Monday, March 19, 2012

The Most Difficult Call in Basketball

I will get to a recap of the first weekend in another post, but today I want to comment on the block/charge call, and how its current application hurts the game.  Below are the articles of the NCAA basketball rulebook, in the section about fouls, that deal with charging:

Art. 7. Contact caused by a defensive player approaching a player with the ball
from behind is pushing; contact caused by the momentum of a player who has
tried for goal is charging.
Art. 8. A dribbler shall neither charge into nor contact an opponent in the
dribbler’s path nor attempt to dribble between two opponents or between an
opponent and a boundary, unless the space is sufficient to provide a reasonable
chance for the dribbler to pass through without contact.
Art. 9. When a dribbler passes an opponent sufficiently to have head and
shoulders beyond the front of the opponent’s torso, the greater responsibility for
subsequent contact shall be that of the opponent.
Art. 10. When a dribbler has obtained a straight-line path, the dribbler may not be
bumped, pushed or otherwise crowded out of that path. When an opponent is able
to legally obtain a guarding position in that path, the dribbler shall avoid contact
by changing direction or ending the dribble.

I left out article 11, which deals specifically with help defenders, but only as pertains to being inside the three-foot restricted area that is new to college basketball.  My friend Noel and I agreed, while watching various conference tournament games from a couple of weekends ago, that it looks like more and more players are trying to take charges when players drive to the basket.*  There is nothing wrong with this specifically; they're trying to make good defensive plays and help their teams win games, and sometimes the best way to do that is to try and draw a charge.  But there are two major issues at play here.  First, the rules above are not all that specific, and for such a split-second call that can have damaging consequences.  Did the defender get set before the offensive player was in the air?  Did he move part of his body at the last second?  Did he actually get hit, or did he flop?  These are only some of the things that the referee has to process and make a judgment call on in a second or less, and the rules leave it fairly open to interpretation.  Second, if there are in fact more offensive fouls being called, than this inhibits game play, discouraging players from attacking the basket and slowing offensive flow.  In several of the NCAA tournament games this past weekend, it seemed as if there was an offensive foul or two called between every TV timeout, which is frustrating for players, coaches, and fans alike.

*You might think, because I am a Duke fan, that I am all in favor of smart "hustle" plays like charges, given that Shane Battier and others have made Duke "Taking Charges U."  But I like basketball plays more than hustle plays, and despite the fact that all those charges taken were an effective way of masking that Duke has had only one big-time shot-blocker in the past fifteen years (Shelden Williams), I don't like the way that it seems to be interrupting what is ordinarily a free-flowing game.

There is some statistical support for the increase in offensive fouls slowing down the game.  This season, for example, seven teams averaged over 80 points per game, led by Iona at 82.9.  A further twenty-four teams averaged between 75.0 and 79.9, and in total 105 teams averaged 70 or more points per game.  If we go back five years to the 2006-2007 season, those numbers increase across the board: VMI was one of nine 80-plus teams (at a ridiculous 95.6), thirty-nine more teams were in the 75.0-79.9 range, and a total of 142 teams averaged at least 70 per game. Go back to 2001-2002, and those three columns swell to 17, 66, and 183 teams, respectively.

Now, it is possible (probable, even) that there are other reasons for the decline in scoring output across the board.  Lesser talent, more micromanaging coaches, more sophisticated defenses, etc.  All of those factors could conceivably have a hand in the slowdown.  Of those, I think we can at least dismiss "lesser talent" as a possibility.  Sure, the talent level fluctuates from year to year, but the NBA has been on an upward trajectory over the past several years, and they still get the bulk of their talent from the college ranks.  Micromanaging coaches have existed forever (remember Gene Hackman's character in Hoosiers?), and while defenses have gotten more sophisticated, so have offenses and offensive players, and everybody has gotten bigger and faster (in general).  So if we assume that an increase in offensive fouls (i.e. charges called) is a reason for the direction basketball has taken (and I have yet to find a good statistical database on this topic), then what can be done to fix it and open up the game more?  Here are three suggestions:

1) Have a clearer delineation of what constitutes a block or a charge.  As you can see above, the rules leave a lot open to interpretation, and the consistency of the officiating, particularly on these calls, then varies a lot from game to game.  Define the rule a little clearer, make it easier to enforce, and there won't be so much confusion.  But that change fails to address the need to encourage attacking offensive play, which is why the NCAA should also...

2) Adopt the NBA restricted area.  The new NCAA restricted area is a three-foot semi-circle radiating from the basket, whereas the NBA's is four feet.  While the three-foot line was a major step in the right direction (because too many players were taking charges next to the basket with the referees using an artificial or non-existent line), the extra foot would force help defenders (who take the most charges near the basket) to take an extra step or a bigger, slower step to get into position, thus making them less likely to draw a charge and negate a good offensive play.

3) Widen the court by one or two feet on each side.  I think most people would either dismiss this as too radical or too tame, but increasing the width of the floor by just a little would be good for the game.  Those extra two to four feet would mean more spacing on offense, resulting in more lanes to penetrate and more open jump shots off of that penetration.  With the increase in both size and speed by the average high-level basketball player over time, it seems as if the court has shrunk a little, and expanding it just a touch would be one way to arrest the slowdown of the game and make it more fun for both the players and the fans.

Hopefully the people on the NCAA's rules committee will at least revisit the charge circle either this offseason or next (they tpically come out with a new rule book every two years) and decide to change the restricted area to the NBA dimensions.  Let's keep working to fix this rule.