Scoring is down in college basketball. This is well known. In the 2012-2013 season, Division I teams averaged 67.5 points per game, the lowest per game total since before the shot clocks were turned on in 1985.
So did the NCAA do to boost offense? Last Thursday, the NCAA Men's Basketball Rules Committee proposed several sensible recommendations to help.
After extensive discussions, the rules committee made the following recommendations:
Alter the block/charge rule so that defenders who move into the path of an offensive player once he has started upward movement to pass or shoot the ball will be called for a blocking foul.
Strict enforcement of already existing rules on fouls related to: defensive players with a hand or forearm on an opponent; with two hands on an opponent; who continually jab by extending arms; or who uses an arm bar to impede an opponent.
(Source: USA Today, May 9, 2013).
With these proposals, the NCAA rules committee is trying to address two heavy areas of criticism during the most recent basketball season. One change adjusts the requirements for drawing an offensive foul, essentially making them more difficult to earn.
The second recommendation is intended to help the offense along by encouraging officials to call more fouls, particularly off the ball.
What could these changes mean for scoring?
With increasingly sophisticated defenses, and increasingly physical play, the college game has bogged down, much like the profession game did a decade ago. When that happened, the NBA made rules changes that cut down on hand checking, and clarified blocking calls.
The results of the changes in NBA rules were significant. In the 2003-4 season, the year prior to the changes, NBA teams scored an average of 1.03 points per possession. The following season, with the rule changes now in place, NBA teams averaged 1.06 points per possession. Effective field goal percentages increased from 47 percent to 48 percent, turnover rates dropped slightly, and free throw attempts increased from 24 per game to 26 per game.
If the proposed changes have their intended effect in college basketball, we should see a similar shift. There will be a few more free throws every game, and scoring from the floor should open up.
How will these changes affect the way the game looks?
Part of what makes me so happy about these proposed changes is that both could have a significant effect on the way the college game looks. By making it harder to draw a charge, and by limiting how much defenders can hold and bump cutters, and bump in the low post, these changes have the potential to open up the paint and make play more free-flowing around the basket. If this happens, it will be a win for spectators.
Cutting down on offensive fouls called against players driving the basket will reward players that attack the basket, and will open up play in the area in front of the rim for the offense. From the spectator's perspective, this is exactly what the NCAA should do; plays at the rim tend to be among the most exciting in the game.
The block-charge call is still going to be controversial. Many of these calls end up being 50/50 calls, and this rule change will do nothing to change that. The block-charge call is one of the most difficult calls in basketball, and if anything the addition of the restricted area has made it even more difficult to make. In real-time, the referee must determine if the defender's feet are outside of the restricted area, and if the defender established position prior to the offensive player leaving the floor. Now, instead of determining if the offensive player has left the floor, the official will have to determine if the offensive player has started his upward motion. The call is still going to be difficult to make.
But the goal shouldn't necessarily be to help make this call easier for the officials; the goal should be to open up offense by opening up the paint. To do this, a higher proportion of these block-charge calls need to end up being called on the defense, rather than on the offense. This rule change has a chance of making that happen.
The second recommendation isn't a rule change; it is simply the rules committee encouraging officials to call fouls more tightly. If the NCAA is able to cut down on holding players off the ball, and on bumping and redirecting players cutting through the lane, it should further open up play near the basket.
What are some of the other potential consequences of these changes?
The downside of both of these changes is that they will likely lead to more fouls. This will be particularly true as players and coaches adjust, and will probably remain true for some time. But from my perspective, calling a few extra fouls is a good tradeoff for opening up the middle of the floor for the offense, and rewarding teams and players that attack the basket.
I am most curious to see how these changes affect the tactics used by teams on offense and defense. College basketball offense is becoming increasingly homogenous, with more and more teams basing their offense around high ball screens; even John Beilein and the Michigan Wolverines moved away from motion offense and towards ball screening in the last couple of seasons -- although Trey Burke probably had as much to do with this change as the way defenses play.
If defenders are allowed to grab players running off of screens, and are allowed to bump and aggressively redirect cutters without consequence, offenses that emphasize cutting and screening away from the ball become less attractive. Eliminating these defensive tactics likely will gradually shift college basketball away from the increasingly homogenous style that we currently see.
I wonder if these rule changes might help to bring back that nearly extinct animal, the 2-3 zone. From my perspective, this isn't necessarily a good thing, but I could see it happening. One of the main advantages of a 2-3 zone is that it helps to cut down on fouling by the defense; zone teams tend to foul much less than man-to-man teams. In a world where the defense is limited in its ability to redirect cutters and physically defend against screens, and where more fouls are called, I could see more teams adopting a zone defense to shift the game to a different style.
And what will be the consequences for teams that play extremely physical styles of defense? If the officials truly implement what the rules committee is recommending, there are certain teams in particular that will be interesting to watch. I recommend everyone keep an eye on the Butler Bulldogs. No program is more often associated with aggressive and physical defense than the team led by Brad Stevens. Stevens is a smart guy, and I am sure he will adapt, but I wonder how much of the Hinkle magic is due to the way that Butler has managed to maximize just what the officials will allow them to get away with.
One widely discussed rule change that wasn't made, and why it was the right decision
It seems that everyone has had a plan to fix college basketball, and one of the most commonly proposed fixes has been reducing the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 seconds. There have even been proposals to shorten the shot clock to 24 seconds, to bring things in line with the NBA.
The rules committee wisely chose not to do this.
If the objective is to help shift the balance of power towards the offense, then a rule change that actually helps the defense isn't the direction that you want to head. If the goal were just to raise scoring on a per game basis, then a shorter shot clock probably would do that, simply because it will lead to more possessions, and more shots, per game. But many of those added shots won't really be good ones. Adding another five or ten poor shots per game isn't going to help the offense, and it won't make the game more fun. I can't imagine that is what anyone really wants.
Will this work?
All in all, I am pleased with these changes, as they at least attempt to deal with what I view are the biggest aesthetic problems facing college basketball. But that doesn't mean that they will work.
There is always the worry of unintended consequences. One example: the various rules over the years used by the NBA to outlaw zone defenses led to coaches adopting dull isolation tactics on offense. This was a huge problem for the NBA, which the league eventually corrected when it threw out the illegal defense rules in 2001. People forget just how awful and unwatchable NBA games could be in the 1990s. No one wants to pay good money to watch Charles Barkley or Mark Jackson back his man down from the wing while the eight other players in the game stand on the opposite side of the court. The league wisely fixed this, and subsequently cut down on physical play. Now, the NBA game is about as entertaining as it has been in my lifetime.
Another potential hitch in these recommendations: the officials have to implement them. This might not happen. Or it might happen non-uniformly across college hoops. In fact, there will almost certainly be differences game-to-game and conference-to-conference in the way that these changes are put into place.
Still, while we don't know that these changes will work, they represent a good effort to move the college game in a better direction. I am already excited for the 2013-2014 season.