Like many of you, I had a hard time watching the big Kentucky-Louisville game on New Year's Eve. Every few seconds, the game was interrupted by a tweet. Not the 140-character kind -- the kind that emanates from a referee's whistle. A total of 51 fouls were called, yielding 70 free throws. That's a lot of standing around. It was not a pretty way to ring in the new year.
John Adams, the NCAA's supervisor of officials, saw things differently. He even sent a text message afterward to one of the refs congratulating him and his crew for doing such a good job. "Players have a choice of adjusting or not adjusting to what the officials are doing," Adams said. "If they decide not to adjust, officials shouldn't give up."
This may sound like a boss sticking up for his guys, but Adams is nobody's shill. If you watched him on television during last year's NCAA tournament, you saw a man who was unafraid to criticize the zebras if the situation warranted it. Adams does not make or change the rules -- that responsibility belongs to a committee of coaches -- and he does not assign officials to games during the regular season. But Adams is using the one lever he does have -- the authority to determine who works what round in the NCAA tournament -- to try to clean up the game.
Now in his fourth year on the job, Adams is more dedicated than ever to preserving the four elements the rules committee has determined are paramount: rhythm, speed, balance and quickness. Many fans assume that NBA basketball is more physical than the college version, but any pro scout or general manager who watches a lot of college games will tell you the opposite is true. Starting with the implementation of stricter hand-checking rules, the NBA has done a great job of cleaning up its act the last few years. College hoops has come a long way, but it still is not where it needs to be.
"Our game will be better if players are allowed to run relatively unencumbered around the court," Adams said. "We've always had incidental contact and it's not going away, but if the contact causes a player's balance or quickness to be affected, it's supposed to be a foul. You don't want to give either the offense or the defense an unfair advantage."
High-profile games like Louisville-Kentucky might lead you to believe the refs are calling more fouls this year, but the data indicates otherwise. According to statistics provided by the NCAA, there have been 18.35 fouls called per game per team this season. That is the lowest since 1963, when the average was 18.20. Not surprisingly, this has had an effect on scoring. As you can see by the accompanying chart, there has been a basic correlation over the years between the number of fouls called and the number of points scored. When scoring peaked in 1975 -- a full 13 years before the arrival of the three-point line -- there were 20.2 fouls being called per team per game.
This correlation can't be completely attributed to extra free throws. The fact is, when refs are clamping down on physical play, it's easier for players to dribble, pass and shoot. The challenge is to establish the proper balance between the offense and the defense.
I don't like foul-filled games any more than you do, and I understand that there is a place for brute force. But basketball was conceived as primarily a game of finesse. James Naismith's eureka moment came when he decided that a player shouldn't be able to run with the ball. That's because he didn't want players getting hurt like they did in football.
Part of the problem in today's college game is that, unlike in the NBA, officials are essentially private contractors who are assigned and compensated by coordinators from 31 different conferences. It's hard to achieve uniformity, much less consistency, under that setup. What typically happens is that the games start out being called tight, but as conference play progresses the refs let more contact go. Then the postseason rolls around and officials revert to calling the action the way they did in November. That just throws everybody off.
Adams hopes that won't be the case this time around. "I think we're getting strict adherence to the interpretations deeper into the season, and that's a credit to the coordinators of the different leagues that are buying into this," he said.
As to whether this is the best job his guys have done during his four years on the job, Adams is reserving judgment. "It feels like we're making incremental progress, but I'd really like you to ask me that on April the third," he said. "Because we won't really know until then."
Here are a few other tidbits from my conversation with Adams:
• Most people probably don't realize it, but the implementation of the arc under the basket for charge/block calls was done primarily for player safety. That is one of the three areas that refs are emphasizing. (Freedom of movement and sportsmanship are the others). Adams told me that the feedback on this change has been universally positive. "I haven't talked to anybody who is a stakeholder in our game who doesn't like the effect it has had," he said.
• There are two recent trends which Adams is encouraging his refs to squelch. The first is the increasing prevalence of a defender walking underneath a shooter as he's launching an attempt (or a "try for goal" in zebraspeak). In this situation, the defender raises his hands to avoid contact up high, leaving the impression he's not fouling. His lower body, however, tells a different story. Said Adams, "It looks like they're playing good defense except they're just walking the guy off the post."
The second trend is the increased use of the so-called "arm bar" where a defender uses his forearm to prevent a dribbler from getting by him. If a defender's forearm makes contact, the ref is supposed to call it immediately.
• The biggest problem Adams sees right now is not physical play. It's sportsmanship -- or a lack thereof. "When you have coaches out in the middle of the floor screaming and gyrating and gesturing, that strikes me as an institutional issue," he said. "Whether it's presidents or league commissioners or some combination, we all have a lot of room to improve sportsmanship dramatically."
Adams, however, did concede that a big part of this responsibility lies with officials -- not just to make better calls (which always helps) but to reduce their engagement with coaches. Adams recently posted a video showing Ted Valentine standing across the court with his back turned on a coach who was yelling at him during a time out. Valentine has a reputation for being one of the more confrontational refs, but if more officials followed his lead in that situation, then coaches would come to realize that it's pointless to argue so much. Then they'd have to go back to, you know, coaching their teams.
• The biggest question I have about Syracuse right now -- really the only question -- is to what degree this team's biggest strength (balance) becomes its primary weakness (lack of a go-to guy). Think of it this way: If it's a regional final, and it's late in the game and late in the shot clock, who gets the ball? It should be Kris Joseph, but he doesn't have a takeover personality. It might be Scoop Jardine, but he's not a great shooter and tends to be careless. Brandon Triche? He's solid but not spectacular. It will probably end up being Dion Waiters, but given that he's a sophomore who comes off the bench, is that really ideal? This is a good problem to have, but it is a problem.
• It's nice that Kentucky's Terrence Jones scored 20 points on 8 for 9 shooting against South Carolina, his highest output in over a month. However, that also reinforces the suspicion that Jones only puts up numbers when they don't matter very much.
• The Seth Curry-as-point-guard experiment appears to be over at Duke. The reason the Blue Devils' opponents' field goal percentages are so high is because Duke's offense has been so bad. With freshman Quinn Cook stepping into that role as a starter, junior Andre Dawkins' role is being reduced. Coach K will continue to mix and match, and his record indicates he'll figure it out eventually. But right now this is a team very much in search of itself.
• Speaking of Duke, don't you just love that Temple coach Fran Dunphy had his players ride the subway to that game? Maybe he should keep doing it. Remember, the St. John's coaching staff's policy of wearing sneakers and open collars started when they did it for its win over Duke at Madison Square Garden.
• Frankly, I've never understood why all coaches don't wear more comfortable garb. They're at a basketball game, not a GQ shoot.
• North Carolina is still not getting much production from freshmen James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston. Some people might see that as a concern, but to me it underscores how much upside the Tar Heels still have.
• I love that Indiana's Cody Zeller is a skinny, tall freshman who does all his work near the basket. Most guys with his frame try to prove they're shooting guards. They usually end up proving they're not shooting guards.
• No team ranked in the top 15 has more room to get better than Michigan State. Sophomore Keith Appling is playing the point for the first time. Senior guard Brandon Wood is a graduate transfer who played at Valparaiso last year. And two of the Spartans' top seven players, Branden Dawson and Travis Trice, are freshmen. That means that four of the Spartans' top seven are doing what they're doing for the first time, and yet the team is 14-2 and ranked sixth in this week's AP poll.
• I'm not hearing people wonder too much anymore about whether Baylor's guards are good enough. We'll find out just how good during the Bears' upcoming road games at Kansas State and Kansas.
• Missouri got exposed at Kansas State on Saturday as a one-trick pony. Yes, it's a pretty good trick, but when you go on the road, it's hard to shoot 24 threes and beat a good team unless you're absolutely on fire. Missouri made seven of those attempts, but they only got five offensive rebounds to make up for it.
• I realize it came in a 29-point blowout, but Thad Matta played nine guys double-digit minutes in the Buckeyes' win at Iowa. Think he secretly agrees with fans who are concerned about the team's lack of depth?
• Ohio State nugget number two: Anyone else notice the Buckeyes are committing more fouls this year? Playing tight D without fouling has been a staple of Matta's throughout his career. Right now, however, according to Kenpom.com, OSU is ranked 28th nationally in defensive free throw rate (FTA/FGA). Here's where they ranked nationally in that category over the last six years: second, second, first, fourth, eighth, first.
• I don't mean to sound harsh, but right now UConn's biggest problem is Shabazz Napier. In the Huskies' losses at Seton Hall and Rutgers, Napier shot a combined 7 for 26 from the field and had nine turnovers to just eight assists. The kid has a lot of talent, but he doesn't have much feel for how to run a team as the point guard.
• I think Henry Sims is the best passing big man John Thompson III has ever had, even better than Greg Monroe. Sims is a point center and that offense is tailor made for his skills. If Draymond Green played for Georgetown, he might lead the country in assists.
• An opposing coach on Florida center Patric Young: "He's got a great physique but he never throws his weight around." And did you see that Mike Rosario only played two minutes against Tennessee? You think he's wishing he was back at Rutgers right about now?
• Kansas is not far from being a really good team, so if Travis Releford keeps playing like this it could be a game-changer. The 6-foot-5 junior guard, a heralded recruit who has had a nondescript and injury-plagued career thus far, followed up his first-ever double-double by scoring a career-high 28 points in Saturday's win over Oklahoma.
• Anyone doubt that Mike Anderson is gonna get it rolling at Arkansas?
• Miami couldn't quite pull off the upset at Virginia, but I'm telling you, folks, the Hurricanes are coming. They just got back two of their top players, junior center Reggie Johnson (injury) and senior guard DeQuan Jones (suspension). And you may have heard this somewhere, but the ACC is pretty weak this season.
• You all know I'm a big Meyers Leonard fan, and I think Bruce Weber is a good coach. But every time I see Leonard set a high ball screen behind the three-point line I want to put them both in time out. The kid is 7-1. Get. Under. The. Basket.
• Missouri State senior forward Kyle Weems has a reputation for being a little lazy, but he definitely knows how to rise to the occasion. When I remarked to his former coach, Cuonzo Martin (now at Tennessee), that Weems seems to like the big stage, Martin laughed and said, "He can't live without it."
• Colorado might be the only undefeated team in the Pac 12, but all three of the Buffaloes' wins came at home (Utah, Washington, Washington State). We'll find out a lot more about CU this weekend when it plays at Cal and Stanford.
• Duke lost to Temple who lost to Dayton who lost to Buffalo at home by 27 points. Got it?
• Joe Jackson threatened last week to transfer from Memphis. Here's what a head coach whose team has played the Tigers had to say about their point guard situation: "Antonio Barton is much better than Joe Jackson. It's not even close. I'll take Barton over Jackson any day of the week. I feel bad for Josh [Pastner] because Joe is from Memphis. That's the only reason to play him right now."
• Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman, who was hit with an eight-year show cause penalty by the NCAA for paying players while he was the coach at Cal, was suspended over the weekend by his school for allegedly punching a player in the face during a game. Over the last couple of years, Bozeman has been publicly arguing that he is ready to take a high-major job. I didn't see this incident so I can't tell you if the allegation is true. The player himself said it's exaggerated. But this will certainly not help whatever chance Bozeman might have had to move up.
• My goodness have the wheels come off at Arizona State. In the midst of an absolutely horrendous 5-10 season which has seen multiple suspensions and one ugly fight, Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek announced on Sunday that his leading scorer, Keala King, has left the program. I like Sendek, but his tenure in Tempe can be summed up as: James Harden came there, they won some games, then Harden left, and they're not winning anymore.
• Forget about Harvard's loss to Fordham. The Crimson weren't going to get an at-large bid regardless. Why? Because the way a team like Harvard gets an at-large is by having a great regular season and then getting clipped in the conference tournament. The Ivy League, however, does not have a conference tournament (I think it should btw). So the only way Harvard can be eligible for an at-large is by finishing second. And a team that finishes second in the Ivy is not going to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
• Perhaps it's not a huge surprise given all his injury issues, but Robbie Hummel is not having the kind of big offensive season Purdue needs him to have. Hummel hasn't passed the 20-point mark since Nov. 26, and his field goal percentage of 41.8 is by far the lowest of his career. He has been particularly bad of late, shooting 37.3 percent over his last nine games.
• I've always thought it was much easier to slow down a team that wants to run than speed up a team that wants to play slowly.
• The SEC is making a mistake by going from 16 to 18 games after Texas A&M and Missouri get there. That will only make it harder for teams to schedule quality nonconference games, which helps in the hunt for at-large bids.
• And how does Texas A&M, which was picked to finish second in the Big 12 in the preseason, lose at home by 20 points to Iowa State?
• Speaking of Iowa State, all props to Minnesota transfer Royce White for his triple-double against the Aggies (10 points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists). But if a player has to transfer schools because of a checkered past, he probably shouldn't take the court with a mohawk that is dyed red. Maybe Royce should just go with the clean-cut look for a while.
• I love it when I hear DePaul fans long for the glory days of Ray Meyer. That's the same Ray Meyer who, while being a respected coach and a beautiful human being, went to exactly two Final Fours in 37 years -- and the first was in 1943 when there were eight teams in the bracket.
• I guess I should stop waiting for Washington junior guard Abdul Gaddy to become a great college player. I'll never forget watching him run circles around Brandon Jennings as a high school player at the NBA Players Association camp four years ago. For shame.
• You think Boston College coach Steve Donahue wishes he had tried to convince Brady Heslip to stay at BC? Donahue had just taken over for Al Skinner and Heslip wanted to stay, but Donahue gave him the cold shoulder so he transferred to Baylor. Now Heslip is a major part of the Bears' success while BC is one of the worst power conference teams in the country.
• It's hard to believe Southern Illinois appears bound to miss the NCAA tournament for the fifth straight year. Back in 2007, the Salukis were playing in their sixth straight NCAA tournament and their second Sweet 16 during that stretch. Chris Lowery signed a lucrative contract extension after that run but things have really gone downhill since then.
THIS WEEK'S AP BALLOT
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Syracuse (1)
2. Kentucky (2)
3. North Carolina (3)
4. Ohio State (4)
5. Baylor (6)
6. Indiana (10)
7. Michigan State (13)
8. Duke (5)
9. Missouri (7)
10. Kansas (15)
11. Georgetown (11)
12. UNLV (16)
13. Michigan (19)
14. Kansas State (21)
15. Gonzaga (17)
16. Murray State (20)
17. Florida (12)
18. Mississippi State (13)
19. Seton Hall (NR)
20. Virginia (25)
21. UConn (9)
22. Louisville (14)
23. Marquette (23)
24. West Virginia (NR)
25. Saint Mary's (NR)
Dropped out: Harvard (18), Ohio (22), Wisconsin (24)
You probably assumed that because so many ranked teams lost last week that a lot of them would move down. But it was hard to move most of them too far down because ... so many ranked teams lost that week. Once again, I started my ballot in a punitive mood, but ended up being Seth the Merciful.
For example, I'm not sure Duke could beat any team on this ballot right now, at least away from Cameron. The Blue Devils lost at unranked Temple and then nearly got clipped by a pretty woeful Georgia Tech team in Atlanta. However, at least they were competitive in those games. Missouri got absolutely embarrassed in its first legitimate road test of the season, and Duke already beat Kansas in Hawaii -- the same Kansas team that lost a de facto home game to Davidson in Kansas City. So Duke landed safely at No. 8.
See what I mean?
Florida was another team I really wanted to ding after another road loss to a non-NCAA tournament team, Tennessee. But is that so much worse than Mississippi State losing at home to Arkansas? Or UConn losing at Seton Hall and Rutgers? What has UConn actually done to even merit being ranked? The Huskies' best win came on a neutral court in overtime over Florida State. The Seminoles have been horrible ever since.
Seton Hall is the highest-ranked team among the newcomers. I'm honestly not sure how good the Pirates are -- that 26-point drubbing at Syracuse left an impression -- but I figured I should reward their wins over West Virginia and UConn. Plus, there's something to be said for avoiding bad losses. Every team seems to have at least one of those by now.
As usual, I looked at a bunch of teams for my final spot. I thought about leaving Harvard at No. 25 despite its loss at Fordham, but the Crimson's best win was also on a neutral court over Florida State. Besides, it's time to give someone else a chance. I went with Saint Mary's because the Gaels are 14-2, and of all the teams I looked at with comparable records, they had the best wins (Weber State, Missouri State, BYU).
The other teams I considered included Iowa State, George Mason, Iona, Middle Tennessee and New Mexico. Creighton probably deserves to be ranked, but I didn't think wins last week over Drake and at Bradley quite made the grade. If the Blujays sweep Northern Iowa at home and Illinois State on the road this week, they'll be very hard to leave out. Likewise, Southern Miss can make its case by winning at Memphis on Wednesday.
Finally, San Diego State fans have been all over me for leaving them off my ballot to this point. But what am I supposed to do with a team that hasn't played a Division I opponent since Dec. 22? I'd love to know Steve Fisher's logic on that one. Still, SDSU plays UNLV at home on Saturday. If the Aztecs win that one, I'll rank them next week. Deal?