February 19, 2014 11:42:05 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Rick Ray's answer epitomized his frustration about how college basketball games are being officiated this season.
When asked if he knew how games are being called, the Mississippi State men's basketball coach shook his head and wanted to move on.
"No," Ray said. "I have no sense at all."
The new points of emphasis for officials were supposed to re-establish freedom of movement and to eliminate hand-checking in an attempt to increase scoring. The changes were made in the summer after extensive consultation -- and agreement -- among coaches, officials, rules-makers, and the NCAA. All of the parties involved agreed the game had grown too physical.
"In the last 20 years, the quality of the game had really eroded," said Dan Gavitt, vice president of NCAA men's basketball championships. "Not in any one year, but slowing eroding. I think this effort to take more physicality out of the game is just imperative."
Last season, only two teams averaged 80 or more points, 25 teams averaged 75 or more, and 108 averaged at least 70 points. Through January, 33 teams were averaging 80 or more points, 118 were scoring at least 75 points, and 233 teams were averaging at least 70 points.
Despite those numbers, Ray is skeptical of the new emphasis. His team's last game -- a 92-82 loss at Auburn -- gives him reason to be concerned. Fifty-nine fouls were called in the game, 77 free throws were shot, and five players fouled out.
"I don't think there's any less contact near the rim that doesn't get called this season, but more is getting called out on the perimeter," Ray said. "I think there's freedom of movement on the perimeter when a guy has the ball.
Craig Sword, MSU's leading scorer, scored 15 points in a home victory against Ole Miss earlier this season without making a field goal. He was 15 of 18 from the free throw line. On Saturday, Sword was one of two MSU players to foul out at Auburn after picking up two fouls in the first half.
Sword, who leads MSU (13-12, 3-9 Southeastern Conference) at 12.8 points per game, will have to stay on the floor longer at 7 tonight at LSU (15-9, 6-6) if the Bulldogs hope to break a 15-game road losing streak.
"We had four players sitting on the bench in the first half against Auburn, and that's when they increased their lead," Ray said.
Ray was an outspoken critic in the preseason of the new points of emphasis because of the physical defense he helped teach as an assistant coach at Clemson and Purdue prior to getting his first job as a head coach at MSU.
When looking at the scouting report, Ray has noticed more teams playing zone defense, such as LSU, to curtail their fouls out on the perimeter. Last season, the Tigers didn't like playing zone, but LSU coach Johnny Jones' team likely will use that defense a lot tonight against an opponent that has struggled with its perimeter shooting.
"I think people are playing us in a zone because when you look at the stats, we shoot a lot of free throws when teams try to shut us down in man," Ray said. "Everybody is at some point scared of that foul situation. My friends around the country are showing more zone like LSU, and (Cuonzo Martin) at Tennessee never played zone until this year."
More zone defenses also have allowed for more open looks at the basket. Made field goals, attempts, and percentages are up from a year ago. According to the NCAA, last year at this time, teams took an average of 55.8 shots and made 24.2 last season (43.3 percent). This year, teams are making 25.5 of 57.1 shots (44.7).
"I would call it a successful experiment to date,'' said Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, chair of the NCAA Men's College Basketball Officiating Competition Committee.