How the NCAA's Rule Changes Have Improved College Basketball

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How the NCAA's Rule Changes Have Improved College Basketball
Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

In the final minutes of the Kansas-Oklahoma State game last Saturday afternoon—a bizarrely officiated game that included seven technicals—the JawhawksJamari Traylor drove from near the top of the key toward the rim. The Cowboys' Kamari Murphy slid up and underneath Traylor. The baseline official blew his whistle and was ready to call a charge. The sideline official ran in and wasn't so sure. 

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press
Look, an actual jump ball.

And then all three officials kind of looked at each other, huddled up and decided it was clearly a...jump ball?!

It was an easy call under the old rules and an easy call under the new rules, and these are the types of calls the rule changes were supposed to eliminate and make easier to define. 

Instead, the officials decided to go with the ultimate cop-out. 

This makes fans scream foul (or why no foul?!!!), and rightfully so. But officials, no matter the sport or the league, are going to make mistakes.

So when the NCAA and the rules committee implemented changes this offseason that, in theory, gave more power to the whistle—the changes can be seen here—it had a lot of fans and coaches throwing up their hands.

Why give the officials more opportunities to mess up?

Depending on which side you fall, there are numbers that say the rules—emphasizing hand-checking and a change to the charge/block rule—have worked in one sense, since scoring is up, and have failed in another, since fouls and free throws are also up, making the games longer and harder to watch.

Scoring and Foul Trends
Fouls/Game FTA/Game PPG
2009-10 18.6 21.0 69.3
2010-11 18.7 20.9 69.1
2011-12 18.0 20.1 68.0
2012-13 17.7 19.8 67.5
2013-14 19.5 22.7 71.6

NCAA and kpisports.wordpress.com

*Numbers through Sunday, Jan. 19. 

But to simply look at the numbers in this way fails to really give the changes a fair shake.

In November, there were some games that went on forever and were brutal to watch—Seton Hall and Niagara combining for 73 fouls and 102 free-throw attempts was one of them—but recent numbers show that the players have adjusted. 

Look at the average number of fouls and free throws by week this season. 

Weekly Scoring and Foul Trends in 2013-14
Fouls/Game FTA/Game PPG
Week 1 21.2 24.7 73.1
Week 2 20.5 24.0 74.1
Week 3 19.9 23.3 73.1
Week 4 19.3 22.2 72.1
Week 5 19.2 22.5 71.0
Week 6 19.1 22.3 71.2
Week 7 18.9 22.0 70.7
Week 8 18.5 21.2 70.2
Week 9 18.9 22.2 70.5
Week 10 19.4 22.8 71.0
Week 11 19.1 22.0 68.9

kpisports.wordpress.com

We're getting fewer whistles, but the game hasn't muddied back to its old self. 

"When players started realizing, if I do this, I've got to go sit out, they quit doing it," Big 12 coordinator of officials Curtis Shaw told Bleacher Report.

The results are subtle, because we usually only recognize the blatant blunders, but the changes have had the desired effect. There is less contact on the perimeter, and you don't see as many kamikaze defenders, like Murphy, trying to jump in at the last second for a charge.

As a result, big men are trying to block shots instead of taking charges, and blocked-shot numbers are up.

Block Rate Trends
Block Rate
2009-10 9.2
2010-11 9.2
2011-12 9.2
2012-13 9.3
2013-14 9.8

kenpom.com

And just like the players have adjusted, the officials have as well.

In November, it was a fair criticism that they had a hard time figuring out what was a foul and what wasn't under the new guidelines. Instead of trying to determine if an advantage was gained, which was the old protocol, they were trying to eliminate contact altogether. 

Good defense was sometimes punished. But Shaw does not believe that has been the case lately, as foul numbers have dropped. 

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

"I think we're seeing more contact by the offense that looks like a rough play, but the defense isn't doing anything wrong, so we shouldn't have a whistle," Shaw said. "It's not an offensive foul. It's just a ball-handler dribbling into a legal defender. 

"I've heard some announcer go, 'Oh, there was contact, that's gotta be a whistle under the new rules.' Well, no. If the defense doesn't use the hands, forearm or body moving forward to impede them and the offensive player just puts his head down and runs into them, that's contact and that's an ugly play, but the defender did nothing wrong."

This could be construed as officials going back to calling the game the way they used to call the game, but Shaw doesn't believe the NCAA will let that happen.

Shaw said he's been on his officials—he's in charge of five leagues—to not revert back to their old ways. NCAA director of officials John Adams has also sent out memos and was very direct that the officials need to continue to stick to the new rules during a conference call earlier this month. (Adams shared his points of emphasis last week with CBSSports.com's Matt Norlander.)

The NCAA still has a major challenge because the leagues are in charge of their officials. It's like trying to get a bunch of countries to govern with the same rules. 

But to the organization's credit, it has controlled the messaging and received support from its critics that helped create the change, like ESPN's Jay Bilas.

"I think a lot of the veterans and people thought this is what the game needed," Shaw said. "The game was getting to a spot that was not good. We allowed physicality and the weight room to become way more important than basketball skills.

"I think that led to an eroding of the game and not allowing basketball talent to come out. I think the rules committee, the basketball committee, the NCAA had recognized that over the last few years. We had to make a pretty drastic change, and truthfully, it's not a change in that the rules have always said you can't push, shove, kick, knee, etc., but we really needed it written in plain black and white."

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Shaw said he'd like to see more changes. Post play would be the next thing that he would try to clean up. He also would like to see the lane widened and the NBA's defensive three seconds adopted.

"For some reason, we're always 10 years behind the NBA," he said. "They see a problem with their game, and it takes us 10 years to figure out we have the same issue."

Shaw says he's not sure he'll see those changes in his lifetime. 

After all, change is a hard sell. Fans do not like it. They'll scream on Twitter and message boards about it. And they'll convince themselves it's the change that's screwing their team.

But in a year or two, I'd like to think everyone who cares about college basketball will look back and admit the rules have made the college game better.

I, for one, am there already. 

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.

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