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Has the Big Ten Lost Its Rugged Nature?

Some coaches believe the conference's trademark image of physical play is being ruined by officials calling tighter games.

January 26, 2003|From Associated Press

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Forget the body shots. Leave the shoulder pads in the locker room. The rough-and-tumble tactics that once ruled the Big Ten appear to be changing.

Some coaches say more whistles are being blown, and less pushing and shoving is permitted, altering the rugged image that has been the conference's trademark.

"The Big Ten is no longer a rough league based on the way games are being called," Illinois Coach Bill Self said.

Self isn't the only one complaining. Tom Izzo, the only Big Ten head coach with a national championship ring, and Ohio State's Jim O'Brien, who took the Buckeyes to the Final Four in 1999, also believe games are being called tighter.

Other coaches don't seem to mind. Gene Keady of Purdue and Mike Davis of Indiana both have said officials are making the proper calls, and Northwestern's Bill Carmody thinks the league actually is getting more physical.

But league officials acknowledge there has been a change in philosophy to clean things up.

Some of the differing opinions can be explained by the styles that teams prefer. Those that lack inside depth, such as Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern, want the rules strictly enforced. Those with strong inside games, such as Michigan State, Illinois and Ohio State, would rather officials let some things go.

"I think there have been a lot of really quick whistles," Izzo said. "I thought that's what made the Big Ten so good in the past was that they talked guys through some things. Now I think they are being threatened to call everything."

It was Izzo's teams of the late 1990s and the early part of this decade that turned an already physical league into a battle of the fittest. Michigan State had a dearth of big bodies and strong players, and Izzo even held practices with players in shoulder pads to put more emphasis on the rugged play. That led Michigan State to four straight league titles.

Self entered the Big Ten in 2001, the year after Michigan State won the national championship, and took the cue. The Illini have shared conference titles each of the last two seasons.

What coaches are seeing now, though, is a dramatic change. Rough play is out, athleticism is in, and anyone who dares tread on the Big Ten's old style better beware.

"In my opinion, since Christmas, they've tried to tighten things up," Self said. "They've been making more calls on what I call touch fouls."

Big Ten associate commissioner Rich Falk said there has been an emphasis on calling more fouls on screens and hand-checks, but that the conference is only following the NCAA's directive.

The original letter came last year. This season, coaches and conferences were sent a reminder after Christmas because, Falk said, officials stopped making the calls once the conference season began.

"They felt they needed to remind everyone to stay on the points of emphasis not only at the start of the year but throughout the year," Falk said.

The anecdotal evidence demonstrates the changes.

-- Self's team lost two road games last week, to Iowa and Indiana, when the Illini were called for a total of 50 fouls. That prompted Self's critical comments.

-- In a Michigan-Ohio State game, the constant whistles made it seem as if it were a volleyball game.

-- In last weekend's Michigan State-Minnesota game, the teams combined for 57 fouls and 70 free throws.

"You saw it called both ways, but there were so many calls that it made it no fun to play that game," Izzo said.

Davis disagrees, because the close calls helped his team.

Indiana uses a guard-heavy lineup and its inside game revolves around the play of George Leach and Jeff Newton -- two lean, athletic shot-blockers who have been prone to getting pushed around.

Davis has, at times, pleaded for more fouls and doesn't mind the impact it may have on the flow of a game -- so long as officials make the right calls.

"When you look at the tape, sometimes guys are pushing our guys with two hands," he said. "A foul is a foul, and I want it called close."

The larger problem may be the inconsistency of rules interpretations.

Three days after the Ohio State-Michigan contest, Wisconsin came to Columbus. Eleven fewer fouls were called, and O'Brien couldn't believe that after Badgers guard Devin Harris drew two early fouls, Wisconsin was not get called for another foul in the first half.

"Against Michigan, every touch, every little bump was called," O'Brien said. "Then against Wisconsin, nothing gets called."

League officials, however, insist that the officials are only trying to get things right.

"Clearly, the NCAA has directed and challenged all conferences to stay consistent with calling the points of emphasis," Falk said. "They may be calling them closer so the play's not as rough."

Self and other coaches believe the rugged play has helped the Big Ten in the postseason when fewer fouls are called. In the last four years, the Big Ten has had six teams reach the Final Four. Michigan State won the title in 2000, and last year Indiana made it to the national championship game before losing to Maryland 64-52.

But that doesn't mean anything goes, even in the Big Ten, a conference that once relished its reputation as a physical league.

"You ask Newton and Leach, they won't tell you that," Davis said, when asked if the Big Ten has become less physical. "They think this is most physical conference in the world."

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