On opening day of the 95th Boys' Sweet Sixteen last March, the bright lights of Rupp Arena illuminated, in the eyes of some people, a major problem with Kentucky high school basketball.
"We saw on the big stage, games get really, really rough, to the point the kids weren't playing basketball. They were just surviving," KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said last week. "Those Wednesday games, my gosh, they were big-time wrestling matches at times. They were definitely the tipping point. It was obvious we had to do something to clean up the game."
The feature attraction that day, Bullitt East vs. Louisville Trinity, was especially physical.
The Shamrocks' defense smothered Bullitt East star and University of Kentucky recruit Derek Willis. Trinity broke out of a 16-16 halftime tie and won 52-32, holding the Chargers to their lowest point total in seven years. Willis missed 12 of 15 shots and had eight turnovers.
Rocks Coach Mike Szabo explained afterward his team's defensive strategy on Willis. "We wanted to make it very difficult for him. We wanted to bang him around, push him, get up into him."
Bullitt East Coach Troy Barr, whose team had endured an even rougher game against Pleasure Ridge Park in the 6th Region finals a week earlier, didn't hold back his opinion, then or now.
"Those two games were football games, plain and simple." Barr said last week. "I told people they were bloodbaths. We actually had kids bleeding in the locker room after those games."
The Bullitt East-Trinity tussle was only one example of the bruising play on the first day of the state tournament. Tackett was so alarmed by what he saw that he met with the supervisors of officials that night and with referees the next day.
"We basically told them to ratchet it down a little," Tackett said. "Too much was being allowed to go on without fouls being called.
"Basketball is a beautiful game, but the players have to be able to play."
The state tournament concluded with Trinity hoisting the championship trophy, but concern over the state of high school hoops did not end there.
The Sweet Sixteen had provided a snapshot of what the game had been evolving (or devolving) into the past decade, with finesse losing out to brute force.
The players have tried to adapt. Rusty Troutman of Bullitt East, for example, said he was getting so many bumps and bruises that he started wearing Nike's "Pro Combat" basketball padding under his uniform a few years ago.
North Oldham Coach David Henley, who led Holmes to the 2009 state title, called the Bullitt East-Trinity game "a watershed moment" that showed how a too-phyiscal style of play "has taken away the flow, the rhythm of the game. There's just a lot of holding, grabbing, hand-checking and pushing.
"The recurring theme I heard from coaches was that the weight room was more important than the practice court anymore."
Tackett and the KHSAA Board of Control heard the complaints, including a meeting with the basketball advisory board, and agreed that something had to be done.
As the 2012-13 season begins, Tackett said officials have been instructed to call the game closer by enforcing existing rules, especially those that deal with hand-checking ball-handlers, body-checking players trying to make cuts, and the pushing and shoving that goes on in the paint.
"I think it's a step in the right direction," said Scott County Coach Billy Hicks, whose teams have won two state titles. "Basketball wasn't meant to be a wrestling match. But the way the game's been called, it puts pressure on you to play that way because if you don't, you get beat up, knocked around and you can't compete."
Veteran coach Scott Chalk, who's in his first year at Paul Laurence Dunbar, said the high school game has gotten more physical "because that's the way the NBA and college games are played. That's what everybody watches on TV, and it trickles down to us.
"Something definitely needs to be done. We've got to clean it up."
Szabo, on the other hand, sees nothing wrong with how the game is trending.
"I think most coaches would want their team to play tough and physical," he said. "I don't think there's a problem with it at all.
"Part of my job is to get these guys ready to go to college. They've got to be tough enough to play there."
Barr doesn't see it that way. He recalled a game last season when Willis was getting manhandled. Barr protested to one of the officials, and was shocked by the response he got.
"He told me, 'Well, if he's going to UK, he better learn to live with that.' For a referee to say that was unprofessional, unethical and immoral. A foul's a foul. It doesn't matter if a kid's going to UK or not."
Many coaches agree with Tackett that one reason the high school game has gotten so physical is that many of its referees also work college games.
"In their defense, it's hard for them to work a college game one night, then dial it back when they call a high school game the next night," Chalk said. "Even if they do dial it back, it's still way too physical for high school kids to handle."
Bo Queen, a longtime referee who works both college and high school games, admitted that it's a difficult transition.
"Most of the time in the college game, it's cut and dry if it's a foul or not a foul.
"In high school, there's much more of a gray area. You hold up on a whistle to see if a kid plays through contact. If he doesn't, we blow the whistle. But sometimes he does play through the contact but then misses a shot or throws the ball out of bounds, and we realize we should've called that foul.
"I do believe you'll see a difference in (high school) games this year. They want us to get the game back to where it's more pure. There'll be more fouls called, and the kids will adjust and it'll open up the game a little more."
Mike Goins is the assigning secretary for the Bluegrass Basketball Association, whose referees work in the 10th and 11th regions. He said officials "have gotten the message loud and clear. They know we'll be on them to blow the whistle."
That's not what Szabo wants to hear. "The games are going to be a lot slower and there are going to be a ton of free throws," he said.
It would be an understatement to say coaches are skeptical that there will be any noticeable or lasting changes in officiating.
"They've been talking about hand-checking and physical play for years, and it's still going on," said Ballard Coach Chris Renner, who led his team to the 1999 state title and has the Bruins No. 1 going into this season.
"We've had two scrimmages this year, and nothing's been different."
And even if games are called tighter during the regular season, Renner said it's a given that "the state tournament will be called totally different. It'll be more physical. It always has been."
Renner cited as an example Ballard's double-overtime loss to Pleasure Ridge Park in the quarterfinals of the 2005 Sweet Sixteen.
"I looked at one of the officials and said, 'Here we are in the second overtime, and we're not even in the bonus yet.' He said, 'Coach, as long as I'm doing this game, you won't be in the bonus.'
"That's pretty much how things are, so you learn to accept it and prepare for it."
Tackett said the coaches aren't without fault.
"For every coach who runs a traditional offense, there are other coaches who teach the hack-and-slap, and want it as disorganized as possible," he said.
Tates Creek Coach Wayne Breeden said that while coaches and players have to adjust to the whistle, they need for those whistles to be consistent.
"You can't sit there and moan about it," he said. "But as a coach, to have consistency throughout the season is really important for me and my players from a teaching and learning aspect."
Barr said his team is ready to adjust, either way.
While he hopes games aren't as physical this season, he said his players are ready for the roughness: "We feel we're capable of putting that punishment out there if we have to. We're prepared for it."
Szabo said Trinity is ready to play a different style, too: "Would we adjust in certain situations? We'll do what we need to do to win," he said.
Tackett said the ultimate goal is to have the players play the game the way it was meant to be played, and the referees to call it according to the rules.
"We don't want our people deciding games," he said. "We want them properly officiating the games, and the players will decide who wins."