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Friday, November 8, 2013
Season of Change: The foul paradox

By Eamonn Brennan

Now that you know what you need to watch in every conference in the country in 2013-14, we’ve turned our attention to the theme of change -- from coaching swaps to player development to good old-fashioned rules, and anywhere in between. Today: What the Big Ten learned from 50 years of Final Fours.

When Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany sat down for his customary media day news conference Oct. 31, it was fair to expect the usual discussion: conference realignment, NCAA restructuring, the state of college sports on television and so on. Those are the issues Delany is usually asked about, and rightfully so. With the Big Ten Network and his push for cost-of-attendance scholarships, Delany has done more to change college athletics than anyone in the past decade. Usually, reporters want to talk about these things.

Jim Delany
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has a team studying patterns of past Final Fours.
Thursday's presser wasn't nearly as boring as that.

It wasn't that Delany didn't talk about the latest in NCAA existential crisis theater. He fairly candidly spoke about the Big Ten's (and other large conferences') role in intercollegiate restructuring and about the challenge of getting hundreds of non-high-major schools to agree to lay down arms for the ostensible benefit of many.

But far more interesting -- at least to those of us who are more interested in actual basketball than palace intrigue -- was the discussion about what happens on the floor and what Delany and his team learned from 50 years of Final Fours.

As the commissioner explained, while the NCAA may have a rules committee, it doesn't really have a competition committee -- a body not only to devise rules but also to step back and observe the way they affect the product. Naturally, the Big Ten is interested in providing an entertaining product, and just as interested in scaling that product throughout Division I.

So five years ago, Delany helped form a group of college basketball analysts, coaches and administrators and tasked them with that exact mission. The group has no legislative authority, but it does have a deep database and, as Delany said, "a lot of interaction with the rules committee."

Most recently, the group commissioned a comprehensive study of every Final Four game dating back to 1950. The goal? To understand long-term trends in the game, plot them alongside rules changes and draw some reasonable inference about the way the game has evolved and what the people in charge of it can do to make it better.

Besides being a hoops nerd's fever dream (I must have these tapes), one of the group's findings was immediately relevant to the 2013-14 season and its new NCAA-approved contact rules. As media members and coaches collectively fret about the contact crackdown and the free throw wackiness that may ensue, Delany presented findings that were simultaneously comforting and concerning.

"There are a lot of things that have changed over time, but there was one data point that over 60 years hasn't changed that much," Delany said. "That was the average number of fouls per team per game. It's vacillated between 18.5 and 19.5. And whenever you start getting up to 25 or 30 fouls a game, media turns off, fans turn off, coaches get upset.

"The game must have something in it rhythmically that allows for a certain amount of stoppage," Delany added. "Beyond that, you start getting funny reactions."

Therein lies the proverbial rub. This season, NCAA officials will be making a concerted, coordinated effort to enforce rules designed to make the game more open and more entertaining long-term -- more frequently decided by skill than by sheer physical strength. This is undeniably a good thing.

The problem? To get there, it is entirely possible officials will have to call a lot of fouls, particularly early in the season. This isn't guaranteed -- for every preseason horror story, there is one of players adjusting to the new rules with no problems -- but it could happen. Many coaches, even those in favor of the push, are openly dreading that possibility.

Such is the quandary at hand. For college basketball to get more entertaining in years to come, it may have to be less entertaining in the weeks ahead. Too many "funny reactions" to too many November fouls could doom a worthy effort before it has a chance to do its work. Change is never easy.