After a flurry of foul-filled November games, followed by subtle adjustments from coaches and game officials, there has been minimal chatter about the NCAA’s new rules changes to allow more freedom of movement by offensive players to boost scoring this season.
But the subject resurfaced in a big way Saturday, when Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim sounded off about the “the worst call of the year” that decided his team’s 66-60 loss at Duke. Boeheim referred to a block/charge interpretation that went against his team, costing the Orange an apparent game-tying basket and free-throw opportunity with 10 seconds remaining.
Instead, Duke defender Rodney Hood drew a charge from Syracuse forward C.J. Fair that erased the bucket. Boeheim stormed the court in a rage, drew two technical fouls and was ejected. The Blue Devils sealed their victory at the foul line.
Right call or not, and I happen to agree with Boeheim, the takeaway from Saturday’s game is clear: Not everyone is on the same page when interpreting the NCAA’s new definition of a block/charge foul, one of the centerpiece rules changes instituted for the 2013-14 season in efforts to boost scoring and return athleticism to the game.
But NCAA executives are thrilled, heading into the final month of the season, with the impact the new rules have made on a game that was becoming increasingly unwatchable in recent seasons.
Bottom line: NCAA teams are averaging 71.68 points per game, up from last year’s 67.5 mark that marked a 65-year low. If teams remain on that pace, we will have the highest-scoring NCAA basketball season since 1995-96.
Dan Gavitt, vice-president of NCAA men’s basketball championships, considers that a significant first step in the right direction during a season that has also seen an increase in the national field-goal percentage (1 percent) and a decrease in turnovers (roughly 10 percent) from last year.
“You’re not talking about drastic change. But you are talking about improvement in the right trend, rather than the wrong trend, which has been the case over the last 20 years,” Gavitt said. “We got to a point last year where we had the lowest points per game and the lowest number of fouls called (17.68 per team) in the 65 years that the NCAA has kept statistics.”
The off-season solution, in a nutshell, was to enhance freedom of movement for offensive players by calling more hand-check fouls and by redefining the block/charge. Under the revised NCAA definition: “A defensive player is not permitted to move into the path of an offensive player once he has started his upward motion with the ball to attempt a field goal or pass. If the defensive player is not in legal guarding position by this time, it is a blocking foul.”
Yet the Duke-Syracuse game featured two almost-identical charge/block situations. In the first half, Syracuse guard Michael Gbinjie drew a blocking call, sending Duke’s Jabari Parker to the foul line to complete a three-point play. In the final minute, Fair’s basket was disallowed because of the charging call that led to Boeheim’s technicals.
In fairness, there may be no harder call for any official in sports than the fine line of a block/charge foul. It has caused angst between coaches and officials since the first peach basket was raised by James Naismith and will divide those groups as long as the game is played.
You can expect it to become a sticking point in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, as officials from different conferences apply the new block/charge rule that caused Boeheim to go ballistic.
You can also expect coaches who encourage their teams to grab and clutch while playing defense to pay a severe price during March Madness, said Ron Wellman, chairman of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee. Wellman echoed Gavitt’s excitement about energizing the college game through the NCAA’s off-season rules initiatives and stressed that they will be upheld by officials who plan to work tournament games in March and April.
“We’ve made it very clear that, come tournament time, there will be freedom of movement,” Wellman said. “Our officials will be evaluated upon that principle. They will advance upon that principle.
“The beauty of college basketball is the athleticism of the athletes. When people are grabbing and holding and doing the things defensively that we’ve allowed them to do in the past, you don’t see that beauty. But now we’re getting back to the beauty of the game.”
Come tournament time, it will be interesting to see how the rules changes impact top-10 teams like Syracuse and Cincinnati. Both rank among the national defensive leaders but are well below the offensive norm. Syracuse (69.6 average) is No. 227 in scoring, with Cincinnati (69.7) at No. 223. If Clemson (17-9, 8-6 in ACC) makes the tournament, the Tigers — No. 332 in scoring (62.5 avg.) but second in scoring defense (56.0) — would be the acid test for the freedom-of-movement agenda.
Regardless of how the tournament unfolds, NCAA officials are happy with their off-season rules tweaks.
“We’d lost about eight or nine points per game, per team, over the last 20 years,” Gavitt said. “That’s obviously a direction for the game that’s not healthy.”
This season, those points are coming back. Just as the NCAA mandated for a game in need of an offensive infusion.
Spotlight: Jordan Bachynski, Arizona State C
If there is a Most Interesting Man in College Basketball, the short list of candidates would have to include Arizona State center Jordan Bachynski (7-foot-2, 248 pounds). The senior from Calgary, Alberta comes from a basketball family, is married to a former ASU volleyball player, is fluent in Spanish, reads Gandhi, loves soccer and leads the nation in blocked shots (4.6 per game).
He wears No. 13 in honor of “the best Canadian hooper ever” (Steve Nash, former Dallas Mavericks star) and delayed his initial enrollment in college to serve an LDS mission in Miami. He admits he does not shoot as well as his sister, Jessica, a former Canadian national team standout, but compensates with a 7-4 wingspan.
Bachynski, the tallest player in ASU history, has three game-clinching blocked shots this season, including one that sealed a 69-66 upset of then-No. 2 Arizona on Feb. 14. He ranks third on the team in scoring (11.9 ppg), leads the Sun Devils in blocked shots and rebounds (8.8) and has ASU (19-7, 8-5 in Pac-12) well-positioned to receive an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament.
Bachynski, a left-hander, turns 25 in September and is only 11 days younger than former ASU standout James Harden, an NBA All-Star with the Houston Rockets. On his ASU bio page, Bachynski said he has considered wearing a helmet during day-to-day activities “to avoid the gashes, blood and pain that comes from hitting my head on low-hanging objects such as door frames, light fixtures … and my personal favorite, fire sprinklers. And a word of caution: ceiling fans can kill you.”