Before we advance too far into this college basketball season, let's take inventory of the mayhem in the last. To refresh your memory—if not offend your sensibilities—the sport's best players, Blake Griffin of Oklahoma and Tyler Hansbrough of North Carolina, suffered concussions. Purdue's Lewis Jackson missed time after Wisconsin's Joe Krabbenhoft flattened him with an illegal screen that went unwhistled. And after Aubrey Coleman of Houston stomped on the face of Arizona's Chase Budinger to earn an ejection and suspension, Coleman 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. "When I wake up the day after a game, I feel like I got into a fight," Missouri post man Laurence Bowers said last March.
This is an article from the Dec. 21, 2009 issue
"Yeah," added 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. Last year Adams, a former college referee, took over as the NCAA's coordinator of men's basketball officiating and, like the eponymous patriot, spent his first season raising the banner of "freedom of movement." He introduced two "absolutes," plays that referees should automatically whistle: a defender putting two hands on the dribbler and a defender tripping the dribbler. But last May, recognizing that college hoops is now perceived to be more physical than the NBA, Adams and the rules committee with which he works added initiatives for safety and sportsmanship—meaning quicker whistles on elbowing and taunting, among other offenses. "We have to do a better job of making officiating more of a science and less of an art," says Adams. "Coaches want absolutes. And referees should want absolutes." Fans should, too, because the beauty of the game has suffered. Scoring is down more than 15 points a game per team since 1971 when it's adjusted for the three-point shot.
Adams's job would be easier if he worked for the NBA. Hand checks on dribblers and forearm chucks on cutters are rare there, because a ref who doesn't let the customer see the offensive display 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 sets limits, and every coach and player knows if he exceeds them, it's a foul. [The NCAA has] 600 officials working about 80 percent of the games, and more leagues than the NBA has teams. We deal with an independent-contractor universe."
Only at the NCAA tournament does Adams take control of the officiating pool. Until then, Division I referees report to 23 officiating coordinators who represent 31 conferences, each responsible for hiring, firing, evaluating and, critically, scheduling. Who's a ref more likely to heed, the person responsible for most of his livelihood or the NCAA's guy back in Indy? After one conference game last season Adams confronted an official who had not whistled a number of clear fouls. "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, but it's a powerful one: Adams later caught a game worked by that same referee, who this time called fouls to the national standard.
Adams is reluctant to single out conferences, but any fan knows that the Big Ten and the Big East cultivate brands as bruisers. "Teams in certain leagues recruit certain types of players to take advantage of the way those leagues are officiated," Adams says. 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. Midway through the second half, as the Tigers closed to within five, the game took on a desperate quality. "We're on the border of order and chaos," Adams said from his courtside seat. "Right now is when the officials will earn their money." Within seconds the referees called Memphis forward Will Coleman for two fouls, first for grabbing a jersey, then for an illegal screen. Adams nodded approvingly. The refs had reined the game in. Over a cleaner final 10 minutes the smaller, faster Tigers stayed close, losing only after a three-point attempt at the buzzer kicked off the rim. The system had worked.
But the real test will come after the New Year, in conference play, when players and refs could easily return to their permissive habits. "It seems that we always start the season with an abundance of whistles," says UTEP coach Tony Barbee, "and by conference play it's basically football without helmets."
In January college hoops will most likely find itself back on the border between order and chaos. And that's when Adams will earn his money.
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For more from Alexander Wolff on rough play in college basketball, go to SI.com/cbb