College basketball teams averaged just 67.5 points per game last season, the lowest since 1951-52. Personal fouls, 17.68 per game, were the fewest since the NCAA began keeping statistics for Division I games in 1947-48.
Scoring peaked in the early 1970s (77.7 points per game) and was still 75 points per game during the 1993-94 season. It has gone down steadily over the last 20 years.
Offensive players were being impeded from moving about the court. Holding by defenders had somehow become acceptable.
If there was contact between an offensive player and a defender, the default call had become a charge. Players were scared to drive to the basket because defenders would just start falling down and whistles would blow.
College basketball had become this great spectacle where nobody wanted to face the reality that the games had become boring. It had become a game of weight training not skill. It was no longer the game everybody thought it was or wanted it to be. So they changed the rules to bring offense back into the game.
“What drove us to these rules changes was that the game had gotten way too physical and way too rough,” said John Adams, NCAA national coordinator of officials. “And this was in response to a great many of our stakeholders, whether it be coaches, the media, the fans, administrators, officials.”
The 2013 national championship game between Louisville and Michigan was a throwback to the 1970s when high-scoring, free-flowing games were commonplace, long before a shot clock or three-point shot. It was a reminder of what college basketball could be.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino talked about the state of the sport before the championship game and immediately after he became the first coach to win the championship at two schools. Many of the coaches understood the game had tilted too far in favor of the defense, that fouling had become a tactic, something you had to use if you were going to survive. But it wasn’t basketball.
So the NCAA rules committee took a hard look at the game and decided it was time to change it. They took guidelines on illegal tactics when guarding the ball and made them rules. The following is now specifically against the rules: 1. Placing and keeping a hand/forearm on opponent, 2. Putting two hands on opponent, 3. Continually jabbing by placing hand or forearm on opponent, 4. Using an arm bar to impede progress of the dribbler.
These are intended to get defenders to move their feet and stop using their arms and hands, to make the game less physical and create greater freedom of movement.
“Just putting your hands on somebody, they definitely started calling that more,” Saint Joseph’s senior shooting guard Langston Galloway said. “If you body somebody, they definitely call that. The rules are difficult to adjust to, but you have to adjust to it because, if not, you’ll be in foul trouble and out of the game.”
Galloway is a very good free-throw shooter, so does he like the way the game is being called?
“I get to the line more. It pretty much frees me up when they try to deny me or try to pressure me pretty hard.
“They’re calling it fair. They’re not letting you just go out and there and body slam each other, making it a wrestling match. They want to be a basketball game, want the offensive (player) to try to score and the defender play with his feet.”
Through two weeks of games, the officials have called more fouls because what was always a foul is now being called. Scoring is up.
“I’m seeing a better game,” Adams said. “I’m seeing athletes getting to make athletic plays without getting pinballed all over the court.”
Through the first 12 days of the season, Adams said he had seen seven games in person and 10 on television.
“Fifteen of the 17 games I’ve watched so far, I think the officiating has been spot on,” Adams said.
With the defensive contact rules becoming so specific, Adams said, “It’s a little bit more science, a little bit less art” for the officials.
The 58 personals called in Kansas’ opener against Louisiana-Monroe were the most in 22 years for a KU game. Michigan State scored 98 points against McNeese State by taking 81 shots and just five free throws.
There were 102 free-throw attempts, 73 fouls and six foulouts in the Seton Hall-Niagara game. Arizona beat Fairleigh Dickinson, 100-50, while committing just 13 fouls. Massachusetts beat Nebraska, 96-90. There were 61 personal fouls and 82 free throws.
There was thought that Louisville might get called for more fouls because of its pressure. In its first four games, Louisville was called for 66 fouls and still got 52 steals. Louisville apparently can play defense with its feet.
A defender trying to take a charge must be in legal guarding position when an offensive player with the ball begins his upward motion to shoot or pass. In other words, it is going to be (or should be) a block unless everybody in the building knows it is a charge.
“We have to tweak it to where everybody is not just taking off and drawing offensive fouls,” Pitino said after the championship game. “We’ve got to make it where 80 percent of those are blocks. Then we’ve got to create more freedom of movement.”
If dribblers know they are far less likely to be called for a charge when players start flopping and trying to con officials, they will be more likely to make a run at the rim and score.
“The reason behind it is to give officials more time to get the play right,” Adams said. “It’s a play that’s really been a bugaboo of ours for as long as I can remember the block/charge play. We’re doing incredibly well accuracy-wise on virtually every other play, but that block/charge play . . . Because it’s harder to (get into) legal defensive position, it’s made it much more risky to go in there and try to take the charge.”
And if those same dribblers are not impeded by hands and arms, they will have a chance to get off better shots and finish stronger near the basket.
“I was in favor of it and have been advocating it for years,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said of the changes in a preseason conference call. “I think our game has gotten away from us. We are in the same position now we were in the year 2000 or so where their game had turned into organized wrestling matches.”
La Salle coach John Gianinni isn’t quite sure what he thinks. He likes the game the way it has been, but understands the concern.
“The biggest factor about this season for every team in America is learning to play defense without fouling,” Giannini said. “The definition of a foul has completely changed.”
“It really seems there is a strong motive to change the way basketball is played and I think people are going to be very surprised by how unphysical they are going to try to make it and the number or fouls that are going to be called against teams that have not tried to adjust,” Giannini said. “I’ve heard people say the game should be determined by who dribbles, passes and shoots the best. It should be a game of skill, not brawn.”
Go back and watch a college game from the 1960s, 1970s or even into the 1980s. It was a game of skill. John Wooden’s UCLA teams were a symphony of movement. Now, all those cutters were getting chucked and knocked off stride.
“Basketball has this unique thing where you can foul out of a game,” Richmond coach Chris Mooney said. “No other sport has it … You’re going to see a lot more blocks called. The more that are called, the less guys take, the more open the lane is.”
And that has to be a good thing.
“The NBA totally cleaned it up,” Mooney said. “There is freedom of movement. If the NBA can do it, we can do it.”
Pitino was in the NBA when the scores began to bottom out as Pat Riley’s Knicks changed the game and not for the better. A decision was made that the game was not aesthetically pleasing so they went back to calling a foul a foul until everybody adjusted.
“I went to see Earl Clark play against Miami,” Pitino said. “Earl was playing LeBron. Earl just basically took his hand and rested it on him and they went, foul. What happened in the NBA now is they stopped all the arm bars, all the standing up of screens, all the coming across and chopping the guy. They stopped all that.
“Now you see great offense. When you coach in the (old) Big East, you should wear body guard. Peyton (Siva) wears body guard, shoulder pads because you can’t cut, can’t move.”
Bilas has a simple, yet perfectly rational, solution.
“Stop fouling,” he said. “I mean, these are fouls. And they’ve always been fouls. They haven’t been called.”
They are now being called.
“The bottom line is you better not touch the guy with the ball,” Giannini said.
Well, you can touch him. You just better not continue touching him.
Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli never had those crazy charge drills where players were taught to run into each other. Hopefully, this will get rid of that inhumane nonsense forever.
“We don’t run any drills where you line up and run into a guy,” Martelli said. “We don’t teach them how to fall down. One of the things they really have to clean up is the flopping shooter. And that’s taught.”
The changes have Martelli, “thinking a great deal about depth, about combinations.”
And if many more fouls are called, “you probably answer it one of two ways. You go over the top with going nine or 10 deep or you play zone.”
Martelli definitely falls on the skill side.
“I’ve always believed it was a skill game and not a weightlifting contest, not a strength contest,” Martelli said. “College football, the scoring is entertaining when you look at games between high-level teams that are 45-41.”
Pitino grew up in New York during the Knicks glory days of the early 1970s.
“I always liked to watch the old films of Clyde Frazier and you don’t see defenses touch anybody at all,” Pitino said. “Everybody cuts and passes, freedom of movement. That’s what we’ve got to get back to. The only way to do it is the first 10 games of the season, the games have to be ugly and the players will adjust, then you will see great offense again.”
That incessant whistling sound is the adjusting.
“The LeBrons of the world can truly be great players because they’re not being checked everywhere,” Pitino said. “That’s the next step of evolution in the college game. We have to stop all the hitting, fouling and the flopping.”
The game won’t change completely in a few weeks because, as Adams points out, the NBA has 60 full-time officials. He oversees 838 of what he calls “citizen soldiers.”
“I don’t know if scoring is going to go up, but I will tell you this, I think you’re going to get better shots and these athletic kids are going to be able to make more plays,” Adams said.
Through 978 games, teams were averaging 75 points, up 7.5 points from last season. Fouls (20.3) are up 2.6 per game. Two teams — Boise State (103.0) and Oklahoma State (102.0) — are averaging more than 100 points. Two players — Niagara’s Antoine Mason (31.2) and Oregon State’s Roberto Nelson (30.3) — are averaging more than 30 points.
“Our plan is to do an analysis at 1,000 games, which is about 20 percent of the season,” Adams said.
So we are talking just about now, a month before conference play begins. By Jan. 1, everybody should be adjusted to the new reality and the games can look like they were always supposed to look.