A few months before he invented basketball in December 1891,
Dr. James Naismith jury-rigged what is believed to have been the
first football helmet. Naismith knew sports, and curtailing
rough play in football and rugby became a personal crusade of
his. Small wonder, then, that when he came up with his new game,
the good doctor made sure it was free of ruffianism. One of his
original 13 rules outlawed "shouldering, holding, pushing,
tripping or striking in any way the person of an opponent."
This season, in what NCAA men's basketball committee chairman
Mike Tranghese calls college basketball's most significant action
since the introduction of the three-point shot in 1986, the rules
committee is invoking Naismith's name in its own crusade to
eliminate rough play. The rules committee is so determined to
succeed that it has made the crackdown the sole point of emphasis
for officials and declared that referees will be chosen to work
the NCAA tournament based on their willingness to call games
according to the doctrine of original intent.
Few dispute that "gangster acts," as Oklahoma State coach Eddie
Sutton calls them, have plagued college basketball over the past
few seasons. But the new strict constructionism has thrown the
game into a state of confusion, as evidenced by these
--When Louisville hooked up with UNLV in the Maui Invitational on
Nov. 21, three of the Cardinals' pivotmen fouled out trying to
guard Runnin' Rebels center Kaspars Kambala. By the final minutes
of Louisville's 86-85 overtime victory, Kambala had dropped in 21
of 22 free throws and scored 37 points, and if he felt anything
rubbing up against him in the post, it was the insubstantive
frame of the Cardinals' Marques Maybin, a 6'3" guard pressed into
emergency service as a center.
--In what might be filed under the category of Be Careful What You
Wish For, during Kansas' 99-98 defeat of UCLA in the Coaches vs.
Cancer Classic on Nov. 9, Jayhawks coach and rules committee
chairman Roy Williams witnessed the disqualification of his
starting center, Eric Chenowith. Four other Kansas players
accumulated four fouls each, and the Jayhawks gave up the most
points they'd surrendered in a decade.
--As Cincinnati brought the ball into the forecourt while trailing
by a point with 31 seconds remaining in its Nov. 21 game against
Marshall, referee Tom O'Neill busted Thundering Herd swingman
Tamar Slay for seizing a fistful of Bearcats guard Leonard
Stokes's jersey 20 feet from the ball. This was just the sort of
off-the-ball infraction that the refs would have ignored in
recent years, especially near the end of a close game. Stokes
proceeded to sink two free throws in the Bearcats' 79-75 victory.
"They called something," Slay said. "Don't know what it was.
Guess it's going to be like that all year."
The NCAA even produced a video to help all the Division I teams
prepare for the crackdown. It spells out the rules committee's
edicts barring players from bumping or grabbing an opponent as he
cuts through the lane. It also says that an offensive player
without the ball may no longer be rooted out of position in the
post by a defender, and that once a man on offense gets the ball
anywhere on the court, all hands and forearms must come off him.
Banned, too, are shoulder pops and hip checks on screens. In the
enforcement of these strictures, referees have already whistled
as many as 55 fouls in a game this season. "One reason for the
emphasis is to open up the game and have more drives and scoring
opportunities," says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "The problem
is, we'll be doing it with our team managers."
To hear some of the principals, what's going on right now is
nothing less than a battle over the essence of the game. The two
sides in the debate don't break down as neatly along conference
lines as one might expect, with the finesse-minded ACC and Pac-10
here and the brutes of the Big East and Big Ten there. But they
do correlate roughly, as it were, with the interests of college
basketball's haves and have-nots.
In one camp you'll find the purists. They tend to come from the
game's aristocracy, programs favored with talent that performs
best when it may run free. Virginia coach Pete Gillen articulates
their position when he says, "The game isn't meant to be
In the other camp are many of the mid-major schools that must use
hustle and toughness to close gaps in talent. The new emphasis
"would have killed" the fierce defenders at Tulsa who reached the
South Regional final a year ago, says the man who coached the
Golden Hurricane, Bill Self, now at Illinois. Similarly,
UNC-Charlotte stole a bid to the 1999 NCAAs by stringing together
four wins during the Conference USA tournament, and coach Bobby
Lutz concedes that the 49ers used bruising tactics to keep three
of those four opponents from shooting better than 40% from the
field: "We were physical enough to disrupt what the other team
was trying to do. That gave us our best chance to win--fight for
position in the post and not let guys cut freely through the
Siding with schools like Tulsa and Charlotte is much of the Big
Ten, including such high priests of grind-it-out basketball as
Izzo and Dick Bennett, who stepped down as coach at Wisconsin
last week. The Big Ten coaches draw an almost Jesuitical
distinction between physical play (good, they say) and rough or
dirty play (not good--but not us, either). "Bumping a guy or
keeping an arm on a guy but not displacing him, to me, that's not
a problem," says Izzo, who may be rethinking his habit of
sometimes having his Spartans practice in football gear.
To some extent Bennett and Izzo brought the new limits upon their
teams. Their Pleistocene semifinal at last spring's Final Four
led to the current reforms. "Did you like that better than
19-17?" Williams asked the press after his Jayhawks ran up their
NBA-like total in that win over UCLA last month. He was citing
the halftime score of that Michigan State-Wisconsin game, which
the Spartans wound up winning 53-41.
Is Williams's zeal for returning decorum to the game driven by
respect for Naismith and his original rules, or by self-interest,
given that the Kansas offense is based on movement and cutting?
Texas's Rick Barnes, who coached infamously physical teams at
Clemson, and with the Longhorns has had such notorious musclemen
as Gabe Muoneke and Chris Owens, suspects it's the latter. "The
NCAA committee has coaches like Roy Williams on it, guys from
elite programs with the best talent," he says. "A guy like Dick
Bennett should be on it. The game is meant to be played a lot of
different ways. When Wisconsin and Michigan State went at it,
they played on pride and energy. People who criticize that game
haven't played the game and don't understand it."
But for now, the purists have carried the day, leaving players to
make like pitchers and hitters adapting to an umpire's strike
zone. "Our players didn't believe the referees would call those
fouls," says North Texas coach Vic Trilli, referring to the
examples on the NCAA video. "Neither did I. So far, they have."
The question is whether they'll continue to do so. Four seasons
ago the rules committee tried to crack down on traveling, but
after a month or two the officials' vigilance evaporated. Come
March, refs may well call tournament games the way NHL referees
work playoff games in sudden death--with their whistles squirreled
away. "Nobody really notices if a star fouls out in November,"
says Duke forward Shane Battier. "If stars are fouling out in
March, there'll be an outcry."
But if Hank Nichols, the NCAA's capo di tutti zebras, and the
conference officiating supervisors who report to him keep the
point of emphasis sharp, the new interpretation figures to reward
Depth. Illinois went into Greensboro, N.C., last week and,
despite playing before a Duke crowd and with three ACC officials,
nearly beat the No. 1 Blue Devils. Why? The Illini have four
solid post players, and Duke has only one. If not for Coach Mike
Krzyzewski's deft deployment of foul-plagued Carlos Boozer down
the stretch, the Blue Devils wouldn't have come away with a 78-77
win. Connecticut, though physical, figures to prosper for the
same reason Illinois should. "We want to suffocate an offense
with our defense," says coach Jim Calhoun. "But [the new
emphasis] plays to something I think will be an advantage for
Old-fashioned post players. The three-point shot was supposed to
stretch defenses, open up the floor and make physical inside play
an anachronism. Instead, at 19'9" the three is a reward so out of
proportion to its degree of difficulty that offenses have
relentlessly fed the post, waited for defenses to collapse and
returned the ball to a spot-up shooter for an open three. For a
big guy that's not much of a purpose in life. "When was the last
time you saw a drop step or hook shot?" says Krzyzewski. "I'd
like to see big men do the things Walton and Kareem did, instead
of just making power moves or rooting each other out of the post.
Otherwise, we've turned all our big people into offensive
linemen." Indeed, Kansas' Chenowith, freed from forearm shivers
in the post, has begun to unfurl an effective hook shot.
Off-the-dribble scorers. Players such as guard Jason Gardner of
Arizona and swingman Byron Mouton of Maryland don't need screens
to get their shots, and they're suddenly more valuable as the big
lugs setting picks draw closer scrutiny. In a game with UNLV on
Nov. 20, Illinois was whistled for seven illegal screens in the
first half. "We teach screeners to put a body on someone," says
Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson. "We don't teach using shoulders,
elbows, hips, but we screen hard. Like holding in football, you
could call something on every play."
Adaptability. This will be a factor at least until officials
begin to whistle more consistently. New Mexico coach Fran
Fraschilla, who watched that Illini-Runnin' Rebels game, says, "A
couple of those [illegal screens] were laughable. The next night
I'm watching UCLA play Cal State-Northridge, and they're
absolutely killing each other, and the refs let it go." So
Fraschilla now finds out before each game if the conference
officiating supervisor will be in the stands and advises his
players accordingly. "If a high-profile guy like Hank Nichols is
there, you go in thinking you're already in foul trouble," he
says. Foul trouble, of course, forces man-to-man teams into
playing zone, yet another reason teams will have to be adaptable.
Curiously, Wisconsin may be among the teams best suited to this
uncertain environment. "Wisconsin is great at position defense
already," says Sampson. "The Badgers never have great size, but
they have great help-side defense." Indeed, through its first
four games Wisconsin had yet to lose a player to fouls. The
lesson: Move your feet and help your teammates and you'll have
nothing to fear.
No individual should benefit more than Troy Murphy, the Notre
Dame forward who averaged 22.7 points a year ago despite
systematic bludgeoning. This season he was scoring 26.8 a game
through Sunday, largely because referees are protecting him and
he was making his foul shots at an 87.2% clip. When Cincinnati
coach Bob Huggins stuck 6'2" Antwan Peek, a linebacker on the
Bearcats' football team, on the 6'10" Murphy during Cincy's game
with the Irish on Nov. 25, the officials knew what was to come.
Seven minutes and two fouls later Peek was back on the bench, and
Murphy was on his way to scoring 30 points in Notre Dame's 69-51
victory. On the other hand, for all its reputed devotion to pure
basketball, the ACC is home to some of the players least equipped
to respond to the new emphasis--Darius Songaila of Wake Forest,
Kenny Inge of North Carolina State and especially North
Carolina's Brendan Haywood and Julius Peppers, who are the Damon
and Affleck of that NCAA video.
In the end, one of the most promising signs that the crackdown
could succeed are the pedigrees of two of its strongest
advocates: Tranghese, commissioner of the truculent Big East, and
Mike Montgomery, a rules-committee member whose Stanford team is
one of the nation's most rugged. That they're willing to place
the welfare of the game over self-interest is helping to persuade
others that no one is being asked to disarm unilaterally and that
the movement to clean up the game is a noble cause. "We've taught
grabbing and holding in the paint--the same things opponents were
doing to us," says TCU coach Billy Tubbs. "We've taught illegal
tactics to survive. Now we can go back to teaching basketball the
In the meantime, Battier says, "Players aren't idiots. We'll
adjust to the rule because we all want to play."
Perhaps, too, they'll adjust because Naismith's second invention
is much more fun if you don't have to play it while wearing his
"The game isn't meant to be hand-to-hand sumo."
"Now we can go back to coaching basketball the right way."