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College basketball referees are sticking to new foul guidelines

By Blair Kerkhoff The Kansas City Star (MCT) • Updated Jan 29, 2014 at 9:26 PM

Twice by mandate, Fred Hoiberg dialed back defensive contact on the perimeter. The first time was a decade ago when he played guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Now he’s coaching Iowa State, and adjusting to new college guidelines for foul calls.

To Hoiberg, basketball improved in both the pro and college games when freedom of movement was emphasized.

“The NBA initially called every little touch foul, and the problem got cleaned up,” Hoiberg said.

So it was in 2004 at the pro level, and that’s the intent now in college. This season has crossed the midway point, and the general consensus is that coaches are satisfied with how games are being called.

They’re not rule changes but directives to call what’s already on the books, such as no hand-checking or arm bars from defenders on the dribbler. More clarity on the block-charge call was also given before the season.

Coaches say consistency of the block-charge call needs work — Curtis Shaw, who oversees officiating in five conferences, including the Big 12, agrees — but the overall impact gets a passing grade.

“I think it’s cleaned up the game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We’re going back to what the game should be.”

Scoring in men’s basketball reached its lowest point since 1952 last season when teams averaged 67.5 points per game. The team three-point shooting percentage was the lowest since the arc was introduced in 1986.

Not coincidentally, the 2012-13 season marked an all-time low in fouls called.

Nearly everybody believed some type of change was required, but not all agreed on the method. Kansas’ Bill Self feared a flood of free throws. Scoring would increase, Self said, but at the line and not from the floor.

But Self has been surprised by the results.

“I didn’t like it at first, but it’s not been as big a factor as I thought it would be,” Self said.

According to the basketball analytics website KPI Sports, scoring is running about 5.5 percent ahead of last season at 71.4 points per game, which would be the NCAA’s highest mark since 2001.

The foul calls and free-throw attempts are running ahead of last season’s pace. Free-throw attempts are up 14.6 percent to 22.6 per game throughout basketball.

In the Big 12, teams average 25.45 free-throw attempts per game, about 4 ½ more than last year. A Southeastern Conference team goes to the line an average of 25.36 times a game, compared to 20.27 last season.

“I mean, the past three years prior to this year, we fouled on every possession,” Calipari said. “We grabbed, we held, we pushed.”

This is better, the coaches say, and one reason is officials haven’t backtracked.

“They’ve done a great job sticking to what they’ve said they’d do from game one,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said.

Shaw, the Big 12’s supervisor of officials, sent a memo to his crews around the beginning of the conference season to remain vigilant with the calls, and he’s been happy with the results.

“Everybody saw the big picture, that this would be better for the game,” Shaw said. “And the players adjusted. They were hearing it from their coaches in practice, ‘Hands up, show the hands.’ ”

Still, some issues will require more attention. Shaw insists the block-charge has become more difficult to call because officials have to process multiple things in an instant: whether a defender is in a legal guarding position when the shooter becomes airborne and if the defender is in the restricted area under the basket.

“It’s a very difficult play to referee generally, and now we’ve added aspects to it,” Shaw said. “In watching games, I would tell you we’ve called more blocks than we did before, however half are incorrect calls. We never intended to penalize legal defense. But we’re trying to define the time frame you have to make a legal play.”

Perhaps the height of confusion: Late in Kansas’ home victory over Oklahoma State on Jan. 18, the Jayhawks’ Jamari Traylor collided with the Cowboys’ Kamari Murphy. One official called a block, the other a charge. After an officials’ meeting, both players were assigned a foul, and the possession arrow favored Kansas.

“The game is better,” Shaw said. “But we still have work to do.”

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