93 total points. No, it was not Bowling Green Junior High v. South Warren Middle School, a game from the 1930s, or Dean Smith using the “four corners” offense for the last 1o minutes of a game. It was UConn v. Butler for the NCAA National Championship in a game with a 35-second shot clock and 3-point line. The 2010 Championship Game total of 116, the second lowest in the 25 shot clock years before it, seems like an offensive showcase in comparison. One must go all the way back to 1949 to find a lower point total (82). The semi-final plus final game scores for UConn’s two games (204 points) undercuts last year’s relatively low total by 51 points.
Bad shooting, maybe. Physical play — certainly. Out the outset of the tournament, John Solomon of the Birmingham News writing for Al.com observed
I love college basketball, especially in March. Love the passion, love the drama, love the upsets. But if I wanted wrestling, I’d watch the WWE. Too often, college basketball can be brutal to watch at the expense of the athleticism and skill set that should accompany the sport. It’s better than it was a couple years ago, but not good enough.
“It’s a wrestling match down there,” said Hall of Famer C.M. Newton, who chaired the NCAA Rules Committee from 1979 to ’85. “It’s just impossible to officiate.”
In a 2009 article, Ray Glier at MSNBC (Rougher than the NBA, College Game at a Crossroads) notes that this viewpoint is shared even by a former supervisor of officials:
Don Shea, a regional supervisor of NCAA basketball officials until he retired in 2008, thinks the game has simply become more bruising. “The college game,” Shea says, “has become rougher than the pro game.”
“It is not just the idea of elbows, it is more along the lines of bumping the cutters, allowing contact on drives. There is way too much of that,” says Jay Bilas, an ESPN analyst who played at Duke. “It is really hard for teams to run good offense when you get chucked in the middle of a cut. That is going on way too much.”
As the 2009 article indicates, this thinking isn’t brand new. John Wooden voiced the same view many times. NCAA coaches and officiating supervisors have noticed:
John Adams, who is in his first season as the NCAA coordinator of officiating, says he has a mandate to promote “freedom of movement” over the old mantra of “advantage, disadvantage,” which most interpreted as if you shoved somebody and it didn’t result in a missed shot or turnover it was OK.Adams says he wants some uniformity to the game with a series of “absolutes” that don’t vary from league to league. For instance, two hands in the back of a dribbler is a foul, whether it is in the Big Ten or the Big East. He wants eight to 10 “absolutes” within the next five years. “We are trying to move the game to a more graceful, finesse game than it has been in the past,” Adams says. “We recognize it gets too rough. We have created absolutes so all the referee has to do is recognize the play and it is a foul. He doesn’t have to think advantage-disadvantage, north-south, none of that.
So how does the system fall backward so much if it is trying to move ahead? Most obviously, the incentive-evaluation systems at the college level promote a lot of individuality:
“Part of that is the NBA has a freedom of movement initiative, and they’ve called it the way they have said they would call it. We say the same thing, but it doesn’t translate as well because there’s no centralized authority over officiating since officials are independent contractors.”
The centralization of officiating evaluation and incentives might help along with some rule changes (wider lane, the longer 3-point shot, …), but these will not solve a problem rooted in complicated incentives and strategic behavior. It’s a “political economy” problem and won’t go away merely by passing a rule or changing the emphasis to officials. The NBA has shown that. The league has stuck with its “less-complaining” initiative this season but only after abandoning it a couple of years earlier. We’ll see how it holds up in the playoffs. The league’s “less-physical” initiative has not held up as well in the playoffs as in the regular season.
The problem? Players and coaches (even those desiring less the change) can break down or unravel officiating regimes by “gaming” the system.
For example, by my (unrefined) observation, teams like Georgetown, Kentucky, Arkansas and others in the 1980s and 1990s figured out a useful strategy: if you foul 30 times, the officials will blow the whistle 20-25 against you. If you foul 200 times, there will still only be 20-25 whistles. Why? Officials may foul-out one or two players with relative impunity, but there are strong if unwritten, incentives not to foul out four or five players. (When several Clemson players fouled out a few years back in a Clemson-UNC game, it caused a firestorm of criticism — with officials adjusting backward, not players or coaches adjusting.) With an emphasis on less physical play, teams that view such play as their advantage will put officials to the test. Are officials, and more critically, those evaluating and paying them, willing to live through several weeks of lots of free throws and foul-outs?
In the “big games,” there are even stronger pressures on officials not only to stop short of fouling out a bunch of players but to refrain from stopping play and making the contest a game of free throws. In the Kentucky-UConn game, a very physical affair, the two teams combined for only 25 fouls — barely above the “1+1” bonus for each half. That’s the NBA problem in the playoffs. Players and coaches understand the pressures on the league and officials in the very short run, highly visible series or games. These pressures are even greater in a single-elimination Final Four than in a 7-game NBA Finals or Conference Finals series.
One final observation: I give the commentators above credit for finally highlighting the not-so-innocuous tradeoff to the “just let them play” phrase — one of the silliest mantras ever invented. If that makes sense, why call any fouls? There’s some optimal mix. “Letting them play” really means redistributing advantage from more physically-inclined players to less physically inclined. The move not only imposes short-run effects on teams or players but reshuffles the development of players. It invites more Charles Oakleys or Derrick Masons into a league and fewer Alex Englishes.