- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Partially inspired by TrueHoop's excellent HoopIdea series, College Basketball Nation humbly presents Change the Game, a weekly discussion on the game we love and the ways it could be made better. And nothing is off the table.
Look for CtG every Friday for the foreseeable offseason future. To share your thoughts or submit a topic for discussion, reply to me on Twitter, @eamonnbrennan, with the hashtag "#CtG."
Thus far, we've discussed the infuriating block-charge call and the influence of NBA isolation on college basketball. Today, we're talking disqualification blues, or: Why college basketball needs to wave goodbye to the foul-out.
If these Change the Game bits have an ideal setup-punchline combination, it probably goes a little bit something like this:
1. Affirm or attempt to persuade a majority that a problem exists.
2. Devise, suggest, or just plain guess around at a solution.
Neither is ever easy. There are a lot of purists out there who either think college basketball is just fine as it is, or would be better with tweaks, rather than wholesale changes. But this week numero uno could be even more difficult than most. Or at least that's what I thought when I first sat down to think and read about an idea that may seem radical ... but is actually an ongoing (albeit rarely discussed) argument that only barely post-dates the dawn of the 3-point line:
We should make it impossible for players to foul out.
We'll get to the why in a second. First, I'd like to note that I'm not the only one who feels this way. Most recently and most persuasively, our chat brother and tempo-free spirit guide John Gasaway put this exact argument at No. 2 in his annually refreshed "Perfecting the Sport" column. In the 2012 edition, John discussed the backlash that inevitably happens when you talk seriously about fixing this wholly unique-to-hoops quirk. People freak out:
You know how baseball people can get when they discuss their sport? Kind of George Will-fussy, with the bow tie, talk of freshly mown grass, and quotes from Whitman? In my experience basketball people are never, ever like that...until you bring up the possibility of ending the foul-out. Then suddenly you're talking about the Sanctity of the Game. No, what we're talking about is much more arbitrary. At some point in the distant past someone connected with basketball had a really, really dumb idea, and it stuck. Because the dumb idea is quite old, people mistake it for something connected to the sport itself. It is not, any more than the absence of a three-point line or a shot clock were.
For the purposes of this discussion, let's agree to table any and all SOTG (Sanctity of the Game) arguments, wherein people immediately assume this is just some half-baked notion a few bored bloggers dreamed up in the offseason. Why? Because it's not!
I have proof, because I have the Googles: In the 2007 Final Four, after fouls ruined what could have been an epic Greg Oden-Roy Hibbert battle -- three minutes into the first half, Oden left the game with two fouls and (as is tradition) didn't return until after halftime -- none other than ESPN's own Dick Vitale took up the torch. But even then, the idea was at least 17 years old. In 1990, the Big East itself let its foul-out freak flag fly. From a May 15, 1990, report by Newsday's Mike Sullivan:
The Big East Conference may install an experimental basketball rule called the "no foul-out concept" for the 1990-91 season, according to a poll conducted by Newsday. The rule allows a player to stay in the game beyond his fifth foul, but it awards three free throws to make two to the player fouled.
Even better? The season before that, the Big East actually approved a rule that bumped the maximum number of fouls allowed per player per game up from five to six. Then-Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. approved:
"The rule (six-foul rule) made no difference in how the game was played last year," Georgetown Coach John Thompson said. "I think from a forward's point of view this new rule is good. We have a sport where mistakes can get you thrown out of a game. I would be in favor of this, but I would like to see it on the national level where everybody is using it and conferences don't have to vote in the rules every year."
Again: That was in 1990. The 3-point line was four years old. The No. 1 song in the country was Wilson Phillips' "Hold On." "Home Alone" was the top film at the box office. By 2012's standards, nothing that happened in 1990 can be considered "radical."
And yet, 22 years later, nothing has changed. Every year we are treated to -- or maybe the phrase is bludgeoned by -- a score of big-time games either outright ruined or at least negatively affected by foul-outs. Every year we gear ourselves up for huge matchups soon sullied by the sight of a quick second foul. Every year we watch star players saunter to the bench, knowing they have two fouls, or four, knowing their fretting coach won't play them again until he feels it is absolutely safe. (Which is another argument entirely.) Every year, basketball remains the only major American sport in which players can be totally disqualified from the game for the accrual of minor penalties. This is profoundly dumb.
The rule has been around forever, and there's a pretty good reason for that: It is seen as a bulwark against overly physical play, a carrot that becomes a stick if a player can't manage to play good, hard defense without hacking his way through the game. Understandable, right? No one wants to see a parade of fouls every time an offensive player moves into scoring position.
But neither do we want to see teams playing at half-strength. Nor, for that matter, do we want to see defensive players dodging contact because they know they can't risk picking up a third or fourth or fifth foul. We don't want to see over-officiated games take the onus out of the players' hands. (See: Ohio State vs. Syracuse, 2012 Elite Eight.) No thanks. As fans, we want to see the best collegiate basketball players make great plays in important moments. We want them to be allowed by the game and its officials to do so. We want the refs as out of the way as possible. It's just better basketball.
Besides, I would argue the foul is already punitive: A shooting foul earns an opposing player two open shots from 15 feet, and enough overall team fouls of any kind awards the opposition with one-and-one and two-shot-bonus opportunities. If we are already punishing teams for fouling often -- and teams that foul often do put themselves at a significant defensive disadvantage -- then why are we also doubling down on that punishment by tracking individual fouls and threatening players with removal from the game?
That doesn't mean we should give individual players a free pass to hack at will. That's the last thing we should want. Instead, we should devise a solution that urges players to play good, non-hacky defense. Those potential solutions could include (but are not limited to):
The Big East's proposed rule, which allowed a player to play beyond his fifth foul but awarded three shots to make two if the defensive player fouled a sixth or seventh time.
Vitale's proposed rule, which allowed a player to play beyond his sixth foul, but awarded two shots and the ball to the victim of fouls seven, eight, nine, etc.
Two shots and the ball for every foul by a player with more than five fouls.
A straightforward move to six individual fouls.
A two-shots-and-the-ball penalty for every team foul beyond a certain threshold.
I bolded the last one because I like it the best. In 2012, the median number of team fouls per game was 18.3. Without spending all afternoon digging into foul rates and pace-adjusted stats -- because it's not like the NCAA is going to start punishing high foul rates -- the least foul-prone team in the country (Cleveland State) committed 14.2 fouls per game. Maybe we set the threshold at 16, or even 17, or (if you really want to crack down) at 15. Maybe we set it extra-high and award teams an automatic point for every non-shooting foul, plus the ball.
Whatever the number is, and whatever variation you want to come up with -- preferably one that leads to a minimum of late-game free throws -- the Brennan Team Foul Initiative (working title!) is still plenty punitive for individuals as well as teams. If you can't defend without fouling, neither can your team, and you could spend the latter portion of the second half deflecting your teammates' disgust as you personally give away free points and possessions. The only difference? Stars will be doing so on the floor, where they can still make great plays and still determine the ultimate outcome of the game.
We can talk about various ways to fix this thing; there are plenty of potential tweaks to the ideas above. Let's at least agree on one thing, though: The way the sport of basketball currently manages individual fouls is silly. There are much better ways -- more entertaining ways, ways that wouldn't undermine the risk-reward scenario involved in taking or earning a foul -- to do this.
Twenty-two years ago, the nation's marquee hoops conference agreed. Two decades later, nothing has changed. Five fouls is still the arbitrary shadow hanging over every player every game. Every whistle, fair or unfair, is a guillotine waiting to drop on the best competition the sport has to offer.
Now, perhaps, it's time. The NCAA's member schools should finish the work the Big East started in 1990.
The game would be better for it. And there's nothing radical about that.