Is It Still Possible to Play Great Defense with Rule Changes in NCAA Basketball?

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterJanuary 7, 2014

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The death of defense by whistle. Many coaches believed it was happening right before our very eyes in November. 

They were getting worked up like Fran McCaffery about how the rule changes—the ones meant to simply encourage the actual rules of the game to be called—had made it impossible to play any sort of defense.

Wednesday is the official two-month mark of the college basketball season, and unless I'm not looking in the right places, defense is being played all around us.

EAST LANSING, MI - DECEMBER 28: Michigan State Spartans head basketball coach Tom Izzo reacts to a call during the first half of the game against the New Orleans Privateers at the Breslin Center on December 28, 2013 in East Lansing, Michigan.  (Photo by L
Leon Halip/Getty Images

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo was the highest-profile coach who overreacted early on. Izzo went on what seemed like a calculated rant to the national media following his team's win over Oklahoma at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Nov. 23.

"Everybody's going to think points are up, but they're up because of free [throws], in my estimation," Izzo said, via Matt Norlander of CBSSports.com. "What I'm worried about, guys: Are we gonna teach, 'Just dribble in and get fouled'? Is that good basketball? We had a two-hour-and-32-minute game last night. Is that going to be good for basketball?

"... I've been so paranoid about the fouls that I think some of it's my fault. We used to get after people. And I don't mean 10 years ago, when it was a football team on hardwood. I mean, just normal (physicality), like everyone else. And I think I've gone too far to the right with paranoia."

To say that the game would morph into some form of "whoever can attack the rim with the most reckless abandon wins" was a bit premature.

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Free throws are up, and although trends indicate those numbers will continue to push toward the mean, there's plenty of other data and evidence that shows it's still possible to play great defense. 

If defenses would no longer be able to contest at the rim without any sort of success, as Izzo suggested, then teams would be shooting substantially higher percentages inside the arc and the percentage of shots blocked would be down, right?

That's not happening.

Have the rules really changed the game?
Avg. 2-pt FG%Avg. Block Rate

Just this past weekend, Kansas lost the Izzo way. The Jayhawks tried to attack the rim, hoping to get bailed out by the whistle. They missed 10 of their 19 layups, and San Diego State blocked five of those shots.

"Our offense was totally inept in large part because they really guard," Kansas head coach Bill Self said, via Rustin Dodd of The Kansas City Star.

Good defense can still negate reckless driving, but teams are trying to get to the basket more often.

Izzo, for instance, is sticking to what he said he would do. His Spartans shot 40.5 percent of their shots at the rim last year, and that number is up to 45.1 percent this year, according to Hoop-Math.com. But they are shooting the same percentage at the rim as last year (63.5 percent), and the success rate at the rim nationally (60 percent) hasn't changed either.

The big thing that has struck down Izzo's worries about the ability to win with great defense is the success of several programs that are doing just that. Look up and down the Top 25, and you're not going to just find great offensive teams. Great defense still wins.

The Aztecs are one great example. They are 12-1 and ranked 13th with an offense that has scored more than 80 points only three times. They're winning by making it extremely difficult to score inside the arc because of their length, athleticism and great rotations.

San Diego State's two-point field-goal percentage defense (38.1 percent) ranks No. 1 nationally, according to KenPom.com (subscription required), and is better than it has ever been under Steve Fisher.

Jan 4, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Tigers guard Michael Dixon Jr (11) shoots over Cincinnati Bearcats guard Ge'Lawn Guyn (14) at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati is another program winning with old-fashioned, hard-nosed defense. The Bearcats are at the brink of entering the Top 25 after winning at Memphis, and it has little to do with offense. They hold opponents to only 56.3 points per game, and they haven't just slowed the game down, either. Their tempo-free numbers are just as good, ranking third in Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency.

And the final example is the No. 1 team in the country. Arizona has not been the best team because of improved offense—the offensive numbers are almost identical to last season—but Sean Miller's boys are defending better than they ever have.

The Wildcats have proven it's possible to keep teams from getting into the paint. Their opponents attempt only 15.9 percent of shots at the rim, which ranks No. 1 nationally, according to Hoop-Math.com.

Defenses that force turnovers by premeditated hacking are becoming obsolete. Turnover numbers are down. Last season, a turnover occurred on 20 percent of possessions, and that's down to 18.6 percent, per KenPom.com. A big part of that is officials not allowing defenders to use their hands.

Any coach will tell you that defense was meant to be played with your feet. The rules haven't changed that. If anything, they've made that even more the case.

And that's why the complaints are fewer and farther between. If anything, the rules have rewarded good defensive coaching. Coaches should embrace that. 

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

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