Emotionally charged

BACK IN NOVEMBER, coaches and fans cried foul over new defensive rule enforcement intended to allow more freedom of movement and to boost scoring -- which, to be fair, dipped to its lowest in 62 years last season, to 67.5 ppg. But the outrage wasn't without reason: Hand-checking regulation produced a flurry of momentum-halting free throws -- 81 alone in a January game between Kentucky and Arkansas. And redefining the block/charge call led to controversial fouls, particularly one that cost Syracuse a game-tying basket against Duke on Feb. 22. Orange coach Jim Boeheim deemed it the "worst call of the year."

The changes had the desired effect, though: Scoring spiked, pace quickened and turnovers fell. "Freedom of movement caused an uptick in offensive efficiency even for teams -- like Creighton -- that don't rely on free throws," says stats guru Ken Pomeroy.

Thankfully for fans, calls leveled off during conference play. Yes, that could mean that the players have adjusted. But it also raises questions about the role of referees at the Big Dance: Will they whistle things more closely during the tournament because games will be so scrutinized, or will they shy away from drawing the ire of coaches like Boeheim and let teams play? In January, NCAA officials coordinator John Adams urged refs to call games "closer to what they were in November and December." If they do, the focus on hand-checking could make guard play -- always key in March -- even more pivotal. "Teams with aggressive guards will have an advantage because there will be more plays, which puts pressure on refs to make more calls," says ESPN analyst and former coach Seth Greenberg. "Officials know they'll be evaluated on how they enforce the rules."

So while the chosen 68 will no doubt be feeling the heat as March rolls on, the zebras will be the ones in the crosshairs.

All stats through March 9. Courtesy KENPOM.COM and KPISPORTS.NET

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