Before we advance too far into the current college basketball season, it's worth taking inventory of the mayhem from the last. To refresh your memory -- if not offend your sensibilities -- the record reflects that the sport's two best players, Blake Griffin of Oklahoma and Tyler Hansbrough of North Carolina, each sat out games with concussions. Purdue's Lewis Jackson missed time after Joe Krabbenhoft of Wisconsin flattened him with a flagrantly illegal screen that went unwhistled. In a mid-Feburary matchup that could have been staged by the Nutmeg State's own WWE, Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet found himself flipped over the back of Pitt's DeJuan Blair, who by the end of that game could point to his own left eye, half swollen shut -- and whose war story equaled that of Louisville's Samardo Samuels, who had two teeth jarred loose against St. John's.
Meanwhile products like the Mad Max-ishly named Nike Pro Combat Basketball Deflex Short, a padded undergarment, became standard equipment, with similar accoutrements working their way up torsos to adorn ribs, lower backs and elbows. "We used to use [padding] just for someone who got hurt," said Michigan State trainer Tom Mackowiak, whose Spartans sometimes ran their contact-intense "war drill" three times per practice during last season's NCAA tournament. "Now we have 15 players wearing them." After Aubrey Coleman of Houston stomped on the face of Arizona's Chase Budinger to earn a flagrant foul, ejection and suspension, Coleman essentially said he hadn't meant to do it. Which is exactly the point: By the end of last season, frightful physicality had become more or less incidental contact.
"I've had a lot of great shooters, and it's harder and harder to get them open," says Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz, chair of the NCAA rules committee, which is trying to roll back this trend. "Defenses won't let them cut and there's all sorts of off-the-ball contact. I've had officials tell me there's no way they can blow the whistle on every play. As coaches we all do what we think we can within the rules -- and maybe pushing the rules -- to help us win. And there are certain coaches who say, 'You know what, our best chance to win is to be very, very physical.' "
If you don't believe your own eyes, look at the numbers. A typical college game features almost six fewer baskets than in 1971, despite the introduction of the 45-second shot clock in 1986, and its shortening to 35 seconds seven years later -- rules changes that have generated more possessions. Yet year after year refs will consistently call about 38 to 40 fouls a game. Small wonder that Missouri post man Laurence Bowers says, "When I wake up the day after a game, I feel like I got into a fight."
"Yeah," adds teammate Zaire Taylor. "A fight you lost."
There's a larger fight going on in college hoops, and it's one that John Adams has no intention of losing. Two years ago Adams, a former college referee and Indianapolis real estate developer, took over as the NCAA's coordinator of men's basketball officiating. Like the eponymous patriot who negotiated peace and championed liberty, Adams spent his first season raising the banner of "freedom of movement." He sent down the message that, if an offensive player's rhythm, speed, balance or quickness is interrupted, it's a foul. And he introduced two "absolutes," plays that referees should automatically recognize and whistle: when a defender puts two hands on the dribbler, and when the dribbler is tripped and loses possession as a result. "We wanted officials to engage, measure and penalize based on the freedom of movement litmus test," Adams says.
But after last season, Adams and the rules committee to which he reports realized they had to go further. At their July meeting they agreed that college basketball is now perceived to be more physical than the NBA and, says Adams, "that we haven't done much to change that perception." So this season they've added initiatives for player safety and sportsmanship. And they've continued to hammer away at freedom of movement and the absolutes intended to enshrine preservation of the game's choreography as a referee's guiding principle [see sidebar to the right]. "We have to do a much better job of creating a zone of predictability for players and coaches, of making officiating more of a science and less of an art," says Adams. "I came up at a time when refereeing was all feel. But coaches want absolutes. And referees should want absolutes."
Adams' job would be much easier if he worked for the NBA. Hand checks on dribblers and forearm chucks on cutters are rare in the pros because a ref who doesn't let the customer see what he has paid for won't keep his job. "The NBA has 60 referees working 100 percent of its games, full-time employees with full accountability," says Adams. "The league office sets limits, and every coach and player knows that if you exceed them it's a foul. We have 600 officials working about 80 percent of our games, and more leagues than the NBA has teams. We deal with an independent-contractor universe."
Only with the NCAA tournament does Adams take control of the college game's officiating pool. Until then Division I referees report to 23 officiating coordinators who represent 31 different conferences, each responsible for hiring, firing, evaluating and -- most critically -- scheduling. Who is a ref more likely to listen to, the person responsible for the bulk of his livelihood or the NCAA's guy back in Indy? "The coordinator in that referee's league is a lot higher up the Christmas card list than I am," Adams says. "Hopefully we're both on the same page, so the transition from conference play to the NCAA tournament is seamless. But if there are conflicting messages a referee is probably going to listen to the guy who's assigning him 40 or 50 games."
In order to flatten out standards -- "to get out of the silos that are leagues," he says, "and get the business horizontal" -- Adams is developing direct channels to referees, including regular memos and an interactive Web site. During last March's tournament, every official was handed a DVD of the game he had just worked as he left the arena. And after each of the past two seasons, Adams and a team of eight regional evaluators broke down every whistle in every tournament game, assigning a grade to each referee and sharing it privately with him. (Their research showed that, of the 75 to 100 calls per game, officials got close to 80 percent right.)
After one conference game last season, Adams confronted an official who had left a number of clear fouls unwhistled. "In our league, we don't call those," the ref replied.
"You need to," Adams shot back. "If you don't, you won't work the NCAA tournament."
That's the lone carrot Adams has to go with his freedom-of-movement schtick, but it's a powerful one: Several weeks later Adams caught a game worked by that same referee, who this time called fouls to the national standard. "Just like players and coaches, most officials dream of making the NCAA tournament and advancing," Adams says. "But I hope there's more motivation than that -- that if you care about the game, you'll want to improve it."
Last season Adams says he struggled to get compliance with his initiatives from only a handful of conferences, leagues he's understandably reluctant to single out. But any fan knows that the Big Ten and Big East have well-developed brands as bruisers. "Teams recruit certain types of players in certain leagues to take advantage of the way those leagues are officiated," says Adams. Give the film from the UConn-Pitt game last February a fair-minded review, and you'll conclude that the refs left 40 fouls on the floor.
Last month Adams turned up in St. Louis to watch Memphis meet No. 1 Kansas. For much of the game's first 30 minutes the Jayhawks maintained a high single-digit lead. But midway through the second half Memphis closed to within five, and the game took on a desperate quality. "We're on the border of order and chaos," Adams said from his seat courtside. "Right now is when the officials will earn their money."
Within seconds the referees called two fouls on Memphis forward Will Coleman, first for grabbing a jersey, then for an illegal screen. Adams nodded approvingly at each call. The whistles stalled out the Tigers' run, but only momentarily. Memphis had lost two small skirmishes to gain a better strategic position. The refs had reined the game in, and over a cleaner final 10 minutes this advantaged the smaller, faster, less-deep Tigers. They wound up losing, but only after a three-point attempt at the buzzer kicked off the rim. The system had worked.
If this season's initiatives fail to clean the game up, there are several more ways college basketball could protect against its continued devolution:
• Ban underpadding, at least above the waist. Defenders in something just short of football gear aren't likely to respect the dainty prerogatives of cutters and dribblers.
• Widen the lane. A wider lane would disperse bodies over a broader area and reduce back-to-the-basket situations, where the game tends to deteriorate into bump-and-grind. Indeed, the rules committee was ready to introduce a wider lane several years ago, only to abandon the move for fear of the cost of re-marking hundreds of courts.
• Redefine the notion of what makes for a fairly whistled game. It might seem to be one in which each team is called for roughly the same number of fouls. But a team in a 2-3 zone won't commit nearly as many as one whose coach believes that physical play constitutes his best chance to win -- and the box score shouldn't reflect some false equivalence. Every ref in America should read a study released in November by Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, which found that the larger the foul differential between two teams, the more likely any subsequent foul will be charged to the team with fewer fouls. In other words, because referees by nature want to even out foul totals, aggressive play pays. As a remedy, study authors Kyle Anderson and David Pierce suggest educating officials about this tendency, and perhaps increasing the penalty for fouling.
• Add another absolute or two. "I don't want to introduce too many absolutes too fast," Adams says. "It takes time to get a conceptual change like that to take." But he has a few candidates in his back pocket, including a forearm applied to the dribbler, and the wrapping of an arm around an offensive player.
Absolutes provide such a welcome "zone of predictability" that last season UTEP coach Tony Barbee essentially built his offense around one of them. A disciple of Dribble-Drive Motion guru John Calipari, Barbee had his players slash into the lane, knowing that they'd get a clear path to the basket if they could beat their defender off the bounce, or a whistle from Conference USA officials, who tend to follow the national guidelines, as soon as a defender used his hands to impede progress. The result: UTEP led the nation in foul shots attempted and made, and guard Stefon Jackson shot more free throws than any collegian since Pete Maravich.
Last season's Miners may not have been the most enjoyable team to watch. And this season, Lutz says, "Maybe we'll have to have some games with a lot of fouls called. But eventually players and coaches will adjust."
So far Adams is reasonably pleased. "It's early, but I sense a real feeling of cooperation [from conference coordinators]," he says. "We could do a better job on rough play in the low post. As the post goes, so goes the game. Rough play spreads, like the flu."
Adams admits that the real test will come after the new year, in the closed loops of conference play, when players and refs could easily return, winking and nodding, to their old permissive habits. "It seems that we always start the season with an abundance of whistles," says Barbee. "And by conference play it's basically football without helmets."
In January college hoops will likely find itself back on its own border between order and chaos. And that's when Adams will earn his money.