Andy Kennedy/Petre Thomas

New emphasis on freedom of movement leading to alarmingly high number of foul calls in college basketball

Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy was visibly frustrated, even if he hid it well.

The Rebels had just pulled off a come-from-behind win over UMass to improve to 2-0. And they did it the hard way, using an 11-0 run over the final three minutes to overcome an eight-point deficit. Sebastian Saiz scored on a tip-in with 3.3 seconds remaining.

Kennedy didn’t take much, if any, issue with the Rebels’ performance. Sure, he acknowledged areas to clean up, including turnovers, defense and missed shots at the rim. But Kennedy has coached enough high-major basketball to know wins are precious, especially early in the season when teams are finding out who they are and what their identity will be moving forward. 

So when you get a win, no matter how razor-thin the margin of victory, you pocket it and move on. The next game is but a handful of days away. 

The vast majority of Kennedy’s postgame press conference was dedicated to the 57 — 57! — fouls called in the 90-88 final. Ole Miss was whistled for 28. Each of the Rebels’ five starters had at least three fouls, and sixth man Terence Davis fouled out in 12 minutes.

“They’re following the mandate,” Kennedy said of the referees' penchant for calls. “We have to adjust, both teams. Basketball has to adjust. If this is how you’re going to call it, we have to adjust. We had foul trouble, which really throws you off. You have no rotations whatsoever. I think I had every guard on the floor at one time had four fouls. It makes you very tentative.”

Sebastian Saiz/Petre Thomas

College basketball has mandated freedom of movement for its players. In turn, referees, at least through the season’s first few weeks, are holding strictly to the letter of the law.

Game flow, rhythm and style of play have been negatively effected as a result. No longer can players put their hands on opposing ball-handlers, even in the post. Not even a few years ago, an arm bar, for example, could be used, but now the hands have become indicators of fouls, as Saiz learned the hard way in a season-opening win over UT-Martin.

Saiz fouled out in 17 minutes. He totaled all of five points and three rebounds. As a team, the Rebels, who barely hung on, winning by a narrow 86-83 margin, were called for 24 finals. Fifty-three were called overall. Saiz was able to stay on the floor against UMass, finishing with a 22-point, 19-rebound final line. 

But he had to adjust how he played. He wasn’t the first to do so, and he won’t be the last.

“Last game it was those small bigs,” Saiz said. “They weren’t as physical as the ones (for UMass). They’d call those tick-tack fouls every time you hit somebody, bumped somebody to get a rebound. It’s giving them an advantage to the weaker players. I think we’ve just got to adjust to it.”

Ole Miss is in the U.S. Virgin Islands for Paradise Jam. The Rebels will take on Oral Roberts (1-1) today at 2 p.m. CT on CBS Sports Network. Ole Miss last participated in Paradise Jam in 2011, posting a 2-1 mark. The Rebels are a perfect 8-0 all-time against the Paradise Jam field, including a 4-0 record against Oral Roberts.

But leaving the mainland doesn’t mean escaping the new foul-call mandate. No, the mandate, as far as Ole Miss can tell, is here to stay. Maybe the calls will loosen up as the calendar turns to December. But for now, the impetus is on the Rebels to adjust to life inside of it.

“It’s going to give us a chance to reset who we are,” Kennedy said of the tournament. “We’ve got a little bit of reset from a mentality standpoint and from some of our mechanics. I know what I’ve seen (in practice) I wish you guys could see. I see a team that is much grittier, much grimier, much tougher than what I’m seeing in these games. That’s got to improve or we're not going to be who we are, and that’s who we are and how we’ve got to play.”

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