Time Out with Newt Clark

Photo by Alan Tahler

If you have been paying any attention to college basketball this season, you have probably heard about the new rule changes. The first is that the NCAA has made it an emphasis to call more fouls when contact is made with the player who possesses the ball.  The following types of contact are now considered fouls: when a defensive player keeps a hand or forearm on an opponent, when a defensive player puts two hands on an opponent, when a defensive player continually jabs by extending his arm(s), when a hand or forearm is placed on the opponent and when a player uses an arm bar to impede the progress of an opponent.

The second rule change focuses on charges. In the past, the defensive player had to be in position before the offensive player left the floor for the contact to be considered a charge. Now, the defensive player has to be in position before the offensive player begins his upward motion. I’m still not sure how the referee can really determine the difference with the game being played so fast, but that is beside the point.

The NCAA made the rule changes hoping to increase the freedom of movement of the offensive player, which would presumably lead to higher scoring games. Last season, teams averaged just 67.5 points per game, the lowest overall average since the 1981-82 season when teams averaged 67.6 points per game. Through the first three days of the regular season, the goal seems to be succeeding as scoring has increased to 73.1 points per game.

As expected, fouls have also increased. Last season, according to KPI Competition Analytics, teams committed 18.6 fouls per game and are now averaging 21.1 fouls per game. Free throw attempts per game are also increasing. Last season, teams were averaging 20.8 free throw attempts per game; this season, it is up to 21.1 points, an 18 percent increase. It seems the goal of increased scoring will be accomplished, but at what costs?

I, like the NCAA, enjoy seeing higher scoring games, but I don’t enjoy hearing the referees blow their whistle on what seems like every other possession. The game is already interrupted enough by commercials. Sometimes it feels like I’m watching commercials with a little college basketball in between, and now even when the game is not on commercials, it will continue to be interrupted with the excessive calling of fouls. While watching the games, have I noticed the slight increase in scoring this season? No. Have I noticed the increase in fouls? Yes. At this point most of the increased scoring is probably due to increased free throw attempts as opposed to the game just being freer flowing. So far, the game isn’t being played any differently than it was last year; it is just being called by the referees differently.

I’m sure when the NCAA approved they anticipated that initially more fouls would be called and that the rules would actually disrupt the game more than they would improve it. The idea behind it is that although there may be an excessive number of fouls called early in the season, after getting a few hand check fouls called against them, players would eventually adjust how they play defense. There’s no way players would continue to play defense in a way that they knew would get a foul called on them, right? Once players made the adjustment, there would be about the same number of fouls called as in previous years, but the scoring would increase and the game will become more free flowing, the way basketball was originally intended to be played.

To most, it may seem simple. If you aren’t allowed to hand check, then you just don’t do it. Unfortunately, most of these players have been defending that way since they started playing. When they are on the court, I imagine they are much more comfortable doing what they have always done, and the new rules probably are not their primary focus.

If Duke is down by one to Kentucky in the Final Four with two minutes remaining, do you think Jabari Parker is going to be thinking about the new rules, or do you think instinct will take over and he will play defense the same way he has his entire life? Let us hope he is thinking about the rules, because I surely do not want to see Coach K’s reaction when Parker is called for his fifth foul on a hand check.

Overall, I think the rule changes are a good thing and will eventually lead to basketball becoming a more exciting sport. Players will eventually adjust, and when they do, games will be both higher scoring and contain fewer fouls. I just get the feeling the adjustment period may be a little longer than we were anticipating. I was originally hoping for the adjustment period to be a couple of weeks, but now I’m thinking it could be a couple of months.

If players are not able to adjust their game, we are in for a long season of college basketball and I’m not just talking about the commercial breaks.