Year after rule changes, men's basketball back to old form

Associated Press

March 6, 2015

Ohio State head coach Thad Matta talks with an official during an NCAA college basketball game against Penn State, Wednesday, March 4, 2015, in State College, Pa. Ohio State won 77-67.

CINCINNATI One year after the NCAA changed how rules were enforced to open up the game, men's basketball looks a lot like it once did.

Fouls, free throws and scoring increased at the start of last season with a new emphasis on eliminating some of the physical play, especially around the basket. Those statistics leveled off as the season went along and they are now back to near where they were two years ago.

It's like college basketball has gone back in time.

"It's almost like when you clean out your garage in the spring, get it nice and orderly and it looks great, and then over time you put the bicycle here, throw a couple of balls there," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "You don't have time to clean it again and the next thing you know, it looks like your garage from a year ago. I think that's literally what has happened to our game."

The NCAA decided to crack down on physical play after the 2012-13 season, when scoring ended up at just 66.8 points per game, according to STATS. That was its lowest since 1951-52, before the shot clock and long before the 3-pointer.

Officials were told to stop defensive players from using their forearms or hands to gain advantage. They couldn't impede a player cutting through the lane. The block-charge call was tweaked.

Fouls, free throws and scoring all went up, though the numbers leveled off and began receding as the season went along, according to STATS. Now, the numbers are much closer to where they were two years ago.

Butler forward Kelan Martin (30) goes up for a shot against Xavier center Matt Stainbrook (40) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, in Cincinnati.

After the crackdown, scoring jumped to 74.5 points the following November. It was back down to 67.8 last month, according to STATS.

Personal fouls and free throws also are down noticeably from the start of last season, though still slightly higher than before the rules were tweaked. After foul fests at the start of last season that averaged 24.1 free throws per team in November, the number is down to 20.5.

So, what happened?

Coaches and players think that everyone fans and referees included quickly tired of those hard-to-watch games with all the free throws at the start of last season.

"I think they saw maybe a little backlash: 'Hey, we're not here to watch people shoot free throws,'" Xavier center Matt Stainbrook said. "Although the points go up, the excitement doesn't necessarily go up with that."

Xavier head coach Chris Mack, right, talks with guard Myles Davis, left, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Villanova, Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015, in Cincinnati. Villanova won 78-66.

Ron Wellman, who was the chairman of the NCAA Division I basketball committee when the changes were implemented, thinks players have adapted to the rules, resulting in fewer fouls. Also, he thinks that the officials who are independent contractors backed off on some of the whistles as the season went along.

"At the beginning of last year especially, there was a lot of criticism because of the number of fouls called and the number of free throws," said Wellman, who is Wake Forest's director of athletics. "It became a free-throw-shooting contest rather than watching the athleticism of the players. The officials may have backed off a little bit, but the players adjusted exceptionally well."

Players say the rules aren't being enforced the same way.

"Last year, they put them in, so they were trying to stay on top of it and make sure everybody knew," Baylor junior forward Taurean Prince said. "But now they're letting people play."

Coaches watch a lot of video of games over the season and see things unfolding the way they did two years ago.

"Across the board, from what I've seen, we're back to where we were, which is probably what it needs to be," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.

Stainbrook and other post players agree that officials in general have remained stricter about not allowing the use of forearms or hands to gain advantage inside, and they're more aware of it.

Wellman said he thinks the game is better overall now than two years ago, although something needs to be done about all the fouling and free throws in the final minutes of a close game that can result in a lot of dead time.

"Overall we're moving in the right direction," Wellman said. "The game is being played in a manner that's pleasing to the fans and the way we like to enjoy college basketball. I think there's adjustments we need to consider."

Coaches aren't surprised that the experiment with the rules didn't last very long.

"You're dealing with 30-year traditions of how our game is dictated, how it's officiated," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "I don't think it's anybody's fault. In our game, it's just how it is."