If you've followed the first two weeks of the college basketball season, you've no doubt heard the debate about the huge impact of the new rules on physical defense. It is understandable, then, why you might not be aware of the following:
- There are no new rules against physical play.
- There is no huge impact.
- There is no debate.
Confused? Allow me to clarify.
First, the "new rules" against physical play (hand checking, arm bars, bumping cutters, etc.) have long been a part of the NCAA's rulebook. It's just that they were stuck in the back of the book under Appendix III: Officiating Guidelines. However, since those were going unenforced, leading to an unsightly decline in scoring and shooting percentages, the men's basketball rules committee voted in May to make that an official part of Rule 10, which addresses "Fouls and Penalties."
So nobody wrote any new rules on this front. They just decided to give a new emphasis to what was already there.
(To be sure, there were some new rules written in other areas, most significantly the block-charge call, but most of the dialogue has been focused on the so-called increase in touch fouls on the dribbler.)
Second, while there has been a change in the data when compared to last season, that change is not nearly as dramatic as most people think. According to #KPI Analytics, there are only 2.71 more fouls being called per game this season than at the same time last year. That's right -- fewer than three extra whistles per game! That has resulted in 4.1 more free throws per game. Overall, scoring is up 5.86 points per game -- a welcome increase -- and slightly more than half of those points have come from field goals as opposed to free throws.
Tempo-free maven Kem Pomeroy has also crunched the numbers. While he discovered there was an 18.3 percent increase in free throw rate (FTA/FGA), he only found a 1.8 percent increase in the number of possessions per game. That's disappointing. The most positive effect Pomeroy found was a reduction in turnover and steal percentages, which makes sense. If you can't push the dribbler, it's harder to steal the ball.
Yes, there have been some outliers. Niagara and Seton Hall combined for 73 fouls and 102 free throws, but that is not the new normal. And to the extent that we see some ugly games, we also saw lots of ugly games last season, and the season before that, and the season before that. It takes time to go from a duckling to a swan.
Finally, if there really were a raging debate within the sport, then the one guy who would know it is Belmont coach Rick Byrd, the current chairman of the NCAA men's basketball rules committee. Even though Byrd was not chairman when the changes were made to the rulebook, he is in that hot seat now. I reached out to Byrd to see if his cell phone was blowing up with calls from angry coaches.
Well guess what: It hasn't. "I haven't gotten any calls from anyone saying, 'This stuff is crazy. What were you guys thinking about?'" Byrd told me. "All the shareholders in the game felt like it had gone too far to become a physical, brawl-type game that wasn't as fun to watch. I think we understand that something that's different is going to result in some more fouls until players and coaches understand that's the way it's going to be called. I don't know how you could have avoided that."
If anything, Byrd believes that the referees could be even stricter in enforcing the new-old rules. Watching the Michigan State-Kentucky game at the Champions Classic last week, Byrd thought that "except for some hand-checking stuff, the game looked a whole lot like last year's games did, frankly. There was a lot of contact." To the degree that it is still too difficult to guard the dribbler, Byrd believes it's because referees are also not doing as good a job as they should calling palming and traveling -- which are also currently part of the rules.
Though nobody is rushing to make even bigger, more genuine changes to the way the game is played, all ideas are on the table. The two most likely right now would be widening the lane (though not in the trapezoid design used in international play) and shortening the shot clock to 30 seconds. In the most recent annual survey conducted by the rules committee, 56.1 percent of respondents said they agreed or strongly agreed with the idea of going to a 30-second clock. (Though just 46.3 percent of coaches agreed with that idea.) And while just 30.8 percent of coaches want a wider lane, that number goes up to 41.7 percent when it includes referee coordinators, conference commissioners and officials. The idea of implementing a deeper three-point line (for the purpose of creating space) is not part of the survey, but it should be explored.
There is plenty of time to explore those and other ideas down the road. As for the season, the game is clearly in a period of adjustment, but I expect that adjustment will be made rather quickly. If players want to stay in the game, they will have to learn to stop fouling. Period. So don't let people fool you into believing there's some great debate going on. The question of whether college basketball needs more offense has already been answered. The only remaining question is how to do it.
- Hard to imagine a rougher day on the recruiting trail than the one Illinois coach John Groce experienced last Friday. First, he learned that one of his recruits, Quentin Snider, a 6-foot-1 point guard from Kentucky, backed out on his oral commitment to Illinois so he could sign with Louisville. (Snider had originally committed to Louisville, backed out of that to commit to Illinois, and then switched again after Louisville's own point guard decommitted in September. He's a real man of his word.) Then, Groce's top target, Chicago power forward Cliff Alexander, chose Kansas -- but only after rubbing it in by starting to pick up an Illinois hat and then donning a Kansas hat. The moral of the story: Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be coaches.
- Syracuse has looked good in getting off to a 3-0 start, but at some point the Orange is going to need some post scoring. DaJuan Coleman, Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita combined for six points on five shot attempts in the rout of Colgate.
- Memo to Marquette guard Todd Mayo: If you're not making shots, maybe you should stop shooting. The 6-3 junior guard (yes, he's O.J.'s little bro) went 3-for-15 (1-for-6 from three) in the Golden Eagles' 52-35 loss to Ohio State. This team needs to get freshman point guard Duane Wilson (stress fracture) healthy, but he's still several weeks away.
- I'm also a little concerned about Wisconsin's lack of depth. Bo Ryan is only playing seven guys right now. Fatigue isn't such a concern, but it gives the Badgers less room for error to compensate for injuries or foul trouble.
- I understand all the excitement about these freshmen, but why does every conversation have to center around their NBA draft order? That order won't be made for another seven months. How about enjoying these guys in college for a while? The NCAA tournament is more popular than the NBA playoffs, in case you haven't heard.
- Speaking of which, anyone else notice that Perry Ellis, not Andrew Wiggins, was Kansas' leading scorer in the Duke win?
- Dougie is what Dougie does, but don't sleep on Creighton's 6-7 senior forward Ethan Wragge. He's a big, strong, wily stretch four, and when he and McDermott are on the floor at the same time, the Bluejays are immensely hard to guard. Wragge scored a team-high 21 points off the bench in Creighton's gutsy 83-79 win at Saint Joseph's on Saturday. He shot 7-for-11 from three in the game and is making 65 percent from behind the arc this season.
- A great player knows how to play well when he's not playing well. Think about it.
- Easiest guy to root for in college hoops is George Washington guard Maurice Creek. The 6-1 senior guard's career at Indiana never got off the ground because of a litany of serious injuries, but he is flourishing in Foggy Bottom, averaging 19.3 points (on 57 percent three-point shooting) and 4.7 rebounds in the Colonials' first three games. It's a great example of why the hand wringing about transfers is misguided. Creek saw an opportunity and grasped it. It's the American way.
- Remember, kids, when you're at home, you can shoot threes. When you're on the road, you gotta shoot free throws. Class dismissed.
- Wish I had some news for you as to when North Carolina is going to get P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald back, but Roy Williams doesn't even know that right now. The school is awaiting the NCAA's ruling on their extra benefits cases, and all Williams can say is there is no timetable. If a case drags into the season, it's usually because the NCAA has determined that the player will have to miss games. They can later issue their ruling and include those games already missed. In Hairston's case, it is likely that Williams will tack on a few extra games because of his off-court transgressions, but the coach can't make that determination until he knows what the NCAA is going to do. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?
- I realize the competition has been weak, but it's pretty impressive that Louisville's Chris Jones has played 77 minutes as the team's point guard and only committed one turnover.
- Looks like the party's over at Murray State. The Racers have lost two of their first three (on the road at Valparaiso and Old Dominions).
- Ditto for UNLV, which lost at home to UC Santa Barbara by 21 points -- that is not a typo -- and squeaked by Nebraska-Ohama by three points at home over the weekend.
- Xavier sophomore point guard Semaj Christon is as gifted a perimeter player as you'll find, but it doesn't look like he has added outside shooting to his repertoire. Christon made just seven three-pointers as a freshman, and in the Musketeers' first three games this season, he has attempted just one. (Though I give him credit for recognizing his limits.) More troubling is his 11-for-27 clip from the foul line. He has a lot of upside, but he's very much a work in progress.
- If you're looking for an early most-improved award, check out USC center Omar Oraby. The 7-2 senior is averaging 13 points (on 74 percent shooting) and seven rebounds in the Trojans' first three games. It will be interesting to see how much Andy Enfield is willing to dial back his up-tempo system to accommodate Oraby's size.
- The good news is for Iowa State forward Melvin Ejim is that, in light of his 22 points and nine rebounds in the Cyclones' win against Michigan, he looks like an all-conference player. The bad news is that he is vastly reducing his chances of being a repeat selection on my All-Glue team. I'm sure he's conflicted about this.
- Everyone watched that Kentucky-Michigan State game and talked about how much room Kentucky has to get better, but guess what -- the Spartans have plenty of room to get better too. Priority number one is developing their frontcourt. Between 6-9 junior Alex Gauna, 6-9 sophomore Matt Costello and 6-9 freshman Gavin Schilling, someone needs to emerge as a counter to Adreian Payne. The reason Julius Randle had such a big second half was because when Payne got into foul trouble, Randle was guarded in the post by Branden Dawson, who was giving up three inches.
- I honestly can't remember a program going from so bad to so good so fast. Before losing at Villanova on Sunday, Towson, which went 1-31 just two years ago, had gotten off to a 3-0 start that included a home win over Temple. Last season, the Tigers won 18 games, and they have a bona fide NBA prospect in 6-9 senior forward Jerrelle Benimon, a transfer from Georgetown who was averaging 19.7 points, 13.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists heading into Sunday's game.
- Please tell me you're not one of those people who thinks Aaron Gordon can't play small forward.
- One suggested rule change I am not in favor of: Giving teams the ball at halfcourt after they call time out. The NBA does this, and it always seemed silly to me. A team should have to earn its inbounds position by advancing the ball to that spot.
- You like em big? Then you'll love UC Irvine. The Anteaters have three -- count 'em, three -- seven footers on their roster, led by 7-6 freshman Mamadou Ndiaye, a native of Senegal. The kid looks like he is moving in slow motion, but he has good control of his body and knows how to use his size. He had 18 points, nine blocks and eight rebounds in a 14-point win at Washington last Thursday.
- Also of note: Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson scored 19 points in his season debut. (Of course, he needed 16 shots to do it. He is the very definition of a volume shooter.) Even so, the Rebels barely squeaked by Coastal Carolina by two points.
- You're aware that Nik Stauskas is much, much more than just a shooter, right? Just making sure.
- Heard Coach K make an interesting point at a press conference a few weeks ago. Why are there rules against a uniform number that goes higher than 5? Are we assuming that referees are incapable of using two hands to signal to the scorer's table?
- I'm very impressed that Jack Taylor scored 109 points in a Division II on Sunday, and I'm happy that Grinnell College is getting some nice publicity out of it. But it's not basketball. Just like that lady who does halftime shows by flipping bowls onto her head while riding a unicycle. I'm impressed! But it's not basketball.
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week
Here's a delightful early-season nonconference tilt between two of the best perimeter teams in the country. I'm going with the Cowboys because a) they're at home and b) they have Marcus Smart. Come to think of it, b) is enough.
Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory is taking on his former school, but this is not a sentimental reunion. It's an important nonconference game between two undefeated potential bubble teams. The Yellow Jackets are getting good early production from Tennessee transfer Trae Golden. Plus, they're at home.
How about the Iowa State Hoibergs playing a true road game in Provo? Gotta love it. They're due for a comedown after the big win over Michigan.
This is a great way to begin the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Former Florida State forward Terrance Shannon has transferred to VCU and given the Rams a stellar rebounding and passing presence. It's going to be a while before I pick against VCU.
A Few Minutes With ... Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey
This Week's AP Ballot
*(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
- Michigan State (1)
- Kentucky (2)
- Kansas (3)
- Louisville (4)
- Duke (5)
- Arizona (6)
- Syracuse (7)
- Ohio State (9)
- Oklahoma State (11)
- VCU (13)
- Memphis (14)
- Wichita State (15)
- Florida (12)
- Michigan (8)
- Baylor (17)
- Harvard (18)
- Creighton (19)
- Iowa (22)
- Gonzaga (23)
- Wisconsin (NR)
- UConn (24)
- New Mexico (25)
- Oregon (NR)
- Iowa State (NR)
- Marquette (16)
Dropped off: North Carolina (10), Tennessee (20), Notre Dame (21)
You'll notice that despite all the activity from last week, my top seven has gone unchanged. That's because I was one of the few voters -- or was I the only voter? -- who had Michigan State ahead of Kentucky as well as Kansas ahead of Duke. Allow me a brief pause to savor my correctitude. It happens so infrequently ...
That was nice.
(I'm assuming none of you noticed that I ranked Kansas ahead of Duke but picked Duke to win the game in last week's Hoop Thoughts. Isn't it wonderful being me?)
Anyway, there weren't many major changes on my ballot. The biggest was dropping North Carolina all the way from 10th to unranked. It is very unusual for me to do that, but I do think if you're going to do it, it should be early in the year. Not only did North Carolina lose at home to a pretty good Belmont team on Sunday, but the Tar Heels looked mediocre while beating Holy Cross Friday night at home. As I mentioned above, this team is still not at full strength as the cases of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald remain in limbo. So all those factors went into my decision.
On the other hand -- and isn't there always another hand? -- I gave Florida some benefit of the doubt after its loss at Wisconsin. The Gators are also without suspended players, but those are in-house decisions, not NCAA ones, and I presume those guys will be back soon. It is also very difficult to win in Madison, yet despite missing several key players, the Gators still pushed the Badgers to the wire. So instead of laying the hammer down on Florida, I decided to reward Wisconsin by inserting them at No. 20, which was still not good enough for many of the Wisconsin fans who wrote to me on Twitter when I released my rankings Sunday night.
(And yes, I was kidding when I said I voted this way because "I hate Wisconsin." I guess sarcasm doesn't translate well to Twitter trolls.)
I tend to under-punish for true road losses, which is why I only dropped Michigan six spots for losing at Iowa State. I did the same to Tennessee for its loss at Xavier. Notre Dame also fell off because of its home loss to Indiana State, but I've got a feeling that those two teams will be in my Top 25 again at some point.
Marquette took a nasty tumble after scoring just 35 points in a home loss to Ohio State. I left the Golden Eagles at No. 25 because the Buckeyes are a top 10 team, but I'm officially putting the Eagles on notice. One more stinker, and you lose that number next to your name.
Since there were so few losses from my Top 25, I didn't have room for other worthy candidates. Among the schools tied for 26th are Indiana State, Colorado, UCLA, Boise State, UMass, Indiana and Villanova. We are about to hit our annual Thanksgiving Week binge, so you can expect there will be much to shake up over the next two weeks.
We wouldn't want it any other way.