Forgrave: No, seriously — the NCAA just saved college hoops

Going into this college basketball season, everyone in the game knew the new fouling rules would require a period of adjustment.

The rationale for the rules went like this: Over the years, college basketball has gotten too rough, too physical, and the sport needed to go the way of the NBA. After all, this is a game intended to be about athletic skill, not just brute strength, but there had been a gradual, decades-long shift toward the acceptance of defensive tactics like putting two hands on the dribbler, or using an arm bar to slow a dribbler’s progress, or continually jabbing at the player with the ball. The sport came to value physical, hand-to-hand combat over physical ability.

It all came to a head during the 2011 national title game between UConn and Butler, when the teams combined to make only 26 percent of their shots in a 53-41 UConn win. It was perhaps the most boring consequential game in the history of James Naismith’s invention. Simply put, the game had become less fun.

When this season tipped off, officials were charged with enforcing new rules on the perimeter that would favor the offense – as well as a tweaked block-charge rule that would favor the offensive player driving with the ball. And we expected a few games like the season opener between Seton Hall and Niagara in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. That plodding game had 73 fouls and 102 free throws. One Seton Hall player, Sterling Gibbs, scored 17 of his team-leading 23 points from the free-throw line. It was the only non-overtime game in nearly 20 years of college basketball where each team attempted 50 or more free throws, and it was only 11 fouls short of the NCAA record for fouls in a game set by Arizona and Northern Arizona in 1953.

So is that what these new rules mean for college basketball – turning the sport into drawn-out free-throw shooting contests?

According to several heads of officiating, not at all.

“There have been (those games), but those are the exception,” Curtis Shaw, the coordinator of men’s basketball officials for the Big 12 Conference, told me. “But if you watch film of the games with an extravagant number of fouls, most of them have nothing to do with the new rules. … It’s just teams that want to play a very physical, aggressive style of basketball. And with these new rules, there’s a heightened awareness about contact in the post against cutters. And because of this heightened awareness, it lets us clean the game up like it’s supposed to be.”

And anecdotally, early returns show that these new rule changes are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do: Clean up the game. Increase scoring while decreasing physicality. Make the game more watchable, and more like what Naismith intended when he drew up his original 13 rules.

It’s almost as if these very specific rule changes have had more general consequences, where officials, players and coaches are all much more aware of a cultural change in the sport.

I spoke with dozens of Division I coaches over the offseason about the upcoming rule changes. Almost to a man, they thought this shift would be a positive for the game. Even Rick Pitino, whose national-title winning Louisville squad played as physical of a brand of defense as any, told me his team was just following the rules as they were enforced, and that these new rules that allow more freedom of movement are absolutely needed. And coaches like Pitino will adapt – indeed, most have already adapted.

Yes, coaches worried that early in the season you’d see never-ending foul-fests like that Niagara-Seton Hall game, but most assumed players and coaches would adjust quickly. If there was one refrain I heard from coaches all off season, it’s that they hoped the fouls that were called in November were still being called in conference season in February. If you want the rules to stay, you can’t revert back to the old style once the opponents are more familiar. It’s one thing to call Aaron Craft for a questionable block-charge against Morgan State, quite another when it’s against Michigan in the height of Big Ten play.

No numbers are available just yet on how the rule changes have affected the average number of fouls in each college game, or the average length of each contest. The NCAA hopes to crunch those numbers later this month once the organization has a significant sample size – about the first 1,000 games of the season.

A guess? Scoring will likely be up significantly, while total fouls and game times will be up only slightly. Mission accomplished, with more room to improve.

“The rule changes made back in May have had a very positive effect on the game,” John Adams, the NCAA national coordinator of officials, told me recently. “I’m seeing many more athletic plays, more blocked shots, some pretty clean drives to the basket. I’m watching defenders having to make a choice on the block-charge or take a shot. Certainly there’s been more freedom of movement. The game had gotten too rough.”

This is where the “old school” basketball types, the ones who are proponents of “big boy basketball,” cry foul. Why would we sissify such a great game? Why should the refs determine the style of how the game is played? We love college basketball just the way it is – it doesn’t need to go the way of the NBA!

This is, of course, a canard. Find me one of Naismith’s original rules that allows mugging a ball-handler, or placing a forearm shiver on a dribbler, or at the last possible moment sliding under a driver to take a charge. There aren’t any. Look back at the national title game between Magic and Bird in 1979 and see how physical the game was back then. Heck, look back just 15 or 20 years and see how much the physicality has gotten out of hand since then.

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What we’ve seen this first month is undeniably a step in the right direction. Players are guarding with their feet instead of their forearms. They’re playing smarter defense instead of just more physical defense. It’s been a wholesale change of mindset for thousands of college officials.

“Basketball wasn’t supposed to be a physical sport,” Shaw said. “James Naismith invented basketball for football players to get physical exercise in the winter, not to run into each other. And this is a way faster learning curve than we expected. I thought it wouldn’t be until conference season (when players and referees had fully adjusted). We already have such a great grasp of it, teams have adjusted, now we’re just tweaking it. We just need to be sure we don’t penalize the defense when the offense initiates contact.”

Has it been perfect? Of course not. There have been a few horror show games like the Niagara-Seton Hall game that opened the season. There have been no shortage of coaches who’ve gone apoplectic courtside when their team has been called for a foul that they thought wasn’t one. Villanova coach Jay Wright told me the hardest adjustment has been with the new block-charge rule; since referees are expected to call more blocks with the more offense-friendly rules, Wright believes referees have swayed to calling almost everything a block.

“The referees are given a responsibility and they’re being evaluated in a really difficult way,” Wright said. “There’s no other way to do it. They’re being given the responsibility to change the game, and they’re doing it. They’re doing a pretty good job. We’ve been playing the game a certain way, and now the refs are charged with changing that. Any time there’s a change like that, it’s difficult.”

For anyone complaining about horror-show games that have no flow and too many fouls, be patient. This is a much-needed wholesale cultural change in college hoops.

“It’s not perfect,” Adams told me. “All the wrinkles are not worked out yet. But be patient. Over time we’ll deliver a better product for the fans, the broadcast partners, the players, and coaches will adapt and change. They’ll have to get on board. Freedom of movement is here to stay.”

I believe him on two counts: First of all, that the change is happening. And more importantly, that the change is a good thing.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter Aaron Craft for a questionable block-charge against Morgan State, quite another when it’s against Michigan in the height of Big Ten play.

No numbers are available just yet on how the rule changes have affected the average number of fouls in each college game, or the average length of each contest. The NCAA hopes to crunch those numbers later this month once the organization has a significant sample size – about the first 1,000 games of the season.

A guess? Scoring will likely be up significantly, while total fouls and game times will be up only slightly. Mission accomplished, with more room to improve.

“The rule changes made back in May have had a very positive effect on the game,” John Adams, the NCAA national coordinator of officials, told me recently. “I’m seeing many more athletic plays, more blocked shots, some pretty clean drives to the basket. I’m watching defenders having to make a choice on the block-charge or take a shot. Certainly there’s been more freedom of movement. The game had gotten too rough.”

This is where the “old school” basketball types, the ones who are proponents of “big boy basketball,” cry foul. Why would we sissify such a great game? Why should the refs determine the style of how the game is played? We love college basketball just the way it is – it doesn’t need to go the way of the NBA!

This is, of course, a canard. Find me one of Naismith’s original rules that allows mugging a ball-handler, or placing a forearm shiver on a dribbler, or at the last possible moment sliding under a driver to take a charge. There aren’t any. Look back at the national title game between Magic and Bird in 1979 and see how physical the game was back then. Heck, look back just 15 or 20 years and see how much the physicality has gotten out of hand since then.

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What we’ve seen this first month is undeniably a step in the right direction. Players are guarding with their feet instead of their forearms. They’re playing smarter defense instead of just more physical defense. It’s been a wholesale change of mindset for thousands of college officials.

“Basketball wasn’t supposed to be a physical sport,” Shaw said. “James Naismith invented basketball for football players to get physical exercise in the winter, not to run into each other. And this is a way faster learning curve than we expected. I thought it wouldn’t be until conference season (when players and referees had fully adjusted). We already have such a great grasp of it, teams have adjusted, now we’re just tweaking it. We just need to be sure we don’t penalize the defense when the offense initiates contact.”

Has it been perfect? Of course not. There have been a few horror show games like the Niagara-Seton Hall game that opened the season. There have been no shortage of coaches who’ve gone apoplectic courtside when their team has been called for a foul that they thought wasn’t one. Villanova coach Jay Wright told me the hardest adjustment has been with the new block-charge rule; since referees are expected to call more blocks with the more offense-friendly rules, Wright believes referees have swayed to calling almost everything a block.

“The referees are given a responsibility and they’re being evaluated in a really difficult way,” Wright said. “There’s no other way to do it. They’re being given the responsibility to change the game, and they’re doing it. They’re doing a pretty good job. We’ve been playing the game a certain way, and now the refs are charged with changing that. Any time there’s a change like that, it’s difficult.”

For anyone complaining about horror-show games that have no flow and too many fouls, be patient. This is a much-needed wholesale cultural change in college hoops.

“It’s not perfect,” Adams told me. “All the wrinkles are not worked out yet. But be patient. Over time we’ll deliver a better product for the fans, the broadcast partners, the players, and coaches will adapt and change. They’ll have to get on board. Freedom of movement is here to stay.”

I believe him on two counts: First of all, that the change is happening. And more importantly, that the change is a good thing.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.