It’s certain to happen this season on many occasions, in the earliest college basketball games. A defender will put two hands on a guard who is driving to the basket. An official will blow his whistle and call a foul. And a fan will yell: “Come on ref, let them play!”
What the officials are trying to do this season, through a series of mandates by those who govern the sport, is redefine the way the game is played. After years of discussion, the Men’s Basketball Oversight Committee, the Rules Committee and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) agreed that action must be taken to reduce physical play and return the game to its free-flowing roots.
Of the rules changes made during the offseason, shortening the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 seconds has probably received the most discussion. Yet the roughly 25 rules implemented to help increase pace and stretch freedom of movement should make a greater impact on the game. The three officials who run the floor are expected to enforce the rules consistently during every Division I men’s basketball game.
The initiative is listed on page eight of the 2015-16 NCAA Men’s Basketball Rule Book:
The rules committee has embarked on an officiating initiative with the intent of reducing the amount of physical play and allowing more freedom of movement by requiring enforcement which is closer to the intent of the rules book. To this end, the rules committee has identified several areas of concern noted below:
- Handchecking / Body Bumping
- Freedom of Movement
- Physical Post Play
- Offensive initiated contact with defender
In the past, a veteran official might have trusted his judgment to determine if the dribbler or defender gained an advantage, then decided whether or not to call a foul. That gray area has been removed in specific instances, said John Clougherty, who officiated 12 Final Fours and four national championship games and for the last 11 years has been the supervisor of officials for the Atlantic Coast Conference and Colonial Athletic Association.
Rule 10-1.4 in the NCAA men’s basketball rulebook lists the following acts as an automatic foul:
a. Keeping a hand or forearm on an opponent
b. Putting two hands on an opponent.
c. Continually jabbing an opponent by extending an arm(s) and placing a hand or forearm on the opponent;
d. Using an arm bar to impede the progress of a dribbler.
“Let’s think about blow-by moves,” Clougherty said. “One guard is guarding the dribbler and there’s a blow-by down into the lane and the defender puts that armbar on him. Officials have been trained in the past to see how the play develops from the beginning to the end. That thinking is no longer. Once they see that armbar on the dribbler, on a blow-by move, that is a foul. You can use the word absolute.”
If the emphasis on cleaning up the game sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The 2013-14 season began with a similar tone. More fouls were called, especially early in the season. In games involving Division I teams, scoring increased from a historic low of 66.9 points per team per game in 2012-13 to 70.3 in 2013-14. The spike could be attributed to an increase in fouls called per game (17.7 to 19.2) and free throws shot (19.8 to 22.6) in regular-season games.
“Last year there was a lot of slippage and we went back to business as usual,” Clougherty said. “The rules committee, competition committee and NABC decided we have to have not just a change, but a cultural change. It’s going back to more of a skilled game.”
The shift from free-flowing action to physical play evolved over years, Clougherty said.
Weight room training became an integral part of college basketball. Point guards are built like middleweight champions now and power forwards wouldn’t look out of place on a DI defensive line.
Clougherty officiated the 1985 national championship game. Heavy underdog Villanova shot a NCAA finals record 78.6 percent against Georgetown, which was considered the best defensive team in the nation.
The video above reveals players who are thinner. There's minimal holding, pushing, shoving and overall defensive interference - acts now commonplace.
“How do you get it back?” Clougherty said. “I think you have to take some drastic measures.”
J.D. Collins, the NCAA’s new supervisor of officials, has told Clougherty and other conference supervisors what he expects to see when watching games on television.
“If we’re not doing as he’d like, I’m going to get a phone call,” Clougherty said. “And I have no problem with that. We’ve had our clinics and we’ve studied video that I’ve put together and my guys know what’s expected from them.”
Clougherty made it clear that officials had no official input on the rules changes, it’s simply their job to enforce them. Those who don’t, however, won't receive NCAA tournament assignments, he said. A repeat offender could even lose regular-season assignments.
“The hard guys to change won’t be the young guys,” he said. “It’s the guys who have had success. Notable referees that you know. They’ve had success for years refereeing a certain way and they’re expected to change.”
He doesn’t anticipate the transition to stricter enforcement will be painless. He just wants steady improvement as the season unfolds, leading to a better product.
“We’re going to see, possibly, more fouls and more free throws, but we would hope there’s going to be an adjustment by the referees and an adjustment by the coaches and then it will trickle down to the players, and they’ll play without the use of their hands,” Clougherty said. “That’s all we’re hoping. We don’t want games filled with a lot of free throws and a lot of fouls. If you look at the NCAA instructional video, there’s going to be push back, frustrated coaches and officials. But I’ve told my officials, you’ve got to stay the course.”