Are College Basketball's Rule Changes Having the Desired Effect?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 4, 2013

In case you missed the offseason memos and have been watching games on mute for the past month, allow me to be the first to inform you that there were a number of rule changes put into place for the 2013-14 college basketball season.

Most notably among them, hand checking is a huge no-no.

Whether it's a guard trying to dribble past you or a big man trying to back you into the paint, you can't simply keep an innocent hand on him as you could in recent years. The hope was that this would have a similarly positive effect on scoring—like what occurred in football when it essentially became illegal to breathe on a wide receiver.

After nearly one full month of play, it's time to investigate whether or not those changes are having the desired effect.

Long story short: scoring is up, but not exactly in the way we had hoped.

Huge thanks to, without which this data would have taken an entire lifetime to research.


Scoring is significantly on the rise

Points and possessions per season

At a very basic level, this is incredibly good news.

Not everyone understands or cares to understand tempo-free statistics, but anyone can look at a line graph of points per game over the past few decades and surmise that we weren't exactly trending in the right direction. Hopefully those same people can see the great big spike in points and possessions per game and know that this is an improvement.

Since averaging 142.3 points per game during the 2000-01 season, we matriculated down to a nadir of 134.3 points per game last season. Through just under a month, scoring is up 9.1 percent from last year to an impressive 146.5 points per game.

This year's numbers have unquestionably been inflated to some extent by teams taking advantage of lesser early-season opponents. Even notoriously low-scoring Wisconsin played in a 188-point game already this year.

Scoring will probably drop a little bit as the season goes along and opponents become more evenly matched.

Then again, Notre Dame and Iowa played a very evenly matched 98-93 game on Tuesday night, so who knows? Even if the average drops by eight full points per game, though, that's still better than we've seen in more than a decade.

Whether we stay at or near 146.5 points per game remains to be seen, but we've certainly taken a huge step in the right direction.

Now let's look that gift horse in the mouth, shall we?


Crying Foul

Fouls and free throws per season
SeasonFouls per gameFree-throw attempts per game

Arguably the biggest reason that scoring has improved is because fouling has substantially increased. The number of fouls called per game has jumped from 35.4 during the 2012-13 season to 40.2 thus far this yeara staggering 13.6 percent increase.

This, of course, has led to more free-throw attempts.

The 39.2 free throws attempted per game last season was the lowest rate since at least the 1997-98 season. Now on the opposite end of the spectrum, the current rate of 46.7 free-throw attempts per game is the highest rate over the same time span.

We were certainly anticipating more fouls as teams adjusted to the new emphasis on hand checking, but this is a bit extreme.

It's tough to even say whether things are getting better or worse.

Oklahoma State and Memphis played a competitive 73-68 game on Sunday night with only 32 fouls, but Louisville and North Carolina combined for 50 fouls in their 93-84 affair on Nov. 24. And no, those fouls weren't simply accumulated during the endgame strategy that so many college coaches employ. Only two of the 50 fouls occurred in the final 4:58 of the game.

It's probably impossible to statistically prove, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the increased number of fouls is indirectly inflating scoring as well. Players who do play aggressive defense are forced to spend significantly more time on the bench in foul trouble than in recent years, leaving subpar defenders to play more minutes.

Case in point, when Duke met Arizona on Nov. 29 Jabari Parker made four of his seven field goals in the final six minutes of the first half—whilst Aaron Gordon sat on the bench with two fouls.


And One Mixtape

Field goals, three-pointers and assists by season
SeasonMade FG per gameMade 3FG per gameAssists per game

Thanks to the increase in whistles, another casualty of the new rules is that guards are given much more incentive to be selfish with the ball.

Successful field goals are significantly on the rise, but assists per game is just as low as ever. As a result, there is an assist on just 51.1 percent of made field goals as compared to 53.8 percent last year and more than 55 percent as little as seven years ago.

Why is this the case?

Well, what's the point in passing when you can drive to the rim and either have a free layup or get bailed out by a foul call?

The intent of the emphasis on hand checking was to free up movement for both dribblers and players trying to get open. Ideally, this would lead to more backdoor cuts, open jumpers and a generally more aesthetically pleasing version of basketball than the backyard wrestling match it became in recent years.

However, freeing up movement in the same year that the block/charge change was enacted has led to a nation of players trying to emulate John Wall's season at Kentuckyflying at the rim at 100 miles per hour with reckless abandon for all bodies involved.

The old-fashioned three-point play is now the cool way to get points in bunches.

Through the end of play on Dec. 2, Niagara's Antoine Mason led the nation in scoring at 30.0 points per game. Not surprisingly, he had also attempted 15 more free throws than the next-closest man on the leaderboard.

Mason is not a particularly gifted shooter, hitting just 26.1 percent of his 46 three-point attempts on the season. But he has all but perfected the art of creating contact while falling toward the hoop and throwing the ball into its general vicinity.

He's certainly not the only one who appears to have spent more time this summer working on flailing layups than 20-foot jumpers.

Made field goals have increased by 3.1 per game from last season, but only 0.5 of that increase is from traditional three-pointers. As far as "Percentage of made field goals that are three-pointers" is concerned, we're at the lowest rate in over a decade.

Perhaps some of that is due to players simply struggling to get comfortable from long range early in the season, but considering Duke's four primary three-point shooters were a combined 46.8 percent from downtown through the end of November, that's likely faulty reasoning.


So, is this actually good news or bad news?

I do believe we are moving in the right direction. In due time, teams and players will figure out how to defend without fouling (quite so much).

If nothing else, we should be headed for a serious influx of zone defenses as coaches succumb to the fact that 90 percent of guards can't single-handedly defend 90 percent of guards in today's game. That should lead to fewer fouls, better ball movement and more three-point shootinghopefully without significantly impacting our ongoing renaissance in points and possessions per game.

Regardless of the cause, more points is a great outcome for the game.

Even for the extremists who continue to claim to enjoy college basketball more than the NBA because the teams actually play defense and try hard, it was getting very difficult to find beauty in things like a 53-41 National Championship game between Connecticut and Butler.


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