Will Basketball Officiating Change As Conference Season Unfolds?

Will Basketball Officiating Change As Conference Season Unfolds?

As the college basketball season enters its final week of games before conference play begins, the coordinators of NCAA basketball officials are emphasizing the continuance of the way in which the game has been called in November. In past years, points of emphasis have often been stressed early, only to fall by the wayside as league play and the new year begin.

This season, though, the message is “hold the line” according to communications from the national level to league officiating leaders and head coaches. Many of these have to do with reducing physicality in the game, including strong enforcement against handchecking or bumping the ballhandler, and calling “first displacement” when two players are bumping and banging for position, either with or without the ball. That means that the player who initiates contact that causes his opponent to move should be whistled for the foul.

While the top dogs see improvement in the latter area, there is actually still a great deal of leeway granted to offensive players in the post. Time and again, post players “back down” their defenders, especially while dribbling, without a call. Only falling to the floor occasionally yields a foul, but doing so is a dicey prospect — if the whistle doesn’t sound, the offensive player has an open path to the hoop.

This is especially a sore spot when defenders in the lane, and elsewhere, are already adapting to the “cylinder” call. That’s a new concept this year, and refers to the offensive player’s space that would allow him to pivot or swing his hands and arms naturally. If the defense makes contact in the offensive player’s cylinder, it’s a defensive foul, unless the offensive player is deemed to have been clearing out space with his arms or a pivot.

Of course, that’s nearly impossible to call. If a defender has legal guarding position against a player with the ball whose back is turned, does he have to move back if his opponent turns to face him? And what about those who try to split traps forcibly? Instructions from the NCAA direct officials to not reward offense-initiated contact on legal defenders, but in the high speed of the game, just seeing the first contact, and not the reaction, is difficult.

The defense is getting some breaks, as directives continue to reinforce the whistling of illegal screens where the screener sets his feet wider than his shoulders or doesn’t allow the defender time to see and react to the screen. Also included are “straight-arm ward-offs” where a dribbler pushes a defender away with an arm motion that results in his arm being extended fully.

Two areas that the national bosses see for improvement are in the calling of traveling and coach box enforcement. Officials have been admonished for not calling obvious travels, and sometimes for calling it where none exists. Again, speed of the game is an issue here, but changing of the pivot foot and the “Eurostep” are two techniques that haven’t been called consistently.

The coaching box, which was extended this year, is also a subject for better enforcement. Officials have been told that if a coach is completely out of the box, he should get one warning, followed by a technical foul.

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How does all this impact West Virginia? A great deal. Aside from the obvious coaching box implications for head coach Bob Huggins, many of the freedom of movement principles work against the denial of cuts and aggressive trapping that mark the Mountaineers’ defense from baseline to baseline.

In the press, WVU’s traps are in your face affairs, and executed to cause a loss of composure. If those involved have to back off in order to allow room for a pivot or the start of a move, then the effectiveness is greatly lessened. By the same token, if the “initial displacement” and the idea of not rewarding offense-initiated contact aren’t upheld, then West Virginia is going to be hurt in its post defense, where it simply doesn’t have the bulk to stand up to bumping and banging for position. As the Mountaineers face Virginia and Pitt over the next week, then move into conference play, the way the game is called, and their reaction to it, is going to have a significant impact.