Kentucky's last game displayed college basketball's new emphasis on reducing physical play. Although his team won, the 56 fouls and 88 free throws led North Carolina's J.P. Tokoto to say, "It's not fun at all. I like to get up and down. Every two plays or so, the whistle was blown and play stopped. ... You've got to let us play."
Kentucky's next game provides a good person to assess the referees' change in emphasis. As chair of the NCAA Men's Basketball Rules Committee, Belmont Coach Rick Byrd was involved in the decision to change the officiating and assess the impact.
When asked about Tokoto's complaint, Byrd said that he could understand player frustration.
"I get that," he said Wednesday before adding, "But why do they whine all the time when they think they got fouled."
Last week, the NCAA released statistics that suggested the officiating changes are having the intended effect. Through games of Dec. 8, teams were scoring more: 73.81 points per game as opposed to 68.38 points at that point of last season. Shooting had improved slightly (from 43.3 percent to 44.7). Teams were whistled for an average of two more fouls per game. Teams were shooting five more free throws per game.
Byrd, who is in his 29th season as Belmont coach, said Tokoto and like-minded fans will get games with greater flow in time.
"I think that flow will return when players and coaches continue to understand these kind of fouls will be called," he said. "And if you want to continue playing and not sit on the bench, then you're going to have to (adapt)."
Kentucky Coach John Calipari, whose team plays Belmont on Saturday, has been an unabashed supporter of the new style of officiating. Coincidentally or not, it fits his dribble-drive offense.
"For me, what it's done is create even more of a driving game," Byrd said. "It's very, very difficult to guard a guy who can put the ball on the floor. It already was. Now, it's harder."
Kentucky made that clear in the 82-77 loss at North Carolina on Saturday. UK players reaped the benefits of repeated drives to the basket, especially in the second half. The Cats shot 26 free throws in the second half, in part because of being eligible to shoot the one-and-one with 15:21 left.
The misleading idea of Kentucky being solely dependent on drives led Byrd to quip, "They do have a big guy that they can throw it into that will take about four of us to guard."
That would be Julius Randle.
As Byrd noted, not every game is a foul-fest filled with drives to the basket and free-throw shooting. Belmont lost 90-62 Tuesday at Denver, a team that runs the so-called Princeton offense. The Pioneers' 55.6 percent shooting included 12-for-23 accuracy from three-point range.
"If I was watching the game (as a fan), I'd have enjoyed watching it," Byrd said.
The Belmont coach noted how the publicity about the change in officiating created a flood of opinion.
"All head coaches would have a slightly different set of opinions on what's called, what's not called and what's called too much," he said. "But it became pretty obvious to a whole lot of people that something needed to be done about low scoring and games that, well, I don't know if ugliness is the right word."
As players and coaches adapt, the number of fouls per game has been "pretty ordinary," Byrd said.
Kentucky's average number of fouls per game has increased from 17.2 last season to 18.8 so far this season. By contrast, Louisville, which plays a more aggressive, pressure defense, has seen its average number of fouls increase only from 18.2 to 18.8.
Jake Bell, the supervisor of officials for the Southeastern Conference, applauded the change in block/charge calls. The benefit of the doubt now goes to the offense, which has greatly reduced the number of times a defender tries to draw a charge.
Bell suggested that the all-important adaptation to the new officiating will eventually result in even more scoring and, perhaps more importantly, less fouling and free-throw shooting.
"We're still like the Mississippi River," he said. "We're trying to find that place where it crests and smooths out. I think we're getting there. We've moved a lot quicker and a lot better than I thought we would."
Finding that smooth sailing may take time.
"You can form opinions," Byrd said, "but you need a year of data and observation and reflection to decide how much it needs to be tweaked."
Belmont at Kentucky
When: Noon Saturday
Radio: WLAP-AM 630 and WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Belmont 8-3; Kentucky 8-3