Before we dive into this topic, let's get one thing out of the way. The officiating in Sunday's final between West Virginia and Minnesota didn't cause the Mountaineers to lose. Sure, there were some calls that didn't seem right, but that's the case in just about any game. Thus, this isn't a rant about bad calls – it's an examination of the way in which games are being officiated, and the possible effect on this year's team.
Efforts are underway to call games in strict accordance with the rulebook. Headlined by personas such as John Adams, the national coordinator for NCAA officiating, and “Quick Draw” Curtis Shaw, whose penchant for blowing the whistle and calling technical fouls rises to the fetish level, the move is supposed to make calls more uniform from league to league, and minimize personal interpretation of the rulebook. That's fine, so far as it goes, but was what we saw in Puerto Rico a harbinger of things to come? And if so, how will that affect the physical style that Huggins preaches?
So far this year, West Virginia has been called for 102 personal fouls – an average of more than 25 per game. Opponents are getting tweeted at the even higher rate of 28 per contest. The Mountaineers have already had five players foul out of a game. By way of comparison, last year WVU averaged 18 fouls per contest, and suffered just 15 disqualifications in 38 games. If it played the same number of games this year, WVU would approach 50 disqualifications.
It might be a bit premature to draw those extrapolations, because every year we've seen “points of emphasis” from the NCAA in regard to officiating. One year it's the three-second call, the next year it's palming the ball. But whatever the focus, it seems to drift away as the season progresses. By the time league play heats up, the manner in which the game is called goes right back to the way it was the year before. Is this year going to be different?
Again, it's hard to judge, based on the small sample of games to date. There are other factors that could be involved as well. The officials that did the games in Puerto Rico might be sticking to the Adams-Shaw initiative more closely than anyone else. How closely other officials follow it remains to be seen, especially those that call Big East games. Game tactics and match-ups could also have had a greater effect than normal. Davidson employed the "Hack-a Shaq" strategy on WVU, while the WVU-Minnesota game featured two teams that vied strongly for dominance in the lane.
In one area, though, there's little doubt. Closely-called games will certainly have a detrimental effect on West Virginia, at least until the Mountaineers learn to adapt. That time period might not be a short one, however. Three years of playing under Huggins can't be wiped immediately from a player's memory banks. Players that are coached to deny cuts, jump screens and cut offensive players off can't suddenly revert to Hoosiers style defense and be effective. Strong players that go to the boards and bang inside will have to figure out a different way to get to the glass. Even Huggins himself would likely have to make some changes in the way he instructs his team.
For his part, Huggins didn't complain directly about the whistle-tooters in Puerto Rico. He did, though, put out a plea for consistency.
“I'm all for whatever they want to do, but call it all the time,” he said. “Don't let guys jump over backs on one end, and on the other end let it go. I don't care what the rules are, just let them call it all the time. But if you don't do the same thing all the time it's hard for guys to adjust.”
Some of that, of course, was aimed directly at the calls in the WVU-Minnesota game, but there was also clearly some frustration over the calls in the tournament as a whole reflected in his statement.
If the calls come at the same rate they have so far, it will take a greater toll on teams that play like West Virginia. Pitt, Kansas State and Louisville, as well as many Big Ten teams (including Minnesota) will also likely have problems keeping players on the floor as a result of foul trouble. They'll also likely face a mental adjustment as they get called for actions that went unpenalized a year ago.
Of course, all of this could go away, and be nothing but a memory by the time we get to February. But if it doesn't, there will be some very big changes that will have to be made in the way a number of collegiate teams play the game – and West Virginia could be very near the top of that list.