Flagrant doesn’t mean accidental, unless an NCAA basketball rules committee is writing the definition.
That is the root of an issue Wichita State found itself in the middle of during last week’s NCAA Tournament wins over Pittsburgh and Gonzaga. The NCAA’s flagrant foul rule is affecting games in ways not intended, coaches say.
Adopted in 2011, the Flagrant 1 replaced the intentional foul and the Flagrant 2 replaced the previous flagrant foul. Coaches generally believe referees are applying the rule correctly.
It is the rule that is a problem — too imprecise and too harsh for a fast-moving, physical sport. It is designed to protect players from concussions and other injury caused by swinging elbows with evil intent. It is instead penalizing, in some cases, normal basketball plays.
“The rule that we have in place is a rule that I think we’re going to need to clean up,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said.
The Shockers helped start the debate on Thursday.
WSU’s Ron Baker took an elbow from Pittsburgh’s Lamar Patterson, earning two free throws and possession for his team. Later, WSU lost a timeout when Carl Hall asked for a review and referees saw nothing flagrant. Saturday against Gonzaga, referees whistled WSU’s Ehimen Orukpe for an elbow to the face of Kelly Olynyk while boxing out for a rebound.
The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel wanted a new way of defining fouls “deemed more severe than a common foul.” It described the changes this way in 2011:
• An example of a Flagrant 1 foul would be when a player swings an elbow and makes illegal, non-excessive contact with an opponent above the shoulders. The team whose player was struck would receive two free throws and possession of the ball. Previously, this type of foul was called an intentional foul. The committee wanted to move away from the word “intentional,” because a player’s intent was never the point of the rule.
• An example of a Flagrant 2 foul would be when a player swings an elbow excessively and makes contact with an opponent above the shoulders. In this case, the player who threw the elbow would be ejected from the game, and the other team would receive two free throws and the ball.
• The NCAA rulebook states: "There can be incidental contact with the elbow above or below the shoulders; swinging of the elbow is required for the foul to be classified as a Flagrant 1 or 2 foul. A Flagrant 1 foul results in two free throws and the ball awarded to the offended team. Flagrant 2 fouls are more serious and violent and result in automatic rejection from the game.”
“The officials are just doing their job, and they’re doing a great job of trying their best to administer a really, really, really bad rule,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We, all of us, media make a big deal of it, coaches need to make a big stink about it. We need to get rid of the rule.”
The flagrant-foul rules aren’t limited to elbows, as WSU discovered during its dramatic win over Illinois State on Feb. 17. After a review, referees hit Illinois State’s Jackie Carmichael with a flagrant foul for a kick, a call that started WSU on an 8-0 run in the final 40 seconds to win 68-67.
Patterson’s foul on Baker, in one of the tournament’s early games, provided TBS analyst Doug Gottlieb a reason to bash the rule. According to USA Today, referees called eight flagrant fouls during the tournament’s first 20 games. They reviewed four others without finding a flagrant foul.
“This is the dumbest thing we do in basketball,” Gottlieb said during the review. “It’s not a foul. It’s not a purposeful elbow. It’s a guy driving to the basket and his elbow happens to hit Baker in the mouth. That’s a basketball move. It’s not a foul. It’s not a flagrant foul. And we’re wasting time.”
NCAA coordinator of officials John Adams told USA Today the number of flagrant fouls did not seem inappropriate.
"We’ve reviewed every single one of them," Adams said. "We feel like every single one of them was applied consistently and accurately against the rule."
While WSU didn’t make the most of the foul on Baker, Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said his team reacted poorly to the call. The Shockers led 23-21 with 1:20 remaining in the first half. Baker made one of two free throws and then turned the ball over when his inbound pass went out of bounds. After a Pitt turnover, WSU scored and led 26-21 at halftime.
Marshall learned early in the season to take advantage of those situations.
“I’m not a referee by any stretch of the imagination, but what I’ve told my players this year is if you get a legit elbow to the head, then you need to tell me,” he said. “If I don’t see it, I need to know about it if someone does that because the intent is to not to have people hitting others in the head with an elbow or whatever so you can get a concussions or your teeth knocked out or your eye orbit damaged.”
Orukpe’s flagrant came after a three-pointer by Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos, opening the door for a big swing. Olynyk made two free throws after the foul to give the Bulldogs a five-point possession and cut WSU’s lead to 26-19. Gonzaga missed a three-pointer with the possession and WSU responded with a three-pointer to limit the damage.
Regardless of who benefits, coaches seems united that the NCAA needs to make a change.
“Just get back to trust that an official can look at an elbow and see that it’s intentional and meant to harm and that should be two shots and the ball; and if it’s really, really bad, then kick the kid out,” Few said. “But you can’t play basketball without touching somebody in the face once in a while inadvertently, and I don’t think you should be punished for that.”
Creighton’s Doug McDermott, Evansville’s Colt Ryan, Illinois State’s Jackie Carmichael and Bradley’s Walt Lemon Jr. were named to the first team. Drake’s Ben Simons, Northern Iowa’s Anthony James and Tyler Brown of Illinois State joined Hall and Early on the second team.