On Dec. 27, in a mini-scrum after a defensive rebound, the left elbow of Kentucky center Dakari Johnson headed toward the face of Louisville guard Chris Jones. It did not connect. It didn’t come close to connecting. Jones, meanwhile, threw his head back and collapsed as if a courtside observer grabbed a slingshot and bull’s-eyed him in the temple. When Jones stood up, he grabbed his jaw in discomfort and checked for blood. Everything about the act was wince-inducing.
Replays swiftly confirmed a non-existent elbow and Jones’ exaggeration. Louisville coach Rick Pitino decried the whole scene and benched his senior guard for most of the Cardinals’ next game, and Jones conceded his embarrassment. Both teams have moved on, but the incident will not be forgotten. When the NCAA men’s basketball rules committee convenes in May and brings the discussion of flopping to the table, which its chairman expects it will do, expect one example of particularly bad acting to lead the montage.
“I’ll be surprised if we don’t pull up the (Jones) play on the fake elbow, getting hit, and probably some other ones,” says Rick Byrd, the Belmont coach who also serves as the rules committee chair. “And (we’ll) say, is this an issue we need to address? Is it growing? Is it not growing?
“Just personally, and that’s all it is -- I might be the chair, but I’m one guy on committee and I’m one coach out of 1,000 -- I think it’s something that needs to be talked about.”
The polite term is embellishment. The pejorative term is flopping. It’s enough of a plague that professional basketball, soccer and hockey all have mechanisms in place to punish it. How deep the infection runs in college basketball is a matter of debate and will be into the summer. There’s no consensus on it, though, despite the clips that surface of sturdy college athletes comically recoiling after contact, all in a gambit to get a whistle. At best it’s a poor excuse for defense, at worst it’s unseemly and cheap. And it may be impossible to eradicate.
Jones’ flop against Kentucky was so egregious as to be an outlier: Of course no one wants to see that, and it was easily confirmed via video review. But what is the appropriate punishment, if you’re looking to expunge that from the game? A bench warning? A technical foul? Worse? Consider another example: Oklahoma’s TaShawn Thomas driving to the lane at Kansas on Jan. 12 and extending his left arm as he did ... which sent 6-foot-8, 240-pound Jayhawks freshman Cliff Alexander tumbling and flailing backward like he touched a third rail, earning the charge call. Is there any recourse for that? Should there be?
Kansas fans would claim Alexander got stepped on and lost his footing. We can agree that something is at least a little out of balance, anyway.
“Overall, yes,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey says, when asked if flopping is too prevalent. “But I think guys aren’t doing it as much as I’ve seen before. When the officials come through in the fall and talk to your team, in each league, they’ve kind of commented on, you’re not going to get those calls. Kids have almost learned, you know what, I can’t fake guys out anymore. Refs are much better at sucking in on that whistle, on a quick one.”
The offensive foul is part of the game. And the game is fast. So players seeking offensive foul calls must demonstrate to officials monitoring a fast game that there is contact. That requires a detectable reaction, like falling. Indeed, if you’re trying to draw a foul, you’re just asking for it. “Essentially every charge you take is a flop,” fifth-year Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser says. “If you want to hold your ground when you take a charge, you could not fall over. But you go down, because it’s going to get called one way or another.”
In essence, defenders are trying to highlight the poor positioning of offensive players. On, say, stagger screens set by offensive players at the top of the key, Byrd has given his guards the message: If you don’t make contact with the screener, the referees can’t call a moving screen. “If I ever tell them to do anything,” the Belmont coach says, “it’s because I want officials to see the illegality of the play.” But coaches and player also know where the limits are. Last year, Brey saw one of his guards throw his head back when he got bumped coming up the court during practices. The Notre Dame coach told his player to stop; officials weren’t going to get snookered into that call anymore, so it was time to cut the act.
The block-charge dynamic has been the recipient of much of the criticism. For the 2013-14 season, the rule was reinterpreted to benefit offensive players, and fouls and scoring jumped. Complaints from coaches and officials precipitated a re-adjustment to the original standard for 2014-15, intended to make it an easier call for referees and to return the advantage to defenders.
Stil, you can't legislate judgment out of every whistle. When a post player backs into a defender and the defender goes flying -- “The cheapest of fouls,” Brey says -- it’s a decision that can vary from one moment and one ref to the next. Likewise, how the subject is treated between coaches and players isn’t entirely consistent, either.
For Wake Forest coach Danny Manning, the line between reaction and embellishment isn’t an emphasis. “The biggest thing for me is holding your ground,” Manning says, whether it’s a guard on the perimeter or a post defender.
At Purdue, meanwhile, the philosophy is to make sure contact doesn’t go unnoticed. “We tell them not to flop, not to fake, go to the basket to score, don’t go to get fouled,” Boilermakers coach Matt Painter says. “The only thing we talk about ‘selling’ is when you take a charge. If you get into legal guarding position, selling that a little more. I don’t think that’s quite a flop. That’s part of basketball. It’s been part of basketball for a long time.”
When the rules committee and coaches convened last summer, Byrd says, there was “very little discussion about the topic” of flops. That likely will change this year.
“It’s something I feel sure we’ll take up in May,” Byrd says. “I don’t think anybody that cares about the game wants coaches teaching or players on their own literally faking a foul ... We don’t need it in the game.”
How to rid the game of it? That’s no easy call, either.
No one will issue fines for embellishment or diving, as the NBA and NHL do. Brey, a former rules committee member, feels even a technical foul is too steep a penalty. But Painter notes the FIBA rule that penalizes simulation with a technical; while he noticed most games passed without any such call, once it was whistled, the flopping ceased immediately. “The record stops,” the Purdue coach says.
Still, halting action to review video for flops is the worst possible solution for a game already struggling with pace-of-play issues. Could leagues review plays sent in by coaches and inspect for flops retroactively? Possibly, but then how would corrective action be applied?
Most plausibly, officials would inspect potential embellishment during the course of other video reviews -- like for ill-intended elbows -- and issue a bench warning similar to delay-of-game calls. Keep flopping, and then the technicals come. “Believe me, that is a real topic for this rules committee, and rules committees in future, about how far do you go, with more and more video capability (and) the desire to get things called correctly versus flow of the game,” Byrd says.
But a game free of players thudding to the deck, even if they’re barely nicked by a shooter driving to the rim? That may be some sort of basketball utopia fantasy. Eliminating flopping essentially requires eliminating the offensive foul altogether.
The worst cases can and should be curbed, starting next summer. But no one else appears too charged up about the rest.
“If you get bumped, if you get hit, you want to make sure the ref sees that,” Gasser says. “And that’s just kind of the way it is.”