On Thursday, March 22, 2012, Syracuse played Wisconsin in Boston, MA for a spot in that Saturday’s Elite Eight matchup at the Boston Garden against the winner of Cincinnati and Ohio State (the Buckeyes would prevail). A game admittedly closer than I expected it to be, Syracuse continued to stay just ahead of Wisconsin late into the second-half. With momentum on the Badgers’ side following a big three-point shot which cut the Syracuse lead to a slim 62-61 advantage, the Orange’s emotional leader and biggest enigma, Scoop Jardine, drove to the lane before Ryan Evans of Wisconsin slid over, appeared to be set a half-second before Jardine took to the air, and hit the ground following a collision which caused the Syracuse guard to miss a layup. The whistle sounded, and I was certain that the call would be against Syracuse, a player-control/”charge” foul on Jardine. I’d also guess I wasn’t the only one with that expectation.
Thankfully, and refreshingly, I was wrong. Evans was called for a blocking foul and Jardine went to the free-throw line for two shots, connected on both, and gave Syracuse its final two points as it squeaked a 64-63 win to move into the Elite Eight.
I was shocked. Not that the Orangemen had won as I predicted, but that it was a blocking foul, and not a charge, that was called on that play. The reason for which is clear – the “offensive foul” is destroying college basketball.
“Woah, woah, woah,” you’re probably thinking. “Destroying?! College basketball is fantastic! This tournament has been fun to watch!” Yes, it has. While the top-heavy college basketball tournament shaking out pretty much as expected – outside of an early Duke and Missouri loss – the Kentucky/Louisville and Kansas/Ohio State matchups ready to tip from New Orleans in Saturday’s Final Four are exciting and rich with storylines. What you won’t hear about, though, is what a joke the offensive foul has become in today’s game.
I don’t know the cause for it, and I don’t know when it started, but at some point within the last five years or so, referees seemed to begin to think that if a defensive player hit the floor when a player with possession drove to the hoop, they should first look to call a charge, and only in rare circumstances give the benefit of the doubt to the offensive player and allow him to shoot free throws. When I was learning to play basketball at the age of six or seven, I vividly remember my father teaching me the basics of defense (as best as he could to a six year old). Shuffle your feet. Keep your arms stretched out. Stay between your man and the basket at all times. As I grew older, played more, and got involved with more organized forms of the game, the strategy and more complex parts of the game were taught to me. I learned what a charge was – that when a player with possession is driving to the basket, if I can get set and not move my feet before he gets too close to me, and fall to the ground on my butt when contact is made, it will probably be called a charge. Set and feet planted before the offensive player gets too close.
And I still remember my first charge. Seriously, I do. I was in fourth grade playing in the Upton Town Hall basketball league, and I asked the referee before the other team inbounded the ball whether he would call a charge, and he told me he would. The point guard – who I was guarding – came running down the court with the ball. I got in his way, set my feet, and closed my eyes as he ran into me, knocking both of us over. The ref blew his whistle, called a charge, and caused the opposing coach to yell “are you really calling a charge?! Those are 11-year olds out there!”
In today’s basketball setting, I understand that players are bigger, stronger, and faster than ever before. While all that’s true and has certainly affected the way the game is played, it is certainly not reason to reward lazy defense. Today, players seem to be taught that if the man you’re guarding blows by them on the dribble, do not fear, for your teammate will step in a split-second before the offensive man gets to a spot, fall over, and give you back possession. For the sake of the game, it’s imperative that this issue is fixed. Too often are defensive players either not set when the offensive player takes to the air, or have their feet still sliding over when contact is made. These are not charges, yet are too often called as such. With players bigger and quicker than ever before, expecting them to stop on a dime, control their bodies in the air, and pull-up for a 5-foot jump shot is asking too much, and is not what the game of basketball should be. There are certainly times when an offensive player is out of control as he storms to the hoop, and other times that the defensive player clearly establishes position before his counterpart gets there; and in such cases a charge should properly be called. Yet, these instances are the exception today rather than the norm.
This epidemic (and that’s what this is – an epidemic destroying the flow of many a collegiate basketball game) is arguably exclusive to the NCAA. The only reason for this that I can come up with is a two-fold response. Part I is that the use of the circle under the hoop to negate offensive fouls and automatically signal a defensive violation has impacted professional players to the point that it isn’t worth it to risk a foul and possible injury for the chance that a referee is able to decide that he is both (i) out of the restricted circle and (ii) set properly before contact. Part II of that answer lies in who it is usually taking the ball to the hoop – the superstars. The term of art “Superstar Call” has been coined to mean that superstar players typically get the benefit of the doubt from the referees for no other reason than their possessing of more talent than almost anybody else on the court. As such, when LeBron James or Russell Westbrook drive to the basket and make contact with a defensive player – even when that defensive player is set, in position, and outside of the restricted area – the call will benefit LBJ or RussWes.
“Solving” this problem is not as difficult as one might think. Reemphasizing the basics of the game to these referees – seemingly so concerned with “player safety” and offensive stagnation – should help to re-right the ship of what has become (in my opinion) a glaring and clear problem.
Both offensive and defensive issues have been changed over the years with new rules and emphasis on specific parts of the game. Fixing the offensive foul issue will only return college basketball to where and what it should be.