Scoring in college basketball is about to make a comeback.
Advances in strength and conditioning and loosely officiated games that allowed players to physically direct their opponents to spots on the floor had turned a great game into football on wood. Athleticism had been trumped by brute force. Scoring plummeted, from an average of 76.7 points per game for all NCAA Division I teams in 1991 to 67.5 points last season. Yes, more than nine points a game.
Low-scoring, root-canal games had become the norm, not the exception. An exciting game had become boring, excruciating to watch at times. So, just like the NBA figured out a few years ago when its league-wide scoring average fell from into the 80s from a peak of around 120, the NCAA has reacted with an important rule change—not an emphasis, but a change—that prohibits the physicality that was tamping down offenses.
No longer can a defensive player keep a hand or a forearm on his opponent. Two hands will draw an immediate foul call. So will jabbing. And the dreaded arm bar has gone the way of short shorts and canvas shoes.
This is a good thing for the fans. For some coaches, perhaps not so much. But those coaches who taught their players to grab, push and hold, who ordered their strength coaches to bulk up players as though they were competing in Olympic power lifting, are going to have to alter their strategies. Basketball is supposed to be an athletic game.
This isn’t to suggest that strength training is bad for the game. It most certainly is not, because it gives a player certain advantages, all of them within the rules. But those advantages that many players were gaining that weren’t covered by the rules are now prohibited.
Remember. This is a rule, not an emphasis.
“We've had points of emphasis and guidelines from my 30 years of basketball,” said Chattanoogan Curtis Shaw, a veteran official who is now the coordinator of officials for the Big 12. “Coaches say you'll come out in November, December, and do a great job of calling it, and conference season hits and you don't call it anymore. It's just going to be the same.
“What I try to tell them is this is different. It's not a point of emphasis. It's not a guideline. They moved it from the back of the rulebook to the front. It is now written in Section 10 fouls.
Referees have been told this must be called all year long, because it's a rule. There is no judgment. If you do these things, it's a penalty.
“So I think that's been part of the coaches' angst. Do I change the way I coach? Do I change the way I play defense? And in January and February we're penalized. So we're trying to reassure them this is nationwide.”
Early-season games might not be pretty. Jake Bell, the Southeastern Conference’s new officials coordinator, said at the league’s media days two weeks ago, ““It’s going to be ugly. We could start off with 45 to 60 fouls a game.”
True, but coaches aren’t dumb. Once they realize the officials are serious about this, they’ll adapt.
"We'll get used to it, we'll adjust," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "Yeah, there will be some games that look like train wrecks in November and December for sure. But don't call it one way in November and December and when league play comes allow us to knock the crap out of each other again. Make sure it's the same."
Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose teams always play hard defensively, has already adjusted, and like Stallings, he hopes officiating will be consistent throughout the season. But he sees the good in the rule change.
"Right now when we play, we're picking up full-court and I say play the ball and if they touch somebody, I'm saying that's a foul," Calipari said. "So I hope I'm not screwing up by doing what they're telling me to do. Whatever you start, keep doing it. You make us change, you make the players change. It's better for the college game."
In a video summary of ESPN.com’s preseason Top 25 that began appearing on the website this week, analysts Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg speculated that Tennessee might have a tough time coping because of the physical, Purdue-style defense favored by coach Cuonzo Martin. But Martin hasn’t been worried in the least about the rule change.
“We play a physical brand of basketball and defend at arm’s length without fouling,” Martin said. “That’s the way we teach defense.”
So if officials hold their ground and whistle overly physical play out of the college game, what will be the result?
“Free-flowing, scoring, less physicality on the perimeter,” Shaw said at the Big 12 media day last week. “Allow our athletes, which are probably the greatest I've ever seen in my 30 years, to play basketball. … I've seen in what we've watched so far, it creates a lot more mid-range jump shots that right now we're not very good at. Our coaches will tell you, we don't want that shot. We're shooting 35 percent from 12 feet. We're shooting 34 percent from the 3-point line. Back up and shoot a 3 because we get more reward for it.
I think we want to see the mid-range game come back. If you're playing a softer man, if you're playing more zones, which may be a consequence, that is a game that's going to come back. So our ninth, 10th, 11th graders that we're recruiting now will go in the gym and practice the mid-range shot, practicing the scoring moves in the post as opposed to going into the weight room. So I think we'll get a lot more of the athleticism back in the game.”
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