When you are 73-year-old Larry Brown, who began his head coaching career more than four decades ago, you think you know a charge when you see one. And in one game this season, the SMU coach witnessed what he believed was a clear charge and made that known to the official, one Brown greatly respects.
Brown remembered the official, whom Brown declined to name, turning toward the coach and saying, "Larry, you know there are no charges anymore."
The charge can be one of the biggest game-changing plays in college basketball. It can swiftly turn momentum, abruptly ending a prime scoring opportunity. All Iowa State fans remember Ohio State's Aaron Craft drawing a controversial and critical charge in the waning moments of last year's third-round NCAA tournament game.
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Though not extinct, the charge this season has become a rarely seen call. During this three-week NCAA tournament, players will barrel toward the basket, and a defensive player will slide over, plant his feet and brace for a collision. But now coaches know that when an official blows his whistle, the call more than likely will go against the defender.
During the offseason, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel adopted significant officiating rule changes, including enforcing a different interpretation of the block-charge call. Beginning this season, secondary defenders had to have their feet planted and be firmly established before the offensive player begins his upward motion to shoot or pass. If that doesn't occur, the collision should result in a foul on the defender.
Several coaches said they dramatically deemphasized taking charges in practice this season. The play, which occurs in virtually every game, occurs in a split second. Mike Davis, the Texas Southern coach, called it the hardest call in college basketball. And in this NCAA tournament, coaches know that the block-charge call will almost certainly always favor offenses.
"I think kids are afraid to even try to take a charge now," Texas coach Rick Barnes said.
Many coaches applaud the officiating change because it was intended to increase scoring and reduce the risk of injuries that could occur from collisions near the basket. But others point to players such as Marquette's Chris Otule, a big man with a limited offensive skill set who found a niche by sacrificing his body to take charges.
"You have a completely selfless 6-foot-10, 270-pound kid who will rotate over and stand in front of a guard and fall down," Marquette assistant Brad Autry said. "He will take it directly in the chest. And because you want more scoring, you are going to discourage that? That's a good rule?
"He has gotten some calls, but it's frustrating. Don't modify the charge-block rule. That is what college basketball is about. That is why people watch it instead of the NBA."
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Brad Underwood, the Stephen F. Austin coach, said he has deemphasized it in practice and changed how he rotates defensively because of the new interpretation. And he doesn't like it.
"I am personally an old-school guy," said Underwood, the former associate head coach at Kansas State. "We had a guy at Kansas state, Will Spradling, who might have led the free world in charges his first two years. It allowed him to play. It allows an undersized big man to play who can't get up and block shots. There's other ways to increase scoring that don't jeopardize the purity of the game."
Coaches vary on how much taking charges is a specific skill, a talent that some players master. When asked whether this new interpretation diminishes a specific skill that some players possess, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall paused, searching for the right words.
"Maybe," he said. "That is what I'll say."
Marshall said the Shockers primarily have shot blockers rather than players who work on taking charges. He said it is a dangerous play for a secondary defender to move over and slide underneath an offensive player who is driving to the basket.
"They are trying to get scoring up," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. "And it was an adjustment. There are a lot of teams that pride themselves on getting in there and taking charges. That's one of the most important stats you look at. All of it now benefits the offense, and ultimately I think it will be good for the game."
It is possible to still draw charges, though it's rare.
"If you are there, they will still call a charge," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. "But you had better be there in position. None of this running around and trying to time it up and fall down. There were times these guys were diving, and three cheerleaders were getting killed on every drive to the basket. So I really applaud the NCAA on addressing that particular area."
Iowa State guard DeAndre Kane was called for a charge in the Big 12 championship game against Baylor and also earlier in the tournament against Kansas State. Kane told USA TODAY Sports that he thought those calls were supposed to favor the offense this season.
"Coach told me go the other way, don't react to the refs," he said. "I'm trying to do a better job with that. You can't say, 'Hey, ref, can you change the call?'"
On Feb. 12, Washington's Desmond Simmons slid into the driving lane, planted his feet and waited for Stanford's Chasson Randle to crash into him. The charge call, which came with 5.3 seconds left, was the decisive play in Washington's 64-60 victory.
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Perhaps the most memorable charge call of the season came Feb. 22 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Syracuse's C.J. Fair was called for a controversial charge in the waning moments of a loss at Duke, a call that prompted coach Jim Boeheim to run onto the court in protest, earning him two technical fouls and an ejection.
Len Elmore, the television analyst and former Maryland standout, said North Carolina was the best team at taking charges. Then Duke started to take a lot of charges, he said, which was compensation for not having a lot of shot blockers.
"When Josh Hairston comes into the game, a guy drives to the basket, he is not going after the shot," Elmore said. "He is trying to step because he knows he can't block the shot. They don't have shot blockers on that team."
Elmore said most shot-blockers – such as Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein – will go after every shot. While he played, Elmore used that to his advantage because guys would go right into his chest. The first time he would take a charge. The next time, the player would take off a step early to avoid the charge, and that amount of room would allow him to block the shot.
"Roy Williams still today says I was the best at doing that," Elmore said. "That was part of the mind game, but I am surprised guys today have not figured it out."
The new interpretation of the block-charge call was also expected to discourage defensive players from so-called flopping so they could get the charge call.
"Too many people were flopping," McCaffery said. "For whatever reason, there were an inordinate number of offensive foul calls. It just baffled me. I was like, 'How is that a charge? The guy was not there. He is not making a decent play. He is taking a flyer hoping he gets a call. Call a block and guys will stop doing that.' Well, that is what they are doing."
John Adams, the NCAA's coordinator of basketball officiating, said the new interpretation discourages flopping. "You're not getting that call, and now you are out of the play," Adams said.
Elmore said some players continue to flop, and with some success.
"They are out there," he said. "And some places you'll get the call."
Coaches said they addressed charges differently this season. Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said the staff didn't even talk about taking charges in practice, adding, "We talk about hands back and give ground. That's what the rules were designed to do."
Early in the season, Barnes said, he didn't think anyone would be called for a charge. But as the season has progressed, he has seen the call made. And Rob Lanier, Texas' associate head coach, said early in conference play there was a shift where officials were calling the charge the old way for a period of time.
For a sense of the decline in charging calls, analyst Ken Pomeroy compiled a chart for USA TODAY Sports examining non-steal turnovers. They include other various turnovers – such as bad passes, traveling or stepping out of bounds – but there is no reason why the frequency of those specific turnovers should change dramatically in any season. The change in how the block-charge call is interpreted, however, was expected to lead to fewer charges.
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In the previous 11 seasons, teams committed non-steal turnovers on 12% of their offensive possessions during the first few weeks of those seasons. During the first few weeks of this season, teams committed non-steal turnovers on fewer than 10% of their offensive possessions.
But over the past 11 seasons, as each season progressed, the percentage of non-steal turnovers incrementally decreased week to week until it reached 10% in late February of those seasons. And this season it stood at roughly 10% in late February as well. It has evened out.
"If you were actually charting the number of blocks vs. charges, you'd probably have more blocks being called this year than charges," Adams said. "But I have seen far fewer opportunities for referees to have to make the call. The collision play is down. The risk-reward ratio has changed for the defensive player ... It is so hard to legally draw the charge."
As the second-round of the NCAA tournament erupts across the country today, there promises to be dramatic finishes, head-scratching upsets and decisive collisions near the basket. An official will blow a whistle, only this year coaches and players have a good idea which way the call will go.
"Just get there and stand your ground, but there's no point in going down, really, as a defender," Oklahoma assistant Steve Henson said. "There were certain guys who would stick their nose in there and take them. And it was a big play. Now when in doubt, it's a block."
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