There were 44 fouls called on Monday night during the college basketball national championship game between North Carolina and Gonzaga. It was an obscene amount of whistles for a game that is supposed to represent the sport’s creme, and it made the game, which was won by the Tar Heels—a year after a stunning buzzer beater by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins ended UNC’s season in spectacularly heart-breaking fashion—nearly unbearable to watch.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. A rule change by the NCAA several years ago allowed for a greater freedom of movement on the perimeter; no longer were guards getting bumped and hand checked as they navigated screens. And along with the shortening of the shot clock to 30 seconds (from 35 seconds), the college game was imbued with flow, spacing, and speed.
To be clear, college hoops isn’t broken. But the NCAA has a definite problem on its hands—its referees, all of whom are part-time employees and work second jobs seven months out of the calendar year, are struggling with the increased athleticism and speed of the modern college game. Put it this way: NBA refs don’t have to worry about whether a perceived blown call will lead to a boycott of their roofing business.
In the title game, 27 fouls were whistled in the second half, and the gameplay turned ragged and tentative as players didn’t know what would be called a foul or not.
What steps the NCAA takes going forward will be fascinating to those—like myself—who are college hoops’ diehards. Two possible solutions: During the postseason NIT tournament, the NCAA implemented 10-minute quarters, and at the end of each session, the fouls reset. The game didn’t creep to a slog because of constant trips to the free throw line, and both players and coaches could be aggressive with their play and strategy knowing the fouls wouldn’t carry over and hurt the team’s chances of winning.
This tweak appears to be the next step the NCAA takes, though there is one other possible solution: allow players six fouls. At the moment, five is the limit, but with the athletic boost that today’s players have, giving that extra foul makes sense. The idea isn’t without precedent: From 1990 to 1992, the Big East and what was then known as the Trans America Athletic Conference (now the Atlantic Sun Conference), played conference games with the “six fouls per player” limit. The experiment was well-received. According to St. John’s coach at the time Lou Carnesecca:
”The concept is a good one. It will keep players in the game longer, especially the better ones, who won’t be yanked as quickly when they get into foul trouble. At present, we’re the only sport where you get thrown out for making too many mistakes. This rule should reduce that somewhat.”
The NCAA eventually did away with the rule because of a lack of “a groundswell …[and] any real support.” Nearly 30 years later, though, times have changed, and college hoops needs to keep up or risk becoming irrelevant.
In 2013, Ken Pomeroy—a former meteorologist-turned-hoops data guru—studied whether six fouls was indeed a good idea:
Sometime during the North Carolina-Kentucky game, Dick Vitale mentioned that he would be in favor of allowing a player to accumulate six fouls before being disqualified. It was probably around the time that five Kentucky players had at least two fouls in the first half. I’ve heard a few folks suggest this remedy as the increase in fouls called has taken its toll in the form of frequent foul trouble for players that can’t keep their hands off the opposition. In order to support such a change, I think that you must believe two things. First, that players are incapable of ever adjusting to the new rules interpretations and second, that increasing the five-foul limit will not have an effect on players’ behavior.