MILWAUKEE — Before Friday night’s season opener, Buzz Williams told his team he wanted them to make 44 free throws, 22 in each half.
“I was over-exaggerating a little bit, but maybe I wasn’t,” Williams said. “We should have made 44 free throws.”
Welcome to the new version of college basketball — at least for now.
As the NCAA begins to crackdown on hand-check fouls, college teams must adjust. If the opener was any indication of what’s to come, the learning process is going to be slow and painful.
Marquette set a school record with 55 free-throw attempts and made 33, making up for a 3-of-17 shooting performance in the second half of a 63-56 victory over Southern. A total of 53 fouls were called Friday night, dragging the time of game well over two hours.
What used to be a point of emphasis in the rulebook is now a rule: Use your hands on defense and get called for a foul. Combine the officials looking for the call and players not used to the action being called and there’s kinks to be worked out.
“I’ve told our kids at our scrimmages and I mentioned it again tonight, those officials are just like us,” Williams said. “That’s just their mode of trying to make a living. When your boss says write a 1,500 word blog, you write a 1,500 word blog.
“It’s not an emphasis anymore, it’s a rule. It goes back to how we were all taught to play, you play with your feet and not your hands. It’s fairly explicit now. When your hands get involved, it’s a foul.”
Up by as many 14 points in the second half, Marquette simply couldn’t pull away from Southern, an NCAA tournament team from a year ago. The Golden Eagles shot 52.6 percent in the first half but made just three field goals in a second half that severely lacked rhythm.
Friday night’s opener had no flow, especially in the second half. As soon as one team would gather a bit of steam, consecutive fouls mixed with media timeouts would kill the progress.
“I think it was because of the rules,” Marquette forward Davante Gardner, who scored a game-high 25 points, said. “You can’t put your hands on anybody. We talked about it before the game and said ‘Play back some, don’t get up on them like you did last year.’ “
The Golden Eagles were called for 19 fouls, not an alarming number. But Southern’s 34 personal fouls allowed Marquette to control most of the game despite a putrid display from the field in the second half.
Gardner himself made more free throws than his team had made field goals, just one of the stats that made Friday’s box score a puzzling one to look at. Marquette won despite missing 20 free throws and making three free goals in the second half.
Was this an aberration or a sign of things to come with the new rule? Williams feels only time will tell.
“If you studied the 100 games that were played in the first weekend of the 2012-13 season, what was the average number of fouls?” Williams said. “I don’t know that numbers. I don’t know if that’s way too high, but it’s high.”
Marquette has been preparing for the rule change by having officials at practice at least once a week for the past month. The officials aren’t always Division I level, meaning they are usually a bit overanxious to call fouls.
In the end, Marquette may be helped by that more than anything.
“When we bring them in, they are really excited to be there, number one,” Williams said. “Number two, they are getting paid more to officiate in (Marquette’s practice gym) than the games they are officiating. They come fully in their garb and they are calling everything because they are fired up.”
Between the lack of flow and the school-record free-throw attempts, the Golden Eagles’ performance Friday night is hard to judge. Southern is a talented mid-major team and took top-seeded Gonzaga to the brink of an upset in last year’s NCAA tournament.
Williams knew the Jaguars weren’t going to come into the BMO Harris Bradley Center and lay down, as he felt Southern was looking to prove it can compete with anyone in the country. While the product on the court wasn’t pretty, Marquette survived a team very capable of an upset.
“It’s not your typical home opener at the high-major level,” Williams said. “I hope in time, I think it will end up being a really good RPI win.”