11 points down to tie 42-42. “People talk about there being no margin for error,” Adams says. “There’s no margin for error for officials in a close game.”
Down the way, a Ball State fan screams at the referees, “You personally got them back in the game!”
Adams shrugs. “First amendment.”
5:40. Berry falls down on defense after contact, but no foul. “Really good job not falling for the fake there,” Adams says.
4:31. Foul on Butler’s Devontae Morgan, who was trying to use too much arm. “Absolutely right call,” Adams says. “I think it’s important to officiate the last four minutes like you do the first four minutes.”
0:00. Butler wins 59-58, as a last-second Ball State shot in traffic misses. “I always hope a close game comes down to an open 3-pointer, make or miss,” Adams says.
Final count: 35 free throws, 36 fouls. Pretty routine.
“Very competent,” Adams says of the day’s officiating work. Several times, he wrote down 10-1-4 in approval. “I also wrote down the same number of times, 'That’s a foul,’ ’’ he says. “They’ve got a little work to do.”
It’s a process of everyone adjusting in college basketball. And the job goes on.