By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It is a conference with, perhaps, the two most exciting and best players in the nation in Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins and Oklahoma State sophomore Marcus Smart, a conference that will be hosting the Final Four in no less an arena than Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, yet the buzz at Tuesday’s Big 12 Media Day in Kansas City was over the way college basketball’s rules will change this season.
For years the NCAA’s rules committee has been trying to cut back on physical defense that had cut field-goal percentages to 43.3 percent, the worst since 1965, with 3-point shooting sitting at 34 percent, the worst since 1997.
Was this the result of bad shooting or defensive dominance?
That was a fair question, one answered by the fact that a year ago players shot fewer free throws on the average than in any season since 1973, the year between the Watergate break-in and Richard Nixon’s resignation.
In truth, the “new” rules were available to officials, only they weren’t part of the main rule book, residing instead in a second called “Points of Emphasis.” This year they are rules, four of them, and they threaten to turn college basketball into a free-throw shooting contest until the players, coaches and officials adjust to the way the rules dictate the game to be played.
First, what do the rules in question ban?
• A defender keeping a constant hand or forearm on the opponent.
• A defender placing two hands on the opponent.
• A defender constantly jabbing the opponent by extending his arm and striking him with his hand or forearm.
• A defender using an arm-bar to impede the opponent’s progress.
In addition, the charging rule has been changed so that a secondary defender now must be in legal guarding position as the ball handler makes a move to shoot — essentially once he picks the ball up off the floor. Previously, the defender needed only to be in legal position before the ball handler left his feet.
Recently, NCAA officials coordinator John Adams told the Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy:
“I think there’s more support for the concept and enforcement of this than there has been in the past. But I’m not one who believes you’re going to throw a switch and see an immediate sea change without a little bit of pain.
“My hope is that coaches will adjust to these rules and teach the game that way. My hope is that we don’t call more fouls. Nobody wants to see the best players on these teams on the bench. That’s my hope as the national coordinator and a fan of the game.”
“There are different degrees of acceptability,” said Curtis Shaw, the Big 12s director of officials, in addressing the media. “There is a lot of angst trying to figure out if they’re going to do this the whole year, how are we going to handle this? But I think all in all it’s been really a great thing.”
West Virginia University’s Bob Huggins, for example, isn’t sure what to expect. He certainly has always been a defensive-minded coach who teaches physicality and in an early press conference observed that “they are trying to take the physicality out of the game”.
At media day, however, he was content to reserve judgment when asked what effect he saw the rules having.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think probably if we get a year maybe to see. I think the fallacy is we’re not going to have contact. You can’t put 10 people that big, that strong, that fast in such a confined area. They’re going to run into each other. I mean, it just happens, and it’s always been a contact sport.
“I think what they’re trying to do is free up the guy with the ball more. I don’t know. Ask me a year from now, and I can eloquently answer your question. Or at least I think it’s eloquent.”
Some other coaches were less evasive.
Take Kansas coach Bill Self.
“My initial thought was that scoring is going to go up and good play is going to go down,” he said. “The reason scoring will go up is because we’re shooting more free throws. It won’t be because of artistic play. I’ve always thought the way to improve our game was to try to create a situation where you get more shots.
“I don’t know if this is going to create more shots. I think it’s going to create more free throws, which I’m not saying is bad. But when you watch a game — early in the season we may have some games where you can’t go up and down twice without having stoppage because it’s going to be a broken game in large part.”
“A broken game.” That is a strong statement and a condemnation, but Self believes that is only going to be the effect in the beginning.
“I think players will adjust’ coaches will adjust. I think over time it will be good. I’m a little concerned early on that, to get to where we need it, it’s going to be some pretty fragmented games.”
Shaw understands the fear of it becoming a broken game early, but believes that will be overcome.
“The intent of these rules is not to shoot more free throws,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot of this. All you want to do is shoot more free throws. That is not the intent at all.
“One of the unintended consequences early may be more fouls,” he continued. ‘But we have the greatest athletes we’ve ever had in college basketball. We’ve got the smartest coaches we’ve ever had in college basketball, and they’ll adjust. It’s just a matter of getting used to what the new situations are and breaking some bad habits because our kids have played so long doing certain things.
“I think we’ll go through a little bit of a growth period. But because we started so early talking to them — I’ve been to our practices, and the coaches are talking to them every day. I don’t think it’s going to be that bad. I think in the long run, it’s really going to help our game and really increase the scoring. It’s going to increase the fan interest and increase the media interest. So I think it’s all going to be really great.”
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger feels the same way.
“I think we’ll all be better for it,” he said. “That’s a challenge. It’s going to be a big challenge. NBA, when they did it 10, 12 years ago, it was a huge, huge, difficult transition. Fans hated it; players hated it; coaches hated it, and the game turned out much better for it. But it took time. It took time.
“The games will be ugly early. Everyone will be unhappy about it, but hopefully they can sustain it and call it the way they’re projecting. It will be a huge adjustment. A huge adjustment.”
“I think it’s going to be great for college basketball,” added Texas coach Rick Barnes. “I think these rules have been great. I think they should have been in a long time ago.
“It’s really hard for the defense. In the last two weeks we’ve had to really think long and hard about how we’re going to play without fouling, because we’ve worked hard at trying to get fouled. Drive the ball, put pressure on the rim.”
Barnes then took things even a step further.
“I’d really like to see us play the international rules,” he suggested. “I think the game should be a universal game, and we need that. But I do think it’s going to be a drastic change in style of basketball if they enforce that rule and call it like they say they are.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.