Referees aggressive with calls
By Ron Chimelis, The Springfield Union-News, 12/7/2000

Bob Knight got fired just in time.

The General wouldn't have lasted a game under the new call-everything atmosphere of the NCAA, which has ordered its men's basketball referees to clean up the game if it takes all night.

This has also profoundly affected the University of Massachusetts, which plays Providence tonight. For years, UMass has lived off the assumption that a little bumping and shoving was part of the game, much as drivers assume it's not really illegal to go 70 when the speed limit is 65.

But with the new crackdown, the Minutemen have looked lost. They have not shown the ability to guard without contact, probably because they've never had to do it before.

So perhaps because our team is adversely affected, we've tried to ignore that not only is it about time the NCAA cleaned up the game, but that its only mistake may be trying to catch up for 20 years of deterioration in one.

What the NCAA is acknowledging is that college basketball's skill level has been plummeting like a rock. The smooth, coordinated "basketball player" of the past has been literally shoved aside by the "athlete" who can pump iron all day, but can't hit half his foul shots and has never been trained to cover a man without leaning on him.

One refuge has been women's basketball, although as the athleticism has improved, that's become rougher, too.

So the NCAA has taken harsh action, and in a way, you have to feel for this year's guinea pigs. Take Kit Rhymer, a UMass late bloomer who will never be another Bill Walton, but who developed into a good post player partly by learning to use his physical skills.

Now Rhymer is being asked to play a virtually contact-free game, the likes of which he has never experienced before. When is he going to learn to do that? Rhymer has 17 fouls in 57 minutes.

It's not just UMass. Most teams and coaches seem uneasy with the new standards, even though they simply apply existing rules.

But this affects the Minutemen far more than most teams. From the John Calipari days, their approach has been that if you commit three fouls, they'll call one.

"That's the way we play," Monty Mack said. "A guy goes across the lane, you bump him."

But Monty, that's a foul. It's always been a foul. But it's never been called until now.

UMass gets it in the neck two ways. The Minutemen get plenty of calls, too, but can't make their free throws.

James Naismith hadn't finished nailing up the peach baskets when his game, designed to be non-contact, began relying on referees' discretion. There's always been contact. There always will be.

But it's become absurd. The NCAA is trying to do something about it. It's about time.

In fact, it's overdue. Generations of players have been taught completely different fundamentals, involving the assumption of illegal contact to gain a subtle but accepted edge.

There's been talk that TV might step in. The games are being dragged out, and hard to watch. So the issue may be whether Division I basketball is a neat, two-hour entertainment package, or a college sport which enforces rules.

The sport I like allows a player to drive the lane without getting clotheslined. It tests a defender's skill to position himself without pushing the dribbler off balance.

If the game is cleaned up, players might learn to do that again, or at least be encouraged to try.

The good players will adapt, if they know how. Had the NCAA not waited 20 years, this wouldn't be a such culture shock.

But if the alternative is a game that de-emphasizes skill, I'm willing to sit through the whistles. That might again lead to a game of basketball, in which there's room for basketball to be played.

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