NCAA rules changes could make for ugly games now, but prettier games later

In last week’s exhibition game between TCU men’s basketball and Arkansas-Fort Smith, the officiating crew blew their whistles 57 times.

The Horned Frogs fouled 26 times, the Lions 31 times. A player fouled out on each team and at least five others on each team had three or more fouls when the game was over.

And truth be told? More fouls could have been legitimately called, thanks to a new emphasis from the NCAA to enforcing hand-check and blocking rules this season.

A year ago, Morehead State led the nation with 24.7 fouls per game. In the 2012-13 season 60 percent of 345 college teams averaged fewer than 18 fouls per game.

If players don’t get the memo this season, which begins Friday, that percentage could swing the other way.

The new rules have always been in the rule book, but were listed in a section of interpretation guidelines for officials, meaning they could choose to let defenders “play.”

The game, in the opinion of many, including ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, has been sullied by officials’ interpretation of fair contact.

In the last 20 to 30 years, hand-checking and contact of other sorts has been accepted.

Not anymore.

The idea behind the change is to free the game from much of the physical contact that has slowed scoring.

For many, the game has become ugly and has deviated from its original roots as a free-flowing, offense-first game that highlighted athletic skills, such as running, jumping and shooting.

The NCAA has taken the interpretation part off hand-checking and blocking and explicitly told officials these are now unquestionable fouls. In theory, interpretation is no longer part of the equation.

So expect to see the nation’s top teams separate themselves as their superior athletes are able to take advantage of the changes emphasizing offense and athletic skill.

Also, strong shooters will have a chance to knock down mid-range jumpers as defenders are forced to give them room.

“I was in favor of it and have been advocating it for years,” Bilas said during a teleconference this week. “I think our game has gotten away from us.”

Bilas lamented watching old tapes of games from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s and seeing how defensive tactics grew more aggressive little by little.

In some quarters, the physical defense was applauded as gritty and tenacious, and was successful — see the NBA champion Detroit Pistons in 1989 and 1990. Or the mid-90s New York Knicks, who led the NBA in defense in 1994, holding teams to 91.5 points a game.

That style was emulated by players and coaches from college down to junior high teams, emphasizing clamp-down defense over steady pull-up jumpers.

“It’s ridiculous how bad it’s gotten,” Bilas said. “And I think what this will do is it will bring back freedom of movement into the game.

“But it’s something we have to stick with. And if coaches and players are going to be stubborn about it, they’re going to get whistled for fouls. And if the commissioners and supervisors aren’t strong about it, then the referees are going to be allowed to back slide and slip back into the old way of just letting things go.”

TCU coach Trent Johnson is more worried about coaches and officials struggling to roll with the changes. He thinks the players will adapt quickly.

“Kids are going to adjust, but coaches and officials are the ones that have to adjust and we have to do our job,” said Johnson, who has typically featured defensive-minded teams. Johnson, and West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, two of the elder statesmen in the Big 12, don’t exactly sound thrilled about the changes.

“There’s a lot of stoppage of play,” Johnson said. “Basketball we’ve always thought has been a game of rhythm so it takes the game out of rhythm when you just look at the two games we’ve had.”

In TCU’s two preseason games the Frogs scored 80 or more points, something they didn’t do once all last season.

But the sporadic, rhythm-breaking play the changes may spawn early is the opposite of the intended effect.

The growing pains may be tough at first, but those such as Bilas are convinced it will improve the game in the long run.

“If they don’t stick with this, they’re making a huge mistake because our game is in trouble,” said Bilas, a four-year starter at Duke in the mid-80s. “This game has become unwatchable, not because of the length of time that we’re worried about now, but because we have allowed this game to become a hockey game. And that’s what made it unwatchable.

“I love college basketball, but I love it enough to tell the truth about it. The quality of play has taken a huge nosedive because we have not been vigilant in policing our game. And this was necessary. This is not a knee-jerk reaction. This has taken years to do. And we’ve got to stick with it.”

Texas’ Rick Barnes thinks the zone defense will make a comeback.

“There are going to be a lot of teams that will go back to the pack line defense,” he said. “Because if they call the rule the way it’s going to be called, it’s going to eliminate contact on the perimeter.”

Barnes and Bilas think more changes need to be integrated. They would prefer the NCAA adopt international rules, including a quicker shot clock.

“I’d still like to see them go to the NBA lane line,” Barnes said. “Now, with not being able to take charges [as easily], I’d like to see them let guys go up and take the ball at the rim. Snap it off until it goes in. I’d love to see them lower the shot clock to 30 seconds. But I do think it’s going to be a drastic change in style of basketball if they enforce the rules and call it like they say they are.”

Huggins, 60, who has been coaching since the late-70s, isn’t so sure the changes are feasible.

“I think the fallacy is we’re not going to have contact,” he said. “You can’t put 10 people that big, that strong, that fast in such a confined area. They’re going to run into each other. I mean, it just happens, and it’s always been a contact sport.”

Bilas isn’t having it.

“If some coaches want to complain, I’m willing to listen, but these complaints are unreasonable,” he said Tuesday. “We haven’t even started yet. If you can’t move your feet, you can’t play. And if you can’t guard without grabbing somebody, then what you’re saying is you can’t guard. So give a guy some space. Everybody is saying nobody can shoot. OK, well, give a guy some space, then.”