KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Your eyes didn’t deceive you: For an instant there, a blink, they really were letting ’em play, hand checks and all. January began as a call-back to the lawless, rough-and-tumble frontier days of 2013, when no blood meant no foul, when men were men.
Then came the memos.
Strongly worded, terse, finger-wagging memos.
"Through our first week of conference games, I felt in the Big 12, especially, we were starting to ‘let them play a little,’" Curtis Shaw, coordinator for men’s basketball officials for the Big 12, tells FOXSportsKansasCity.com. "And that’s not what we wanted.
"The NCAA and (head of officials) John Adams said some of the same things; they came out the first weekend of January and (told officials), ‘Do not back off. We will continue to enforce this. The leagues that don’t enforce this won’t be successful in the NCAA tournament.’"
To that end, Shaw followed up the national memo with one of his own.
"I said, ‘I’m starting to see this, stop it, and I want it right back to where it was on November 1,’" he recalls. "I had a couple of coaches say (that) it was starting to get a little crazy."
Well, according to the numbers at midseason, crazy is out, conformity is in. And the theory that refs have "eased up" on calling hand-checks and arm bars, now that we’re well into conference play, is, to be frank, a load of squirrel hooey.
As of Monday afternoon, Big 12 teams had averaged just 0.72 more fouls committed per team in league play as opposed to their 2012-13 season average. Four schools, including Kansas (-0.6 per contest), were down just slightly, with Oklahoma seeing the "largest" decrease in fouls per game at -0.8 per tilt, or roughly one foul a contest. Six programs had actually seen mild increases, a group that included K-State (1.7), with Baylor seeing the largest increase at 2.4 more fouls in a league contest.
Within the Missouri Valley Conference, there’s been more of a noticeable drop in foul counts per team within league play, but not significantly different from what went before. As of Jan. 19, fouls per team was down an average of 1.4 per MVC school in conference games compared with their full-season averages.
And at least one clear, indisputable trend emerged: Every Valley program was committing fewer fouls in conference tilts, for whatever reason, with Wichita State down 1.7 per league contest and Illinois State shaving the most off its regular-season average with a drop of 3.2 per game.
"I would guess it’s probably too small a sample size at this point, for the most part," MVC commissioner Doug Elgin says. "I’m not certain that you can be conclusive a third of the way into conference season.
"But if that trend continues, I think what you’re having is an adjustment, and defensive adjustments that take into consideration the rules. I think our coaches, no matter what the rules are, will always do a good job coaching their kids."
The point of the NCAA’s new emphasis on hand-check rules was more points — with the fact that it also amounted to more fouls and free throws (and lengthier games) being the collateral damage early on. Although, get this: Through Jan. 19, Big 12 teams had committed just 1.25 more fouls per game compared to 2012-13; in the MVC, the average jump was 1.48.
Seven out of 10 Big 12 programs were up in terms of season fouls per game off their averages last year, with the two biggest jumps belonging to Kansas (3.7 more fouls a contest) and K-State (2.8). In the MVC, eight out of 10 schools saw an increase between 0.5 and 3.4, but the Shockers were actually down by a hair, with a drop of 0.4 fouls called.
As of Wednesday, a typical Big 12 team was averaging 7.9 more points per game this winter as opposed to its scoring average a year ago; MVC teams were up an average of 3.1 per contest. In the Valley, seven of the 10 schools had seen a points increase — Missouri State, most significantly, up 14.4 from a year ago. In the Big 12, eight out of 10 squads were up, with Oklahoma (14.1) and Oklahoma State (12.6) getting the largest single-season bumps. KU was up 3.7 points, Wichita was up 4.7, while K-State was down a smidge (0.6).
Overall, the figures don’t seem too far off the national average increase of 4.3 points per game, according to KPI Sports (www.kpisports.wordpress.com).
"In my 30 years, this is the first time I think we’ve started to make a change," Shaw says. "The game was not in a good spot, in my opinion. It couldn’t continue to go the way that it was going."
As to where it’s going next, well, look inside. Shaw says discussions for a wider lane in the NCAA could be back on the table, and as for the enforcement of the block/charge call, well …
"I don’t think it was thought through enough — that’s my politically correct way of saying it," Shaw says. "And I think we’ve discovered some things where, in theory, (they) might’ve been good ideas, but it’s practically impossible to officiate. You can’t have one rule that’s interpreted in a couple different ways based on whether a guy gets airborne or never gets airborne, or restrictions in different areas.
"We can’t tell a post defender to stand there with his hands up in the air while an offensive player just bulls through him. We’ve got to let him protect himself. I think that needs to be addressed."
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.