College basketball: Keeping your hands to yourself

Referees told to strictly police contact this season

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Kyle Robertson | Dispatch
Aaron Craft’s aggressive defense will have to depend more on position than hands under the NCAA’s new rules on defenders’ contact.

 

When Ohio State played Walsh in an exhibition game on Sunday, the Buckeyes were called for only 14 personal fouls, a couple fewer than they averaged last season.

And many fewer than officials had called the previous weekend in a scrimmage against West Virginia.

“They called everything (in the scrimmage),” guard Aaron Craft said. “That was the first experience we had with the new rules.”

If you haven’t heard, college basketball once again is trying to clean up its act. When the season starts on Friday — the 11th-ranked Buckeyes open on Saturday against Morgan State — new NCAA hand-checking rules will be in effect to prevent defenders from impeding a ball-handler’s movement toward the basket.

Guidelines that for years were open to officials’ interpretation — keeping hands or a forearm on an opponent, or continually jabbing an opponent — are now to be enforced and, theoretically, will free up the flow of a game that ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said has become “unwatchable.”

“If you prefer college basketball right now to the NBA for quality, it’s not because of the basketball. It’s because of something else,” Bilas said this week. “The quality of play (in college basketball) has taken a huge nosedive because we have not been vigilant in policing our game.”

Bilas is on a committee formed five years ago by Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany that analyzed the state of the game and why it became, in Bilas’ words, “organized wrestling.” Committee members studied video clips of every Final Four dating to 1950, and data on rules changes and statistical trends since then, to determine why offenses had become so stagnant.

What they found is that while scoring and shooting percentages receded, the average number of fouls has been steady — between 18.5 and 19.5 per game, Delany said — despite bigger bodies and more active defenses operating on a court with the same dimensions as 60 years ago.

“That doesn’t make any sense when you really think about it. How could fouls not fluctuate at all?” Bilas said. “What it really tells me is that officials self-regulate. They’re only going to call a certain amount of fouls. Well, the coaches know that, and so they’ve been teaching their players to foul because the referees won’t call them.

“It’s the officials’ fault. They should have been calling this all along. We have a lot of fouling that would be considered good defense by fans that don’t know what they’re looking at. We have screwed this game up.”

Fixing it is not as simple as calling more fouls, though.

Television networks package college basketball games in two-hour windows. If too many fouls are called, games run long, bleeding into the next window and causing problems for the networks.

“They want a freer-flowing game, but they don’t necessarily want a longer one,” Delany said. “Whenever you start getting up to 25 or 30 fouls in a game, media turns off, fans turn off, coaches get upset.”

There is potential for that if more games are like Dayton’s exhibition against Findlay on Saturday. The teams combined for 70 fouls and 96 free throws. There have been other such instances across the country.

Delany said he hopes the learning curve is short and that players, coaches and officials quickly strike a balance. But “I don’t expect it to be a smooth transition,” he said.

Bilas said success will rest on the strength of “the officials, the supervisors and the commissioners to follow the rules. If they don’t stick with this, they’re making a huge mistake because our game is in trouble.

“Some coaches want to complain: ‘We can’t hold and grab, we can’t play.’ If you can’t move your feet, you can’t play. If you can’t guard without grabbing somebody, what you’re saying is you can’t guard. So give a guy some space. Everybody is saying nobody can shoot. Well, give a guy some space then.”

Craft, the Big Ten defensive player of the year last season, did not earn his reputation by giving guys space. Coach Thad Matta said Craft moves his feet better than any defender in college basketball to beat dribblers to a given spot. Once there, he is a brick wall because he is stronger in his torso than anyone else, Big Ten Network analyst Stephen Bardo said.

“It’s definitely going to be different,” Craft said. “You’ve got to show your hands a lot more. I’m going to try to be as obnoxious about it as possible and show my hands out to my side and behind me as much as I can. There’s a huge emphasis on position now. You have to be in the right position. If you’re not, they’re giving the offense the advantage now.”

bbaptist@dispatch.com

@BBaptistHoops

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