The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

April 8, 2013

More fouls, less points mar college basketball

Eddie Pells
Associated Press

ATLANTA — The nets are down and the confetti stopped flying. It’s safe to open your eyes again, basketball fans.

Yes, 2012-13 has been one ugly season.

Scoring hasn’t been this low in decades and the same for shooting percentages. Foul calls also are way down, which turned much of this year’s action into something more like wrestling with occasional breaks for free-throw shooting.

Long delays for video reviews, confusion over the charge-block call, hand-checking, arm-blocking and an endless string of TV timeouts added to a feeling among even basketball lovers that many nights were hard to sit through.

“It doesn’t take long, if you’re really watching, to see what’s happening and say, ‘Oh my God, this is awful,”’ said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the state of the game.

The season capped off by the Michigan-Louisville NCAA title game Monday night has been one marked by amazing parity – something the leaders of most sports strive for, but one that may have played into the muddle that has become college hoops.  

At one point, the top spot in The Associated Press poll changed for five straight weeks. Only one top-seeded team, Louisville, made it to the Final Four and there were two No. 4s and a No. 9; overall, this was only the fourth time since seeding began in 1979 that only one top-3 seed made it to the sport’s biggest stage.

Better coaching, better preparation, more good players and the willingness of many of the best ones to enroll at less-heralded schools all played into the evenness. As early as junior high, players in the same age bracket go against each other on traveling AAU and All-Star teams. When college rolls around, the intimidation factor is gone. If today’s dynamic were in place in the 1970s, almost every player at the Final Four would’ve played against Bill Walton at least once.

“Some of these guys couldn’t score, so is that ugly?” said Bill Raftery, one of the sport’s most effervescent color commentators. “Some would prefer high scoring and free-wheeling, but preparation is such that it’s not going to be that way. And the kids all know one another, so they’re not in the least bit in awe of an opponent. You get Wichita State playing Louisville and they don’t really give a damn. It’s just another team to them.”

It can make for unexpectedly close games and exciting finishes – see No. 1 Louisville’s come-from-behind 72-68 win over that plucky underdog, No. 9 Wichita State, in the national semifinals.

Still, the overall product suffered this year and the statistics back that up:

Given those numbers, it seems almost fitting that the tournament’s most enduring moment was cringe-worthy: The compound leg fracture suffered by Louisville guard Kevin Ware. And then, in the run-up to the Final Four, there was the unsavory story of Mike Rice, coach of a losing program at Rutgers, who got fired for his brutish tactics during practices.

“A failure of process,” school president Robert Barchi called the Rice fiasco, which also led to the resignation of the athletic director, who failed to fire the coach when first presented with video evidence of his abuse.

While that story keeps unfolding over the offseason, the leaders in college basketball will spend the time off trying to clean things up on the court.

Raftery predicts the sport’s powers will take a long look at the “arc” – that befuddling semicircle drawn underneath the basket that a defensive player cannot be standing in if he hopes to draw a charge call.

“They’re going to do some things with the rules,” Raftery said. “But I enjoy the game, so it doesn’t really offend me the way it does a lot of my pals.”

But he, too, thinks the number of video reviews needs to be pared.

Officials stop action to parse through college’s very specific rules on flagrant fouls, which call for checking the video any time one player’s elbow makes contact with another’s head, whether it’s obviously intentional or not. Refs also stop play to determine whether shooters are behind the 3-point line and to put tenths of seconds back on the clock late in games. Those stoppages often deprive fans of a bang-bang, sometimes fantastic finish so officials can huddle around video monitors to study the clock while coaches huddle with their teams to draw up a play.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino said he remembers the same sort of troubles bogging down play in the NBA when he coached there in the 1980s and ‘90s. The commissioner, David Stern, called some of the sport’s best minds into a room and they started figuring out how to make things better.

Pitino said it all comes down to “freedom of movement,” which can only be assured if the officials start calling the games more tightly, doing away with all the grabbing, hand-checking and arm-barring that clogs up the flow of these games.

“The only way to do it is the first 10 games of the season, the games have to be ugly,” Pitino said of the extra stoppages and free throws that could ensue while refs try to clean things up. “Then the players will adjust, then you’ll see great offense again. Like the NBA now, you see all those great scoring teams. Now they have a great product, and we need to go the route of the NBA.”