NCAA basketball's new high-elbow prohibition leaves little room for interpretation

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2010

Virginia Tech forward Victor Davila pulled down his fourth defensive rebound of the night on Nov. 26, held the ball near his chin and turned to make an outlet pass, technique he'd been taught for years. But because he was being swarmed by defenders, his elbow making contact with an opponent above the shoulders.

By rule, that left the referee two choices: Call either an intentional or a flagrant foul. Nearly everyone involved - including the referee who blew his whistle - agreed the punishment did not fit the crime.

Over the first seven weeks of the college basketball season, referees have struggled to adapt to new rules designed to protect players from blows to the head, according to the NCAA's coordinator of basketball officiating, and that has irritated some coaches.

"The intent of the rule makes sense, because the intent of the rule is precautionary and safety-related," Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said in a telephone interview. "No one wants to have a kid be severely injured by a malicious elbow."

But, Greenberg and other coaches noted, the sequence begins not when the rebounder turns with the ball held high, but once the rebound is made and the opposing team applies pressure.

"In the old days, people said when they put pressure on you, chin-to-ball," said Greenberg, whose team defeated Oklahoma State, 56-51, on Nov. 26. "Well now if you chin-to-ball, you're going to hit someone with your elbow. If you chin the ball and pivot, odds are the foul is going to be on you."

Safety first

In previous seasons, referees could call either a player-control foul or a flagrant foul on such high-elbow situations. But in May, the organization's basketball rules committee unanimously decided that further measures needed to be taken to curb what John Adams, the NCAA coordinator of basketball officiating, said was a "perceived" escalation in elbow-to-head hits.

"We felt like in college basketball we were way behind the curve with regard to concussive injuries," Adams said. "We had not addressed it in any way, shape or form."

So the committee eliminated the option of calling a player control foul in such situations, regardless of the circumstance.

If a ballhandler is swinging his elbows as part of a full-body movement and at the same speed as the rest of his body at the time of contact, an intentional foul is to be assessed, giving the opponent two free throws and possession of the ball.

The act draws a flagrant foul when the elbow swinging is judged by the official to be "excessive," or, as Adams described it, "in a violent manner much faster than the rest of your body, and in general has some intent to it, to harm or to hurt or to injure another player." A flagrant foul leads to the offender being ejected from the game, in addition to the opposing squad being awarded two free throws and possession of the ball.

Kansas forward Marcus Morris, the team's leading scorer, was ejected for a flagrant elbow to the head early in the second half of the Jayhawks' 78-63 road win Wednesday. Kansas Coach Bill Self told reporters afterward that Morris "got exactly what he deserved."

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