March 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Referees add uncertainty factor to NCAA Tournament this year

Rod Beard previews Michigan-Wofford
Rod Beard previews Michigan-Wofford: Detroit News sports writer breaks down Michigan's first game in the NCAA Tournament.

Spokane, Wash. Tom Izzo began his first NCAA Tournament press conference by saying he "gave up talking about injuries and officials for Lent."

That was in response to a question about injuries, of course the first one he fielded Wednesday at Spokane Arena came from the New York Times and was followed not long after by one about officiating.

Talk about Catholic guilt, huh?

Both subjects are hard to avoid for Michigan State's coach. And while his team seems to have put the injury bug behind it, there's a pretty good chance the whistles are going to bug Izzo and many of his peers at some point in this tournament.

This season's rules emphasis in college basketball, altering the enforcement of hand-checking on defense (Rule 10-1-4) and the interpretation of block/charge calls (Rule 4-17-4), was designed to increase scoring it reached a 32-year low last season as teams averaged 67.5 ppg) and speed up the game.

Scoring was up nearly 5 percent overall, and while some of that is attributable to an increase in fouls and free throws, the game will better for it, even if some coaches don't agree. The "organized fouling" as ESPN analyst Jay Bilas calls it had gotten out of hand, and to be honest, few teams put their hands on opponents better than Izzo's did over the last decade or so.

But an apparent back-sliding of the new standard during conference play John Adams, the NCAA coordinator of officials, even called out refs publicly in January only made things more confusing for everyone. While touch falls are drawing whistles on the perimeter, it's no-holds-barred in the post at times.

And on the eve of the tournament, Izzo was hardly the only one wondering what to expect.

"Every year that I've been in the Tournament, different things happen," he said Wednesday. "Usually it goes back to more physical brand of ball. But I just think there's more unknowns this year.

"I mean, you always have to worry about your best players being on the bench too much. And that can change a game faster than 3-point shooting, bad defense, anything else. So, my concerns would be trying to figure out how the game is going to be called and adjust to it without making my players fret over it, if that makes any sense."

It does, even if the officials don't right now.

Whistles while you work

Colorado coach Tad Boyle was busy bracing his players for their Tournament opener against a physical Pittsburgh team accustomed to "rock 'em sock 'em" play, even as he reminded them not to worry about it.

"You look at the way the officiating was handled in the Pac-12 tournament relative to the way it was handled in November and December, and it's two totally different games," Boyle said, lamenting some of the low-scoring slugfests he witnessed last week in Las Vegas. "So one of the things we talked to our guys about is you have to put the ball in the basket. You can't play for the whistle or play to get the whistle."

You can argue the whistles, I suppose. A little lobbying never hurts. But don't expect officials to react the way they used to, especially with their own postseason advancement tied to enforcement of the new standard.

Michigan's John Beilein went more than two years without drawing a technical foul on the sideline. But he picked up two in the last two weeks, though Sunday's in Big Ten tournament final against Michigan State actually stemmed from a blatant traveling call that ref Mike Kitts missed.

Still, Beilein acknowledged earlier this month, "It's difficult for the coaches right now. It's such a big change and it's just hard to play defense."

Fuzzy definitions

Nobody seems to have a solid read on the interpretation of the block/charge call that leaves players shaking their heads while lying flat on their backs under the basket. Last week, I asked Michigan's fifth-year senior center Jordan Morgan, one of the Big Ten's savvier post defenders, if he knew what a charge was from one minute to the next in games these days, and he just laughed and shook his head.

"No idea," he said.

Adams and others will tell you they're finally getting the calls right now. If you ask me, they're still whistling far too many charges. (Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim threw in the towel with a memorable tirade after a blown call at Duke back in February.)

And I tend to agree with Izzo and Dick Vitale and others about the need to increase the five-foul limit to six per player. Ditto a reduced shot clock 35 seconds feels like an eternity.

None of that's going to help the pending madness this March, though.

"It's going to be interesting to see how it goes," Izzo said.

Even more interesting, perhaps, to see how the coaches handle it.

Tom Izzo and assistant Dane Fife talk about shooting during Wednesday's practice. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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