Block? Charge? New rules, same issues in college basketball

acarter@newsobserver.comApril 5, 2014 

A split-second decision that is perhaps the most difficult judgment call in sports wasn’t a big part of college basketball about 30 years ago. John Clougherty, the supervisor of ACC men’s basketball officials, remembers those days well.

“I refereed the ’85 championship – Villanova-Georgetown,” Clougherty said recently. “There was not one block-charge in that game. I’ve got film of it. You cannot find a block-charge in that game.”

Turn on a game nowadays, any game, and you’ll see no shortage of them: Collisions between an offensive player and a defensive player. An official blows his whistle, his mind already made up – his decision made about whether the contact was a charge or a block.

The official will make the sign – hands on hips for a block, one arm behind the head another pointing toward the other end of the court for a charge – before the players can get off the floor. The decision seems instant.

The block-charge call has become a ubiquitous part of college basketball, as much a part of it as any other infraction, it seems. Momentum can be won or lost on a block or a charge. So can games.

If a late, controversial block-charge call plays a significant role in the national championship game Monday night in Arlington, Texas, it wouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise. Gradually, block-charge calls have become an integral part of of the game. It has been that way for a while.

The question, though, is how college basketball reached this point, and where the block-charge rule is headed. The NCAA attempted to clarify the rule before the season. Now, at the end of it, the rule and its interpretation is as controversial as ever.

“I don’t know if we really know how to coach taking the charge right now,” Mike Brey, the Notre Dame coach, said recently. “It’s kind of – you’re vague because you don’t know what to tell guys. So that’s kind of where we’re at in this first year of it.”

New rule tries to clarify

Brey was referring to the rule change. In an attempt to clarify the call, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel tried in the offseason to make things easier on officials. The rules committee changed the block-charge rule to make it more difficult to draw a charge.

Under the new rule, defensive players aren’t allowed to move into the path of an offensive player once the offensive player has started his upward motion with the ball to attempt a shot or a pass. If the defensive player hasn’t already established position by then, the rule dictates it’s a blocking foul.

Before the change, the defensive player had to be in position when the offensive player left the floor. The change was small, but significant. Still, it hardly seems surprising that coaches have expressed confusion about how the rule has been implemented.

“In my mind, there’s no question there’s been slippage,” Roy Williams, the North Carolina coach, said toward the end of the regular season. “But I also think that that happens every year. And (with) every new thing.

“Whether it’s trying to keep the physical play out of it. At the start of the season, it’s called very closely and as the season goes along, I think it slips. I think that’s the nature of it.”

About a year ago, a controversial block-charge led to an Ohio State victory against Iowa State in the NCAA tournament round of 32. With less than two minutes to play and Iowa State leading by a point, Cyclones guard Will Clyburn made a layup while running into Aaron Craft, the Buckeyes guard.

Craft fell backward and a whistle blew. Charge.

Clyburn’s layup, which would have given Iowa State a three-point lead, never counted and Craft later made the game-winning shot. Afterward, the charge was reviewed exhaustively.

Was it really a charge? Was it a block? Craft tried to hurry into position and obstruct Clyburn’s path. He absorbed contact just outside of the arc, the restricted area under the basket where defensive players can’t draw an offensive foul. Nonetheless, it was roundly viewed as a blown call.

Months later, the NCAA changed its block-charge rule. The rule change was seemingly designed to disallow the kind of thing that Craft did – to make that play a clear foul on the defensive player.

Fast forward to Feb. 22, and the Syracuse-Duke game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils led 60-58 when Syracuse forward C.J. Fair drove the left baseline with about 12 seconds to play.

Just as he went up for a layup, Blue Devils forward Rodney Hood stepped in Fair’s path. Just before Fair made a go-ahead layup, the whistle blew. Charge.

What happened next was replayed on a loop, it seemed, for the next 24 hours: Jim Boeheim, the Syracuse coach, losing his composure, yelling at officials which drew a pair of technical fouls, wildly screaming and swinging his arms and, later, walking off the court after his ejection.

Tony Greene, a veteran official of 18 seasons who, according to statsheet.com has officiated nearly 1,200 games, made that controversial call. Blue Devils fans were pleased. To many, though, Greene made the wrong call – the kind of call that might have been correct before the rule change.

On the play, Hood appears to be sliding into position after Fair begins his motion toward the basket. Then again, maybe not. The slow-motion version wasn’t necessarily definitive.

How do you watch both at once?

It’s one of the great problems with the block-charge rule. Plays happen so quickly, how is it possible to judge who has position when, or when exactly an offensive player began his upward motion with the ball. When Clougherty explained the rule change to ACC coaches, that’s one of the things that came up.

“(Florida State coach) Leonard Hamilton in the coaches’ meeting said, ‘John, how do you do that? Does the referee put one eye ball on the defensive and one eye ball on the offensive guy?’ ” Clougherty said. “He said ‘I don’t know how they can really do that.’ And you know what? What he was saying was kind of true.

“I don’t know how good you can be that good to know when he exactly started his upward motion and exactly when the defender got into position. It’s very hard. I think it’s harder now than whenever I refereed or anybody else that were calling block-charges.”

Clougherty became the ACC’s supervisor of men’s basketball officials in 2005. He began officiating ACC games in 1975.

When he started, he said, he rarely had to worry about block-charge calls. That began to change, though, when coaches began teaching their players to take charges.

Brey traces the origin to Morgan Wootten, who coached for nearly 50 years at DeMatha High School in Maryland. Wootten, Brey said, is credited among coaches for being one of the first to teach players how to draw offensive fouls.

“He and (former North Carolina coach) Dean (Smith) were close,” Brey said. “And I think those guys really talked a lot about it. So as a young player, it was kind of driven into my head that you step in and take (a charge) no matter who’s coming down the lane, or it’s a mortal sin if you don’t step in and take it.”

From those origins, teaching players to take charges became more and more common.

More blocks called now, it seems

There is no publicly-available data that shows the rise of the block-charge since the 1970s. The evidence, though, is plentiful enough. The attempt to draw charges became such a widespread part of defensive strategy that some coaches spoke out against it.

“We had way too many charges called,” Williams said. “People not being there, not being set. Acting. Flopping. (In the) NBA, you know, they fine you.”

Williams, then, was happy about the rule change, which was designed to reduce the number of charge calls. Clougherty said it has, but he’s going by instinct instead of evidence.

The ACC, he said, doesn’t track the number of charge and block calls per game. There’s no way to know, for sure, just how much an effect the rule change has had. Even so, Clougherty said, taking charges have become a more “high-risk” proposition.

“Because there’s certainly a lot of blocks called now,” he said. “More so than charges.”

Just like before, though, there is no shortage of confusion. Two players make contact and the wait begins: A blocking foul? A charge?

“It seems more black and white this year, but when the play happens as quick as does, it’s almost impossible to tell when a guy starts his upward motion,” sophomore Marcus Paige, the UNC guard, said last month. “So it’s always going to be a call where people are arguing this is a block, this is a charge. It’s so hard to tell.”

At UNC, like everywhere else, Williams and his coaching staff tried to adjust for the rule change, and tried to help players through the transition. In practices during Paige’s freshman season, he said, offensive players were often called for charges because that more accurately reflected how games were officiated.

“This year it’s a little different because they almost always favor the offensive player,” Paige said. “If you slide in late, it’s automatically a block. Of if you’re moving. It’s very tough to draw a charge this year.”

That was the intent of the rule change – to discourage defensive players from drawing contact in effort to force an offensive foul. Whether it has had the desired effect, though, is questionable.

Looking back, Clougherty isn’t sure when the game changed – and when the block-charge rule became so ingrained. Nearly 30 years ago, during the 1985 NCAA tournament, Clougherty didn’t have to worry about blocks and charges.

Now, on Monday night, a referee in the national championship game could find himself at the center of a national controversy based on a judgment call in a moment’s notice.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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