When have you ever heard the hometown fans questioning the calling of a foul on the opposing team? I have attended somewhere close to 1,000 basketball games in my life. Most of those are collegiate games -- with plenty of professional games thrown in -- and that does not even include high school games. Also, that does not include all the games I have watched on television. Until now I never heard partisans jeering refs for fouls called on their opponents. But the new rules dictated by the NCAA this year have caused just that.
I sit amongst the hardcore at UCLA basketball games. The seats have come by way of my wife’s family, who refers to them as her “dowry.” Her parents were founders of Pauley Pavilion and her father was co-captain of UCLA’s basketball team in the late 1940’s. I was attending games before we met and have missed very few games since.
We were all aware that there were some rule changes. We had seen it in action in the games that had been played earlier in the season, but since most did not really count and UCLA had played a group of distinguished tomato cans, no one noticed whether the foul calls were dramatically changed. We had left almost every game with ten minutes remaining in the second half.
Then league play started and the first couple of games were fine from an officiating point of view. The first game was a blowout of USC where no one cared about what fouls were being called. That was followed by a first-class game against top-ranked Arizona. The harmonic convergence of the new rules’ effect on the game happened against Arizona State (ASU). It may have been the officials working the game. But the game seemed to not go through a single minute without a whistle being blown. We all know that basketball is a quick game and that sometimes fans see fouls the refs don’t and vice-versa, but this was completely different. As the foul calls kept mounting, we were thinking early in the second half there would be nobody left from either team to play in the last five minutes. It was so bad that on three occasions fans around me questioned fouls being called on ASU players by yelling out “What did he do?” Walking out I said to #1 son that this was one of the worse basketball games I have ever seen, to which he replied it was the worse game he had ever seen … and our team won.
I contacted the NCAA to investigate what they had done. They expressed concern in the rule changes regarding:
1. That hand checking on a player with the ball drastically reduces the dribbler’s ability to beat his man to create scoring opportunities.
2. Rules related to a player’s ability to move with or without the ball were being neglected by the referees.
I asked the NCAA spokesperson if he had ever heard of Chick Hearn’s famous saying “No Harm, No Foul”? The opposite of that is what is now happening in these games – no harm, but a foul. Players are not able in essence to touch the other players even if it is incidental to the action. This goes way beyond the perception of ticky-tacky fouls.
I spoke with David Hirsch from the Pacific 12 Conference. He, like anyone else, will never speak about the officials themselves as they are always in fear that the NCAA will come down on them. But he did state the scoring was up. And yes the scoring has gone up significantly. I asked if he had a breakdown of how much of the scoring increase was from the free throw line and how much was from field goals and his reply was that they had not done that breakdown yet.
Here is what the NCAA has done. They have put a hammer lock on defense in the game, covering it up by saying they are going back to enforcing the existing rules. Because of the change and the command to supposedly “defend with your feet and not your hands,” they have made a concerted effort to increase scoring. For now, while the teams adjust to the level of fouls called, it will cause disruptive, unappealing games. In fact, when I questioned an official of another Pac-12 school, they stated that the same thing happened to their team in a recent game. Once the coaches and the players adjust their games to the new rules, there will be very little defense being played and a whole lot more scoring which the NCAA thinks will attract more fans and larger TV audiences.
Someone pointed out that this may have a beneficial effect. The players will be wholly untrained in how to play defense, thus they may not leave to go to the pros as quickly. More likely they will still leave, but it will take them more years to learn to play at the pro level -- making that game even worse than it is now. All in all, the result is to change the rules and juice the scores, and to hell with how the game is played. And they don’t want their players on steroids?