By JOHN MARSHALL
PHOENIX — College basketball is going hands-free in an effort to increase scoring and bring flow back to a game that’s turned into a wrestling match in recent years.
Instead, the NCAA’s new rules put may actually bog things down, particularly early in the season as teams adjust to the way the game is being called.
“I don’t think fans, at least in the arenas I’ve ever been in as a fan, a player, a coach, want one team to shoot 50 free throws and the other team shoot 46 free throws,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “Usually, at some point, the boo birds start ringing in and you hear the fans yelling out: Let them play. And I think that’s going to be a real problem.”
The rules changes were put in this season after scoring in Division I dropped to 67.5 points per game in 2012-13, the lowest since 1951-52 — long before the shot clock and 3-point shot were added — and the fourth straight season it had decreased.
Shooting percentages and assists were down, and 3-point shooting was the lowest since the arc was added in 1986. The number of fouls called were down as well, an indication that defenders may be getting away with more physical play.
To combat the roughness in the game, the NCAA instituted a new set of rules for the 2013-14 season, the emphasis on preventing defenders from impeding offensive players’ progress.
No more hand-checking. No two hands on an opponent. No arm bars or jabbing. A big change in the block/charge call.
The changes could be the biggest in college basketball since the advent of the shot clock and 3-point shot — and could take some time getting used to.
“I think everyone’s got the message that the game needs to be more open than it’s been,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said. “And I’m hopeful we can get that change.”
Not everyone in the game is convinced the changes will have the desired effect.
Coaches and players have been told about the changes and seen plenty of video, but the new rules are such a drastic change from the way the game had been called that it’s going to take a while to get used to them — as teams found out during the exhibition season.
“If you’re telling me the way the games are going to be called and exhibition games are the way they’re going to call them in the Big Ten, we’re going to have a lot of good players watching basketball,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “I don’t think that will sit with people in this room, with players and coaches across the country. It’s definitely not going to sit with the fans.”
Many coaches believe the changes will add to scoring, just not the way the NCAA intended.
Instead of points coming from athletic moves and free-moving offenses, the majority could come from free throws, which would stall the game out even more instead of loosening it up.
Up to 100 free throws in one game might not be out of the question early in the season.
“I’ve always thought the way to improve our game was to try to create a situation where you get more shots,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I don’t know if this is going to create more shots. I think it’s going to create more free throws.”
Along with the no-hands approach, the NCAA is also hoping to eliminate flopping with the new rule on block/charge fouls.
Under the old interpretation of the rule, a player had to be in defensive position before the offensive player was lifting off the floor. The new incarnation of block/charge requires the defender to be in place before the offensive player has started his upward motion to attempt a shot or pass.
“I’ve been saying for years we need to clean up those collisions at the rim,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “So I think that is brilliant what they’re doing there, to protect the driver. Too many guys were talented enough to go by their man and there were three guys falling down before the guy even got to the rim.”
The changes could bring back a type of defense that’s become increasingly rare in college basketball: The zone.
More teams have gone to aggressive man defenses over zones in recent years, but the new rules could change that. Good coaches figure out ways to get around impediments and a zone could be a way to limit hand-checking fouls on the perimeter and blocking calls around the basket.
“What I worry about is everybody going to start playing zone and now we’re into this, we’ll score less points, there’ll be less action, there’ll be less penetration, there’ll be less athletes,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Have you thought about the repercussions of it? Because coaches are going to adjust. But they might not adjust in the way you guys would like.”
There’s going to be plenty of adjusting all around — by the officials, the coaches, the players and the fans.