Beware of the big rules changes

Early in the season, whistles, not players, could dominate the game

Updated: November 8, 2013, 5:14 PM ET
By Dana O'Neil

Hide the children. Avert your eyes. Shutter the windows and lock the doors.

The rule changes are coming! The rule changes are coming!

The NCAA has unleashed Godzilla. He is wearing black and white stripes, has a menacing whistle wrapped around his neck, and is headed straight to a college basketball venue near you to trample the game into smithereens.

At least that's what plenty of coaches would have you believe.

The college basketball season officially opens Friday amid the usual cocktail of excitement and expectation.

Simmering not far beneath the surface is an undercurrent of apprehension, if not flat-out dread. The NCAA rules committee has introduced two big changes this season -- a crackdown on handchecks and a more rigid interpretation of the block-charge call.

"These rules, with handchecking and freedom of movement, have always been there, but they've been in the appendix or as a point of emphasis, and now it's a rule," said Belmont coach Rick Byrd, the chairman of the rules committee (who stresses that he wasn't the chairman when these were voted on, so don't shoot the messenger). "This allows the conference supervisor of officials to say, 'OK, we're going to call it."

[+] EnlargeHoiberg
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesFred Hoiberg has been through rules changes before in the NBA. Now it's college basketball's turn.

The designed goal is to free up a game that has gone rugby physical, which will in turn raise the workload on previously stagnant scoreboards.

Last season saw the lowest average scores since 1981-82, 67.5 points per game.

So, where is the problem?

Everywhere, like some basketball-borne plague, if you ask coaches.

"I think it will be terrible," Southern Methodist coach Larry Brown said. "There's no doubt in my mind that they're trying to do the right thing and their intentions are good, but I don't think this is the solution. This is going to ruin the flow of the game."

Now, paranoid and coaches go together like peanut butter and jelly. These, after all, are the same folks who hold "secret scrimmages" to better prevent their classified information from being leaked to the enemy … er, opponent.

But their worries are not entirely unmerited.

The early word out of said secret scrimmages and a glance at a handful of actual public box scores shows a game in which the scores maybe have gone up but the game has the rhythm of an Elaine Benes dance-off.

In Louisville's exhibition game against Kentucky Wesleyan, for example, the visitors were whistled for 41 fouls resulting in 56 free throw attempts for the Cardinals. Louisville was dinged 23 times, giving the Panthers 32 freebies.

That's 88 free throws in 40 minutes.

Paint dries faster.

Brown said that, at one of his scrimmages against Colorado, there was a whistle on virtually every possession. Byrd was watching game tape of an opponent for the upcoming season and found himself saying out loud "That's a foul. That's a foul. That's a foul."

Plus, depending just who the foul is on, things could be even more troublesome: "We're going to have a lot of good players watching basketball," Purdue coach Matt Painter said recently.

To all of that, though, is this alternative:

Georgetown 37, Tennessee 36.

Like it or not, something had to be done. Players are bigger, stronger and tougher. Coaches can give game tapes the Zapruder treatment in an effort to conjure up specific defenses. Plenty of people can appreciate a good defense, but if we wanted to watch good wrestling, we'd call up Cael Sanderson.

There's really no place for hands in defense, anyway.

Although Brown's contention that the rules aren't the problem so much as players with less fundamental skills isn't inaccurate, this is the only real way to get a quick fix. In an ideal world, kids will go back to the basics, practice their defensive stances and even their midrange games.

And there will be unicorns dancing in meadows, too.

No, the game needed an intervention, and this is as good a quick fix attempt as any.

After all, it did work in the NBA. In 1994, the pros eliminated handchecking. Three years later, out went the arm bars players had resorted to when the handchecking was being called.

Since then, more scoring and less fouling. In the 1997-98 season, teams averaged 95.6 points per game and committed 1,837 fouls. Last year, they averaged 98.1 and committed only 1,626 fouls.

Getting there, though, wasn't easy. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg was in the NBA when the league eliminated handchecking and harped on freedom of movement.

"It was pretty ugly at first," he said. "Those first summer league games were taking three hours sometimes, so it was pretty painful. And, with the NBA guys, they're so powerful and explosive, it was darned near impossible to keep those guys in front of you."

Eventually the NBA worked its way into a happy medium. Not everything is a foul now, but there's enough of an understanding that the chronic contact is gone.

Odds are that will happen here, too.

Between now and eventually, though, we could very well see exactly what the coaches fear -- a lot of free throws, good players on the bench, marathon games.

Heck, we might see a college coach actually self-combust on a sideline.

Change, after all, isn't easy. And this is a big change.

"This is as big of an adjustment for the game as we've seen, and that includes the clock and the 3-point line," Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said at Big 12 media day.

Ah, good point.

The 3-pointer.

Coaches hated that at first, too.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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