Jim Boeheim and other coaches are searching for consistency above all else in officiating. (Al Bello/Getty Images)
By mid-January, Jim Boeheim had seen a broad swath of non-conference games and a smaller sample of league play. This was the evidence before Syracuse's coach when he was asked to assess the new officiating points of emphasis, and how well they translated to ACC contests and beyond.
A common suspicion among coaches, players and pundits was that these new mandates on freedom of movement -- designed to make the game faster and more fun to watch -- would fade in the din of conference play. That familiarity and rivalry would mute officials' whistles. Early on, Boeheim didn't sound alarms, but he did sound concerned about one particular area.
“It’s been a little bit rougher in the post since we got into conference play,” Boeheim said. “I think the charge rule has been called good, I think that’s a good rule, I think that’s been called right. I think they have to continue to watch on the other stuff. The rough play, I don’t want to see it sneak back in there just because we’re in the conference.”
About a month’s worth of data on conference play suggests the slippage has been limited -- what was a foul before January 1 remains a foul now. But if there is a concern, it’s about the business that transpires in the paint. Coaches complain mostly about what’s not being called than what is.
With the new points of emphasis on freedom of movement, coaches and players sought consistency. And according to KPISports.com, there has been an almost unnoticeable drop in fouls called during non-conference play versus league games: from 19.5 fouls per game to 19.2, a drop of 1.3 percent.
That answers the call for steady officiating. But coaches see what occurs in the paint and wonder if that number should be going up.
“I still believe post play is too rough,” Kansas coach Bill Self said Monday. “There’s always going to be contact when you’ve got any big bodies laying on each other. I don’t see how you can call every one of those.”
That might not stop some lobbying from a special interest group: coaches, like Self, who have dominant post presences on the roster. For the Jayhawks, it is 7-foot freshman of the year candidate Joel Embiid. For Purdue, it’s 7-footer A.J. Hammons, and the treatment of the Boilermakers’ center had coach Matt Painter on a rant after a recent double-overtime loss at Northwestern.
Hammons shot 17 free throws in the game. Two of the players primarily guarding him fouled out, and by the end, the Wildcats draped 6-6 forward Sanjay Lumpkin on Hammons. Still, afterward, Painter figured his sophomore center’s free-throw attempt total might have been shorted by nearly 50 percent.
“He honestly could have shot 30 free throws,” Painter said following the game. “Should have shot 30 free throws. He got fouled every time down ... They started the season talking about how the rules are going to be different. They’re no different. There’s nothing different in post play from the year before.
“He gets fouled the whole game. They pick and choose how they call one foul over another – I have no idea. They have to be consistent. But we don’t have the same guys. He’s 7-feet, 270 (pounds), got skills. So he gets different attention. It’s almost like a high school thing. You go and recruit high school big guys, and the refs don’t know how to call it. I don’t understand it. I really don’t. And I’ve never really had a guy like that. Now that we do, I’m amazed at what gets ignored, especially when you get on the road.”
Again, calculating the gap between what is called and what’s ignored relies mostly on observers with a vested interest. Hammons’ free-throw rate – a player’s ability to get to the line relative to how often he attempts to score – is 91.81. That ranked 12th in the country as of Tuesday. Embiid is at 80.7 percent, 31st nationally. Kentucky’s Julius Randle, one of the premier low-post threats in the country, is at 84.15 and No. 24 in the country. Defenses aren't fouling without consequence as it is.
The question is what else is out there, and that space can be difficult to define.
“I just hope they stay the course,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said on the SEC teleconference Monday. “In other words, the fouls that are supposed to be called – if you put your hands on people, if you put your hands up in the air and hand-check a guy or hip-check a guy, that’s a foul. If you’re in the post and you chest-foul them, like throw your chest at a guy, that’s a foul.”
Generally, coaches appear to believe the new points of emphasis have taken hold. Calipari believes they “cleaned up the game.” Scoring is up 5.8 percent from last season, per KPISports.com. Conference play has been a drag, with possessions down 2.6 per game (3.8 percent) from non-conference action and scoring down about a bucket per night (2.9 percent). Maybe that’s familiarity. Maybe that’s players getting away with more. Maybe it’s a little bit of everything.
And maybe a little bit of everything is a fairly apt way to describe what continues to go on in the post during conference battles, though anyone with a solution to that might be the first.
“There’s always strong points of emphasis coming into a season,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. “But I think coaches know, once you step into league play, the physicality is going to increase and the nature of games in conference play are more hotly contested ... Overall conference play translates into a very physical, rough and tumble style of play.”