NEW YORK -- Let's hear it for the genius who suggested that the Big East extend the personal foul limit from five to six in conference play. Not only does this put the teams in jeopardy during the NCAAs, where everyone adheres to the five-foul rule, but it helps prolong Big East games to the point of absurdity. Why stop with a calculator to keep track of fouls, why not add a penalty box?
An average college basketball game takes about two hours -- the standard duration of a Tammy Faye eyeliner application. But now, in the third year of this six-foul experiment, an average Big East game lasts about as long as the French and Indian Wars. I love Big East games because they enable me to catch up on my reading. In just the last two minutes of Friday night's Georgetown-Miami game (52 fouls overall, thank you) I read "War And Peace." In the Russian.
You'd think that because an NBA game goes eight minutes longer than college, and affords almost double the possessions because of the 24-second clock, and bans zone defenses, that there'd be more fouls in the NBA. But the average NBA game has 44 fouls. The average Providence or Villanova Big East game has 48. They're already in the bonus when they walk off the bus. What is with these teams? Do they think the game isn't legitimate unless they go to the foul line 65 times?
"I know we're perceived as foul crazy," said Seton Hall's coach, P.J. Carlesimo. "But it's not because of the six-foul rule. It's because of the way we play. Our league is based on defense. The thrust is to keep guys from scoring."
I'm always amazed at the number of fouls in Georgetown games. The first Georgetown-BC game had 61 fouls. Georgetown games against both Seton Hall and Miami had 57. Sometimes I think the Hoyas figure because they didn't foul much against Hawaii-Hilo and Hawaii-Loa, they can store fouls up, and use them like chits later in the season. But Georgetown's coach, John Thompson, believes people like me miss the point by simply counting fouls. "Six fouls gives everybody more freedom -- coaches, players and officials. But you adjust to what you have to play with," Thompson said just after Friday night's game. "Five fouls in the NCAA tournament won't make a difference. You'll adjust to five."
But you hear so many whistles at a Big East game, you think you're at dog obedience school. These games take so long, the Big East's motto isn't "Seize the Day," it's "Seize The Week."
"Our games are long," conceded Boston College's coach, Jim O'Brien. "When you're behind, the way to get back in the game is by fouling, and nobody's that concerned about fouls because you have six per player. I suppose that makes for a longer game. But six allows you to keep your big men in there longer. I've got Billy Curley, so I want six."
You thought "Dances With Wolves" was long? A Big East game is the only athletic event where you give a lunch and dinner order to the usher when he shows you to your seat. And if you're watching at home, you're sitting for so long that when you finally do get up, you fall down because your legs have gone numb.
In their last contract Big East refs insisted on getting paid by the hour. Larry Lembo's time card is thicker than the Congressional Record. After most Big East games the network is so pressed for time there's no postgame show, they just go straight to the national anthem. I'm sure you've heard the announcers say, "Immediately following the conclusion of tonight's game, stay tuned for 'NBC at Sunrise.' "
I mean, really. You're familiar with time-lapse photography, where they can compress the 12 hours it takes for a flower to bloom into 30 seconds? Well, the Big East has just the opposite effect. In just one game you can see the aging process acutely. Before the start of Friday's game, Villanova's coach, Rollie Massimino, not only had a full head of hair, it was black!
And yet most Big East coaches like the six-foul rule. Thompson does. So does Syracuse's Jim Boeheim: "It's the best rule in the game. I'm telling you, if 300 coaches had it for one year, 290 would vote to keep it." Boeheim said the reason is simple: "You can keep your best players on the floor, and they can be aggressive." And if that aggression leads to games that move monotonously from foul line to foul line like mechanical ducks in a shooting gallery? "Who cares?" Boeheim asked. "Only sportswriters care. Fans don't care. We have 30,000 people coming to every game. We haven't lost any fans. They're happy to see marquee players like Alonzo Mourning, Malik Sealy and Dave Johnson stay in the game."
Still, Boeheim felt the Big East ought to go back to the same rule as the rest of college basketball -- if only to seek a level field for the NCAA tournament. "The rest of the country isn't going to come over to us, so we have to go back to them," he said. ("That's easy for him to say," countered BC's O'Brien, "now that he doesn't have Derrick Coleman and Billy Owens anymore.")
A return to five fouls might well cut down on the time the glamour players get, but coaches don't think it will have any effect on the total number of fouls in Big East games. Everyone knows the way the game is played here: full contact karate, and if you don't need an ambulance, stop whining.
One sensible way to cut down the number of fouls is to shorten the shot clock, and thereby remove the necessity to foul to get the ball back. The new two-shot foul rule after 10 fouls per half hasn't caused a dent in a foul total that's approaching the national debt. "The rule is garbage," sneered Carlesimo. "It doesn't make a difference." And Boeheim agreed. "I know if I'm down 10 points, I'm going to foul every play -- even if it's four shots -- because I'm trying to win." So, welcome to Agatha Christie's favorite tournament, the Big East, basketball most foul.