- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Partially inspired by TrueHoop's excellent HoopIdea series, College Basketball Nation humbly presents Change the Game, a weekly discussion on the game we love and the ways it could be made better. And nothing is off the table.
Look for CtG every Friday for the foreseeable offseason future. To share your thoughts or submit a topic for discussion, reply to me on Twitter, @eamonnbrennan, with the hashtag "#CtG."
Our first topic: The disaster that is the collegiate block-charge call. For Fran Fraschilla’s take on the topic, click here. For mine, read on …
For me and people like me -- people who want to see great college basketball players make great college basketball plays; i.e., fans -- 2011-12 was a difficult season to stomach.
The block-charge, always a difficult dynamic in the game, became a nightly scourge. It got so bad that the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, at least half of my non-link tweets concerned bad block-charge calls. Most of them were in FRUSTRATED ALL-CAPS. (True story: When I proposed this idea to my editor, Brett, he said, "Well, judging by your Twitter feed in March, that's certainly an issue you feel passionately about.")
Why was the block-charge worse than ever before? Progress. This past season was the NCAA's first with a restricted area around the basket, and referees clearly struggled to adapt. Ironically, this was a step back from 2011, when referees were essentially asked to pretend there was a restricted area painted on the court. At least then officials were actually eyeballing the entire play, or trying to. In 2012, with the arc on the floor, referees often looked only at the arc. As long as the defensive player's feet were outside the lines, it was a charge. If not, it wasn't.
And so, a rule designed to open up the rough-and-tumble college game made it even more physical, giving the defense an inherent advantage on nearly every drive or post possession. Throw in the occasional flop, plus the countless legitimate offensive fouls, and it felt like every potentially exciting play at the rim would end in a whistle, one way or the other. It was stifling.
Encouragingly enough, the NCAA saw the problem, too. This week, the NCAA men's basketball committee recommended a variety of rules changes. The most immediately notable -- the one the NCAA led with in its release -- covered the banishment of those stupid, slippery sponsor stickers, a policy any sane human can get behind. But down at the bottom, after subtitles "Sportsmanship" and "Monitor Reviews," is a section dubbed "Men's Officiating Guidance." It contains the following committee-approved prescriptions:
Before the offensive player (with the ball) becomes airborne, the defender must have two feet on the floor, be facing the opponent and be stationary to draw a charge. Otherwise it should be a blocking foul.
Secondary defenders (help defenders) moving forward or to the side are also in violation, and these should be blocking fouls.
Contact that is “through the chest” is not de facto proof of a charge. The rule in its entirety must be considered before determining a foul.
In some cases, it appears that a defender is being rewarded solely for being outside the arc, without considering the other aspects of the rules.
These are really good prescriptions! (The last one is more of an observation, but it's an accurate one.) If approved by the Playing Rules Oversight Committee and implemented as written, they will help referees restore the balance of block-charge calls back toward the offense, or at least somewhere closer to the middle than what we saw last season. This is a good thing.
But I wonder: Shouldn't we be thinking more radically about the block-charge call in general?
I believe we should. Basketball Prospectus' John Gasaway is with me, and indirectly brought this up in his annual Perfecting the Sport column this spring:
Somewhere along the line, the refereeing of college basketball -- maybe basketball, period -- got seriously off-track compared to what occurs in the sister movement-and-goal team sports like lacrosse, soccer, and hockey. (In other words the sports that Dr. Naismith was modeling when he invented this one.) Only in basketball can contact that doesn't visibly alter the movement of the alleged victim constitute a violation. Call it a touch foul, call it a nickel-dimer, under any name it needs to go away. If a defender has his hands up and is moving laterally, he shouldn't be called for a foul short of sticking out his leg and tripping the player he's guarding. And the fact that I even need to state the following shows there's a problem: A player standing with his hands above his head by definition is not fouling anyone, even if the big star from the other team jumps into him. Not every instance of players coming into contact needs to be a violation. Let them play.
John's idea: "Foul calls should be limited to obvious charges and instances in which defenders clearly reach and hinder. Otherwise let them play." I agree. The first place this should apply is the block-charge. And it should apply to offense and defense equally.
Defensive purists will cringe at this, but I'm just going to come out and say it: I hate charges.
Before you freak out, I'll admit there is something beautiful about a player reading a rotation and sliding his feet side to side in time to get over to take a charge; there is something deeply satisfying about a player's desire to sacrifice his body to his team. Or maybe, I just like it when sidelines get really psyched. (Lots of fist-pumps and clapping and helping the player up ... everybody loves that stuff.)
But why is taking a charge considered a basketball play? Especially if a player is merely establishing a position and waiting for the offense to run into him? Why shouldn't we require defensive players to make a play on the ball, or at least have their hands in the air when they receive contact? What if we totally rethought the way players are asked to defend in the game of basketball? What if we made it more like pickup?
In pickup basketball, there is no such thing as a charge. It almost never happens. When it does, the purveyor is usually the object of much laughter. Who takes charges in pickup basketball? Check up top, man. Knock that stuff off. Play defense.
This hasn't been properly incentivized in the college game. Most of the time, when a defensive player leaves his feet -- even if he stays straight up, within his own space, and receives the contact rather than creates it -- he will be whistled for a foul. Players have figured this out. Why wouldn't they take their chances and take a charge instead? The risk-reward is entirely out of whack.
It comes down to this: Defenders should have to do something more than carve out a spot three inches in front of the restricted area and wait for a penetrating player to come flying down the lane. They should be required to make a play on the ball, not the body. They should be required to play defense: real, actual, you're-trying-to-score-and-I'm-trying-to-stop-you defense. If a defender stands and waits for contact, the referee should either swallow the whistle (preferably) or call a foul on the offense (if absolutely necessary). It's hard to argue the result wouldn't look a lot more like basketball.
In exchange -- because you can't suddenly make the game that much easier for the offense, lest defensive coaches everywhere freak out -- offensive players should not be able to draw the kinds of ticky-tack fouls we see all the time in the college game. The block-charge isn't just an issue around the rim; players are whistled for all sorts of body contact away from the hoop, on drives and pullups and head fakes. Those calls need to go, too. Players should be allowed to use their bodies to defend away from the hoop as well as around it. As John wrote, contact shouldn't always equal a foul.
Within the current block-charge paradigm, the men's basketball rules committee's recommendations are good ones. If they are implemented well, they'll count as much-needed tweaks.
And that's the key word: tweaks. I think we need to go deeper. We need to start thinking about block-charge calls in an entirely different way. We need to realign the incentives for players on the court. We need to discourage any play that forces the referee to make a call. We need to urge players to play the game as if the officials weren't there, and not require such taxing use of their imaginations to do so. We need to do as much as possible to restore basketball to its purer, less whistle-prone, origins. We need to let the game breathe.
That's far easier said than done. And I'm sure plenty of people will disagree. But it's clear something needs to be done, and the NCAA agrees.
So instead of baby steps, let's take leaps. Basketball is a better game than the way it is currently officiated. The sooner we remember that, the sooner we work to fix it, the better -- and more entertaining -- the game can be.
At least, that's how I see it. Let's hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments and on Twitter. Go!