In the waning minutes of the East Regional Final of the Men’s NCAA Tournament, Florida had several opportunities to score and turn the momentum against South Carolina. On multiple occasions, Florida players attempted to penetrate to the basket but were stripped of the ball by swarming Gamecock defenders, sealing the victory and a Final Four trip that will make my brother-in-law completely insufferable this Christmas.
Given the swarm of bodies in a space about the size of a restroom stall, there is very little chance that any of the officials had a clear enough view of these plays in real time to accurately assess whether any South Carolina players committed fouls. Refs will tell you that they rely on sounds to determine if a hand has made contact with another hand in such situations, but that doesn’t allow them to determine whose hand hit whose, and with twenty thousand fans doing their utmost to create an intimidating atmosphere for the opposing team (and the officials), this method seems badly lacking. In any event, it seems hardly plausible that, with all the reaching and slapping going on, that no fouls occurred on any of these plays. Even my brother-in-law would concede that premise.
In part, this is simply how South Carolina plays defense. They have a physical, aggressive, in-your face approach that mirrors the personality of their coach, Frank Martin. If the rules, which stipulate that any bodily contact which impedes the action of the offensive player is a foul, were enforced strictly, South Carolina could be whistled on every possession. But they are generally not called that way, so this strategy has been highly effective. They are not the only team that does this; Louisville has played a bumping, hacking defense since the days of Denny Crum, almost daring the officials to blow the whistle. The best Michigan State teams always manhandle their way to a huge rebounding advantage.
In the national semifinal, the Gamecocks turned up the defensive intensity and spurred a 16-0 run that momentarily gave them a lead. Gonzaga adjusted, and won the game. There were a total of 35 fouls called in that game. Gonzaga would have been excused at that point if they had gone into the title game against North Carolina assuming that extensive contact by defensive players was permissible. But that game, with much less physical play, featured 44 fouls that completely disrupted the flow of the game.
This is a troubling trend. Like umpires and their personal strike zones, basketball officials have enormous leeway in deciding how much contact to allow before calling a foul. This is the result of a rule book that was developed when power forwards were 6’6” tall and lumbered around the court like they were moving a refrigerator. Now teams routinely put four players 6’7” and taller on the floor, and most of them can run like wide receivers. Larger objects moving faster in the same amount of space naturally leads to more contact, and the rules have not evolved to keep place.
Which leaves it to the discretion of each official. If they interpret the rule book literally, everyone would foul out by halftime, so they give the players some leeway. But there is no consistency in what is allowed, so players are forced to spend a significant portion of each game figuring out what they can get away with. This should not be the case. Whatever calls Gonzaga got against South Carolina should have been called against North Carolina. With every game coming down to one or two possessions, it is wrong to force players to guess what constitutes a foul.
It’s not just in college. Jae Crowder of the Celtics plays a style of defense that closely resembles dry humping, then flops as though struck by lightning when the offensive player attempts to ward him off. Because he does this on every possession, the refs apparently think it’s a normal defensive stance, whereas players who do it once or twice a game invariably get called. James Harden’s signature move consists of driving directly at a defending player and daring him to remain stationary and draw a charge, which most players are unable to do because taking the full brunt of a charge from the 220-pound Harden would risk injury. Even if the defender does everything right, Harden is often able to twist himself in such a way to create the appearance of a foul. Harden has committed only thirty offensive fouls this season, an absurdly low number given his usage rate and physical style of play, while he has attempted 824 free throws. You can do the math (at least I hope you can) and figure out what Harden has – there’s almost no downside to his style of play, even though he initiates contact on every drive. In the cases of Crowder and Harden, you can credit the refs with consistency, but not with following the rules or enhancing the quality of play.
There’s not an easy solution to this. These calls are firmly ingrained in the instincts of every official, who, after all, reached this level by accruing years of experience and being rated highly throughout their careers. There has been some progress. Hand checking by defenders as a way to impede the progress of the offensive players has been greatly reduced because refs have been instructed to call it and the players have adjusted their technique. If anything, the emphasis on the three-point shot has reduced the amount of contact by spreading everyone out, but not nearly enough to keep the inconsistent — and just plain bad — calls from impacting an inordinate number of games.