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Referee czar clears up confusion; plus musings on UNC-UK and more


Last summer, the men's basketball Rules Committee did something very unusual: It announced that there would be no "points of emphasis" for its officials in the 2010-11 season. This was a departure from the past, when the committee has highlighted a few areas of the game -- rough post play, palming, sportsmanship, etc. -- and asked zebras to clamp down. This year, however, the committee asked the refs apply all the rules just as they are written. Sounds simple enough.

To make things even simpler, there were no rules changes this summer. The NCAA recently mandated that changes occur in two-year cycles. Since this was an off year, the committee didn't issue any new rules.

An exception can be made in the two-year cycle if it deals with player safety. So the committee made one very minor change to the penalty that can result from a swinging elbow. Keep in mind that the rules regarding swinging elbows have not changed. The only difference is how a rule is applied in a specific situation.

Simple? Actually, it's more confusing.

As I listen to television announcers try to explain the change, and as I read stories and columns referring to it, my head gets a lot itchier. So as I often do in such circumstances, I reached out to John Adams, the NCAA's hard-working, forward-thinking, media-friendly supervisor of officials, to help me break down the new applications. I wish I could present it to you like those old Choose Your Own Adventure books you used to read as a kid. (If you want to open the treasure chest, turn to page 117. If you want to pick up the magic sword, turn to page 125.) So here's my best effort to simplify how it all works.

The Situation: A player has control of the ball and he swings his elbow.

Question: Was there contact?

If the answer is No: Did he swing his elbow as part of a "basketball play," or was the move "excessive?"

The rule book describes "excessive" as "moving the elbows faster than the torso." That was Adams' definition. Mine is more like the Supreme Court's rule about porn: You may not be able to define "excessive," but you know it when you see it.

If the elbow swing was not excessive and there was no contact: No call is made. Play on.

If the elbow swing was excessive and there was no contact: It's a violation. Just like traveling. No foul called, no free throws. Other team gets the ball. This was new to me, and Adams conceded, "It has hardly ever been called." But that's the rule.

Back to the original question: Was there contact?

If the answer is Yes: Where did the elbow hit the defender?

If the elbow hit the defender on or below the shoulders: Was it a basketball play, or was it excessive?

If it was a basketball play, it's a common foul.

If it was excessive, it's a flagrant foul. Player ejected, two shots and the ball.

If the elbow hit the player above the shoulders: Was it a basketball play, or was it excessive?

If it was a basketball play, and the elbow hit the player above the shoulders, it is an intentional foul. The opposing team gets two foul shots and the ball, but the offending player is not ejected.

This is the part that is new. Last year, if an official determined that a guy made a basketball play and whacked his defender on the head with an elbow, he had to whistle it as a common foul. The members of the Rules Committee were concerned enough about player safety that they wanted to make the penalty for elbow-to-head contact stiffer.

If the elbow hit the defender above the shoulders and it was excessive: Flagrant foul. Player is ejected, two shots and the ball.

Question: Can any of these calls be made with the help of the replay monitor?

Answer: Yes -- but only to call an intentional or flagrant foul. An official can never use a monitor to call a common foul. So if he has already signaled an intentional or flagrant foul, he cannot go to the monitor and say, "Whoops, I goofed. That's just a regular foul." But if he calls a regular foul -- or if he didn't call any foul, but sees a player on the floor writhing in pain -- he can go to the monitor and decide to call an intentional, contact technical or flagrant foul. He can downgrade a flagrant foul to an intentional foul, but he can't downgrade it to a common foul. Said Adams, "A good ref will err on the side of caution. They're all doing it."

Here are a few other nuggets I gleaned from my conversation with Adams:

• The early season experiment with the arc under the basket was a rousing success. Last year, the committee added a rule stating that a secondary defender had to be called for a foul if he tried to take a charge under the rim, but it didn't go so far as to mandate that an arc be painted under the basket. Several early season tournaments, including the NIT, experimented with the arc, and Adams told me the feedback from coaches and referees was "overwhelmingly in favor" of adopting it permanently. They still have to figure out exactly where the arc should be (right now the area extends to two feet from the center of the ring; in the NBA the length is four feet). But you can expect the arc to be coming soon to an arena near you.

• You still hear griping from coaches and fans about the interpretation of the term "intentional foul." The problem is with the word intentional. We've all seen situations at the end of games where the team that's behind intentionally fouls the opponent. Yet it's called as a foul, not as an intentional foul. Adams conceded the word can be problematic, but he made a good point when he said the idea was to differentiate between legitimate basketball plays and illegitimate acts like pulling a guy's jersey or fouling an inbounds passer before he throws the ball in. "If there is any chance at all the defender could have stolen the ball, it's going to be a one-and-one," Adams said.

• Here's a wacky situation quiz for ya: A player takes a foul shot with his team leading by two points. He misses the shot, the ball lands on the floor, and nobody from either team touches it. You probably know that the clock is not supposed to start until a player touches the ball, but what if the scoreboard operator mistakenly starts the clock, and the ref notices the error and blows his whistle -- and still nobody has touched the ball? Yes, they can use the replay monitor to determine that a few seconds should be put back on the clock to correct the timing error, but how do you know which team gets the ball?

The answer: You use the possession arrow. I raise this question because Adams told me that that was the exact situation at the end of Evansville's recent win over Butler. Following the missed free throw, the Evansville players had all run back on defense, but the Butler players were waiting to touch the ball to conserve time. The scoreboard operator mistakenly ran the clock. Fortunately for everyone involved, the possession arrow pointed to Butler, but it would have been a p.r. disaster if Butler would have lost a chance to tie the game on that kind of fluke.

• Looks like North Carolina finally figured out its half-court offense should run through junior center Tyler Zeller. He had a career-high 27 points (11-for-12 on free throws) and 11 rebounds in the Heels' upset of Kentucky. Try not to forget, guys.

• As for Kentucky, Brandon Knight has to learn the difference between a good shot and an open shot, but John Calipari is smart to give Knight the freedom to figure it out.

• Something to look forward to: Northwestern, off to a 5-0 start against weak competition, opens Big Ten play at Purdue, home against Michigan State and then at Illinois. That's a brutal beginning, but it will tell us whether the Wildcats are finally capable of getting off the NCAA tournament schneid.

• I am rooting like heck for Sidney Lowe to get it going at N.C. State, but with the Wolfpack off to a shaky 4-3 start -- and to be fair, they're without their best big man, Tracy Smith, right now -- you have to wonder if there are a few reasonable N.C. State fans who appreciate how wrong it was to run Herb Sendek out of town. Sendek could have kept his job because the administration was backing him, but he chose to bolt four years ago for Arizona State, where he has led a revival. I always cite Sendek as a great example of a coach who fired his fans.

• It has happened pretty quietly, but Southern Illinois has really fallen on hard times. In 2007, the Salukis played in their fifth consecutive NCAA tournament and reached the Sweet 16 for the second time during that span. Since then, SIU has gone 50-51 overall and 25-29 in the Missouri Valley Conference. Their 4-4 start this season includes two embarrassing losses in Carbondale, where the Salukis used to be near invincible (by one point to Northeastern and by 15 to New Mexico).

• How about the terrific week that Virginia had? Road wins at Minnesota and Virginia Tech. Mike Scott has really become a player. The 6-foot-8 senior forward had a combined 38 points and 25 rebounds in the wins.

• How about the lousy week Virginia Tech had? Two tough losses at home. First the Hokies blew a late lead and fell in overtime to Purdue. Then they lose their ACC opener. Malcolm Delaney had 26 points in the loss, but I don't see him doing a lot to make his teammates better. Things are starting to get late pretty early for Bubble U.

• Zen Hoop Thought: A good player should be able to play well when he's not playing well.

• I love that ESPN's Doris Burke provides color commentary on men's college basketball games yet no one ever remarks that she's the only woman who has ever done that so consistently. She's just another broadcaster, and a good one at that.

• The very definition of a circle-your-calendar game will occur Jan. 22 in Hartford when UConn hosts Tennessee. The game will take place smack dab in the middle of Bruce Pearl's eight-game SEC suspension, but since it's not a league game he'll be permitted to coach. It should be billed as the Furlough Game.

• The one call I wish was whistled more often is palming. I can't tell you how often I see a player casually palming the ball as he walks it up the court. That has been a point of emphasis in recent years, but unless a player is blatantly palming the ball to get by his defender, the refs usually let this go.

• Florida State might have the nation's best defender in 6-foot-9 junior Chris Singleton, but the Seminoles have a really hard time scoring, especially in their half-court offense. Singleton, who is the only member of the team averaging double figures, isn't much help in this regard. He prefers to roam the perimeter, but he has only made five three-pointers all season.

• Keeping it in the Sunshine State, I was a little surprised to see Miami upset West Virginia at home over the weekend, especially considering the 'Canes were down by 13 points with 12 minutes left. Props to Malcolm Grant for going 13-for-14 from the foul line en route to a career-high 26 points. You guys know how much I love point guards who get to the free-throw line.

• I got a lot of tweets asking why the referees did not review the monitor toward the end of the first half of the Georgetown-Missouri game when Hoyas guard Austin Freeman was credited with a three-pointer that clearly came after the shot clock had expired. The answer is that referees are never permitted to use the monitor to review whether a player beat the shot clock. They can only use it to see whether he beat the game clock at the end of each half or overtime.

• Gilbert Brown is Pittsburgh's version of Michigan State's Durrell Summers. Both players are talented seniors with a similar skill set, and they are both maddeningly inconsistent.

• I'm really not a fan of calling a time out as you're falling out of bounds, unless it's an endgame situation. If I'm the coach, I'd rather lose possession at that moment and have the extra time out down the stretch.

• Keep your eye on BYU sophomore forward Brandon Davies. He scored just 13 points in the Cougars' two games at the South Padre Invitational, but he had a career-high 24 points (on 9-of-11 shooting) in BYU's win at Creighton last week. If that's a sign of things to come, a good team is going to get better.

• I don't think Old Dominion's loss at Delaware was as fatal to the Monarchs' NCAA chances as others seem to think. It was a league game on the road, and the Blue Hens are not bad. It shrinks ODU's margin for error, but I still think they'll have a strong enough case that if they need an at-large bid on Selection Sunday, they'll get it.

(Last week's ranking on my ballot in parentheses)

1. Duke (1)2. Kansas (2)3. Ohio State (3)4. Kansas State (4)5. Pittsburgh (5)6. Tennessee (6)7. Syracuse (7)8. Villanova (8)9. Michigan State (9)10. Illinois (11)11. Connecticut (12)12. Kentucky (13)13. Baylor (15)14. San Diego State (16)15. Georgetown (22)16. Washington (17)17. Gonzaga (18)18. Texas (10)19. Minnesota (14)20. North Carolina (NR)21. Purdue (20)22. Missouri (21)23. Memphis (23)24. Vanderbilt (24)25. UNLV (NR)

Dropped out: Florida (19), Wichita State (25)

There were a few losses by ranked teams last week, but it was hard to mete out major penalties. Michigan State shouldn't get dinged for losing at Duke, and even though Kentucky fell to unranked North Carolina, the Wildcats hung tough in Chapel Hill despite major foul trouble. I preferred to reward the Tar Heels with a No. 20 ranking. I also demoted Texas after the Longhorns lost at USC late Sunday night.

I admit that I was epically wrong about Florida. On my preseason ballot, I ranked the Gators ahead of most voters at No. 6 (they ended up ninth that first week), but I watched from courtside as they folded in the last 10 minutes against Ohio State, and last week they lost at UCF by three points. (Though UCF isn't half-bad.) There's still plenty of time for Florida to turn it around, but it looks to me like the Gators still have many of the same problems (read: soft as pillows) that plagued them last season.

For me the more interesting decision came at the bottom of the ballot. I've been a lone wolf howling for Wichita State, and even though a loss at San Diego State is no great shame, to fall by 14 points was pretty disappointing. So the Shockers are out. I took another long look at BYU, which has been ranked all season, but I went with UNLV at No. 25 instead because its best wins (Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, Nevada) are more impressive than BYU's (Saint Mary's, at Creighton).

Meanwhile, I'm a long way from buying into 10-0 Cleveland State. The Vikings have played nobody in the nonconference, and their two Horizon League wins came against a pair of middling foes (Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Wisconsin-Green Bay). We'll get a better idea of how good the Vikings are when they play at West Virginia on Dec. 18.

Notre Dame got ranked last week by my fellow AP voters, and the Irish are knocking on the door on my ballot. Their best wins came on a neutral court over unranked Georgia, Cal and Wisconsin -- hardly a murderer's row. But this is a big week for them. The Irish play at Kentucky (in Louisville) and at home against Gonzaga. If they can earn a split, I'll rank them next week for sure. I don't know that they can have a bigger incentive than that.