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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI : When Going Gets Rough, Hogs Will Keep Fouling


The coaches won't come right out and say it, but the inferences are clear.

Arkansas--how do you put this tactfully?-- massages the rules during a game. And all because the NCAA outlawed the Razorbacks' favorite defensive tactic--the beloved Arkansas hand-check.

Nobody used the hand-check better than the Razorbacks. They poked, they pushed, they pressured. Any closer and it would have been called a skin graft.

But when the hand-check was legislated out of the game during the off-season, Arkansas didn't know what to do. The Razorbacks tried ignoring the new rule, but the referees didn't. In the opener against Massachusetts, Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson nearly suffered permanent ear damage, what with all the whistles that were blown.

In all, there were 31 fouls called against the Razorbacks last November at the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic. Not every foul was for hand-checking, but there were enough to send the Minutemen to the free-throw line 50 times and Arkansas point guard Corey Beck into serious depression.

"Last year, I was the worst at hand-checking," Beck said. "I had to adjust to it, but I did."

Relatively speaking, Beck is right. Arkansas' foul totals averaged in the low 20s for the rest of the regular season, but as the NCAA tournament began, the numbers moved up. Twenty-three fouls against Texas Southern, 26 against Syracuse, but then back down to 20 against Memphis and 22 against Virginia.

What does it all mean? Not much until you listen to Virginia Coach Jeff Jones, or Richardson, or Memphis Coach Larry Finch. That's when it becomes apparent that the Razorbacks, with their 12-deep roster, are content to push the officiating envelope.

In other words, hack and take your chances. It isn't illegal, but. . . .

"Arkansas is a heavier, bigger, stronger team, (with) more depth," Jones said, when asked to handicap Saturday's Final Four semifinal game between North Carolina and the Razorbacks. "Quite honestly, right now, I would say the key to the game is how it's officiated and nothing else. North Carolina could shoot 40 free throws . . . 50 free throws if the officials don't get bored."


Jones, whose muscular team was worn down by Arkansas' pressure defense in the Midwest Regional final, comes from the Atlantic Coast Conference, where the play is, uh, more gentlemanly than say, the Big Ten or the Big East. Only Clemson plays a true black-and-blue style, mostly because first-year Coach Rick Barnes came from Providence and the Tigers didn't have much talent.

But Arkansas has both skill and muscle. The Razorbacks also have a general disdain for the softer, gentler rules. Just ask Finch, who was livid after a last-second hand-check call against his team help cost the Tigers a regional semifinal victory against Arkansas. Afterward, Finch said his players were "mugged all night" by the Razorbacks. The accusation was seconded by Tiger guard Mingo Johnson, who said, "They checked us like that the whole game."

Even after making the necessary deductions for sour grapes, Jones, Finch and Johnson are worth listening to. The trend, as they see it, is for Arkansas to keep fouling until someone blows a whistle. With the team's depth, it's not a bad gamble. And seriously, what officiating crew wants to be known as the one that called 30 or 40 fouls in a Final Four game?

"All I know is that we're going to play the way we've played all year," Richardson said.

That isn't exactly true. According to Richardson, it wasn't until an 18-point home loss against Alabama Jan. 24 that the Razorbacks quit with the nice-guy routine.

"We were afraid to attack, to pressure, to do the things that we do well," Richardson said. "When we lost to Alabama, I said, 'That's enough. Foul out of every game.' "

A strategy was born.

As for Saturday's game, keep a close watch on Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith and his conversations with the referees. Trust us, Smith won't get bored. He'll remind the referees of every Arkansas poke and push.


Dug up those pre-NCAA tournament predictions. The pitiful review:


First round--7-1. Done in by Villanova gag-a-thon against Old Dominion. Second round--2-2. Had Villanova winning and also figured Alabama's athleticism would be too much for Oklahoma State. That was some pretty good thinking. Regional semifinals--0-2. In the immortal words of Bill Murray in "Stripes": "And then, depression set in." Wake Forest doesn't make it past Goober and the rest of his buddies down at the Oklahoma State fillin' station. I also have Villanova over Massachusetts. Regional final--0-1. But with a feeble asterisk. I told you UMass' lack of guard depth would doom it. Of course, I didn't figure Oklahoma State to be the team to expose the weakness.


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