Waiting out the new foul rules in college basketball, for the benefit of the game

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA has adjusted its hand-checking and charge rules, and the result has been a sharp increase in whistles early in the season. But what will happen once players adapt?

I recently deleted a picture from my phone that was just too gruesome for me to look at any longer. It was of the scoreboard during the opening round of the Big East tournament, taken at the end of regulation. It read:

Seton Hall 37 South Florida 37

And that wasn't the only ugly scoreboard of the season after 40 minutes. Other lowlights included: Georgetown 37 Tennessee 36, Eastern Michigan 42 Northern Illinois 25, and, in the Elite Eight of all places, Syracuse 55 Marquette 39.

Something had to be done to address the lack of scoring in college basketball, and in the offseason, the NCAA rules committee decided to crack down on hand-checking and further clarify the block/charge call, hoping to free up what had become an overly physical game.

The new point of emphasis with the greatest impact: That defenders may not use a hand or forearm to impede the progress of an opponent.

In other words, hands off.

It's too early to tell if the emphasis on hand-checking will work, but like it or not, it has become the story of the college basketball season so far.

Constant whistles have disrupted the flow of games. Stars have been sent to the bench early. Coaches have pulled their hair out on the sidelines and complained to the media.

Players and coaches will just have to adjust, and it's something that has happened before.

As Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg told ESPN, the NBA struggled with similar changes in the '90s, before eventually figuring it out. Hoiberg was playing for the Pacers at the time.

"It was pretty ugly at first," he said. "Those first summer league games were taking three hours sometimes, so it was pretty painful. And, with the NBA guys, they're so powerful and explosive, it was darned near impossible to keep those guys in front of you."

Of course there are other, less controversial ways to increase scoring in college basketball. The one that seems to be the most popular is to lower the shot clock from 35 seconds to maybe 30 seconds or all the way down to 24, which is the NBA time limit.

This would undoubtedly work as well, and will probably happen sooner rather than later.

But the officiating change this year does more than add points to the scoreboard. It forces players back to the fundamentals.

This is a challenge for the players to defend smarter, something that as Hoiberg points out, was difficult for even the pros to do right away. Then again, one of the first lessons you're taught when learning to play defense growing up is to do so with your feet, not your hands. Some coaches even teach defense by tying their players' hands behind their backs, forcing them to learn good footwork.

Get in that defensive stance. Slide. Keep your man in front of you. Maybe even slap the floor, if you're into that sort of thing.

You don't need to have a hand or forearm on your man to keep him in front of you. These points of emphasis are partly about breaking bad habits, and there are going to be growing pains along the way.

Last week, Seton Hall beat Niagara in a game that featured 75 fouls. Each team shot at least 50 free throws. Six players fouled out. It was ugly and it took about two and a half hours to complete.

In October, there were 71 total fouls in a closed scrimmage between Xavier and Ohio, with 91 total free throws attempted.

There were seven games over the weekend with 60 or more fouls called. Last year, the most fouls called in a game was 67.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more frightening stats that are sure to pop up.

But with the struggles, there have been some signs of success (though of course the sample size is relatively small). As Kevin Pauga of KPI Sports points out, the points per game average in the opening weekend of college basketball (73.1 ppg) was higher than the average points per game totals last year (68.6). Yes, part of the reason is more free throw attempts, but Pauga shows that about 41 percent of the scoring increase is due to teams attempting more field goals per game.

Once the fouls start to decrease, more possessions will be played through. More shots will be attempted and then more will be made.

Not allowing players to keep a hand on an opponent is not discouraging them from playing defense, it is encouraging them to play good defense. It's making things harder, for sure, but not impossible.

Just don't foul your man, and you won't be penalized. Hands off.

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