Nov. 4, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – When Marshall and 350 other NCAA Division I men’s teams open the 2013-14 basketball season this weekend, one way to explain how the game officials will approach their task would be to dredge up an old phrase:
“They’re not just whistling Dixie.”
In case you haven’t heard, college hoops will look quite a bit different this season – hopefully – as those who govern the rules of the sport at the college level have instituted changes that they hope will lead to more offense and freedom of movement.
Hand-checking is a no-no now. The block/charge call just became way more in favor of the man with the ball. And officials can go to the monitor – replay has gained its own section in the book, as Rule 11 – for more and more varied reasons than in the past.
The opinion from this press row sitter of more than four decades is one word – wonderful.
Basketball is not supposed to be a contact sport. And the guys in charge of the game are serious. If the officials don’t call the game the way the bigwigs want it called, they can forget about plum assignments like the NCAA Tournament.
Why is this happening? The game got ugly. Last season in the men’s game, the average team score per game was 67.1 points, a low since 1981-82 (when the shot clock was introduced). The average field goal percentage was .433, the lowest since 1965 … and players shot fewer free throws – with an all-time low of fouls whistled -- on average than any season in four decades.
We’re not taking the game back to Dr. Naismith. We’re not hitting the farmers’ market up for old peach baskets. We’re, say, hopefully going back to a time where a player could make a layup without being laid out.
So, in an effort to provide a primer on what’s up, I went to Jeff O’Malley, who two months ago started a four-year term on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Committee. It’s a plum assignment for Marshall’s associate athletic director and chief of staff, who is one of the really good guys in major college athletics.
O’Malley studies and enforces the rules from another perspective, too. He’s been a basketball official since his days as an undergraduate at Miami of Ohio in 1987, and has worked college games – now in the Ohio Valley Conference and the Division II Mountain East Conference – since 1997. He’s been a Marshall administrator since July 2002.
Throughout the preseason, through scrimmages and exhibitions, coaches, teams and officials have tried to cope with learning how to call and play the game differently. It hasn’t always been pretty, and O’Malley agrees with many coaches who have remarked on the subject – that November and December games might take longer to play because of more whistles.
“I think what’s going to be most noticeable to fans right away is you’ll see a big change in the way teams defend the perimeter,” O’Malley said. “Hand checks, arm bars, bodying up on opponent are out. They’re trying to create a freedom of movement on the perimeter.
“I think that will be more obvious early on than the block-charge involving a secondary defender, because it’s out on the floor, in the open court.”
O’Malley said a defender will only be able to briefly touch an offensive man with the ball in what might be a “one-thousand-one” count. Anything else, it’s a foul.
“It’s more noticeable out on the open court,” O’Malley said. “You will get, one time, to size up the opponent and anything more than that, a chuck, it’s a foul.
“If you go back and look at tape, a lot of times when a defender gets beat, they’ll usually lay a forearm on the hip. That’s out. These have all been officiating guidelines in the past, and now they’re rules, specific rules.”
Then, there’s the block/charge rule. Forget a defender sliding in front of or under a driver to the basket and getting a charge call. In most every instance, O’Malley said, that call is now a block. A defender, in the past, had to be set before the offensive man left the floor. Now, the offensive man’s first move with the ball (an arm swing or pivot without leaving the floor) establishes his movement.
“It affects only the secondary defender, a slider if you want to call it that,” O’Malley said. “At the same time, there is no secondary defender on a fastbreak situation, so if you have a 3-on-2, 2-on-1, the defender by rule is going to be deemed secondary, and you’ll see that come into play.
“It’s just going to be very difficult to take a charge by a secondary defender because of the timing of it. Now, you have to establish that position before an offensive player starts his upward motion toward the basket. And ‘upward motion’ is any move with the ball. Before, it was leaving the floor.
“Basically, what they’re telling us now as a guideline is once that plant foot is established by the offensive player, he’s almost instantaneously started his upward motion toward the goal.”
I asked O’Malley if he felt the block/charge was the toughest call an official had to make.
“I think it is, and the travel is a tough call, too,” he said. “I don’t think the block/charge is going to get any easier to call. I think what they’re trying to do is they went back and looked at the percentages of officials getting plays right, and officials are right 90-93 percent of the time.
“And then on block/charges it’s significantly less than that. So, they’re trying to make it more difficult to create a block/charge (situation), so maybe teams will go for a blocked shot instead of taking a charge.
“I think you’ll now see some coaches who are going to teach their players … if you get past your primary defender, just take it to the hole because at worst, you’re going to get (a defender called for) a block. And then you go to the free throw line.”
O’Malley said there are 28 new rules or rule changes for 2013-14, a record in the men’s game (women’s basketball has even more, 32, many of them similar to the men’s new enforcement).
“It’s not a guideline,” said Curtis Shaw, coordinator of basketball officiating for Conference USA. “They’ve moved it from the back of the rulebook to the front. There is no judgment. If you do these things, it’s a penalty.”
I read O’Malley a recent quote from Kentucky Coach John Calipari on the subject. O’Malley formerly worked with Calipari at UMass, where retired Herd AD Bob Marcum was their boss before Marcum came home to Huntington and to his alma mater to finish his career. Here’s what Calipari said:
“The reason it got rougher and rougher, the teams that played that way got rewarded. So then you're looking around as a coach and if they're playing that way, then I've got to play that way. Then all of a sudden everybody is fouling the crap out of everybody and the scoring surprisingly went down. No kidding! You can't shoot a layup or you'd get smacked, and if you left your feet, guys were taking charges. It was crazy.”
O’Malley concurred … and impeding the progress of any moving offensive player in any fashion is now a foul.
As for the monitor, the game’s guardians decided to give the folks in stripes more freedom to use replay in different ways.
“There have been some changes made to what you can go back and look at, what your authority is in downgrading or upgrading fouls, especially with the elbow fouls,” O’Malley said. “It’s now up to the discretion of officials on the elbow.
“Last year you couldn’t downgrade a foul, only upgrade it. So, if you had a flagrant 1 and you go to the monitor and it shows the offensive player whiffed, now you can wipe it out completely. You can change a Flagrant 2 into a Flagrant 1, a Flagrant 1 to a common or player-control foul, or you can wipe it off all together.
“I think the most significant monitor situation might be the tip. If you have an out-of-bounds play that involves two or more players in the last two minutes of the game, you can go to the monitor to evaluate who hit it last before it went out of bounds. A couple of others come into play in last two minutes, too.”
One change fans will notice is the need for a monitor look to determine whether a field goal was a two- or three-pointer. Instead of stopping the game after the hoop and checking the replay, that will be done during the next TV timeout (one fewer stoppage in a game).
There’s another side to what figures to be an increase in foul calls. Not only will the game regain some of its offensive skills, but free throw shooting will be more crucial and perhaps decide more games with more fouls whistled (especially early in the season until teams become accustomed to the alternations).
Marshall Coach Tom Herrion said after the Herd’s recent exhibition win over Concord that his team needs to improve at the stripe because of the way the game will be played now. Marshall shot only .598 at the line last year, ranking 341st nationally among 347 Division I teams.
A club like the Herd that wants to push the ball and attack the basket and guard the perimeter could really be aided by the rules changes, too.
I still have one question: When games begin to run regularly past network television’s two-hour window, how loudly will the ESPNs that pay big rights fees sit still to have second and third games in a night joined in progress with 8 minutes left in the first half?
“I think the initial games will go longer, mainly due to the amount of fouls on the perimeter,” O’Malley said. ‘I don’t think they’re going to go much longer because of the monitor reviews.
“Going forward, I think the whole goal for this is they want to increase scoring and make the game more exciting, and I think this is the first step toward that.
“It’s been my understanding that there has been some discussion about lowering the shot clock and doing some things with the lane (widen it or fan it), but they just felt like we had 28 rule changes this year and that’s the most ever, so let’s see how this goes. This is a two-year cycle, so unless there’s some injury concern, I don’t see it changing.”
Bottom line? It’s good to see people like O’Malley and his Rules Committee cohorts and their predecessors care about the game. Somebody needed to blow the whistle. Finally, it’s happened.