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College basketball needs rule changes? Fans might say otherwise

April 27, 2015 Columns No Comments

It is virtually accepted as fact by now that the sport of college basketball is in an important offseason.

With so much discussion of the sport’s state, that has become a truth, but the reality is the spring and summer of 2015 may be more crucial for what shouldn’t be done than what should be.

In its attempt to satisfy howls calling for change, college basketball could just as easily create new problems as it could fix the sport. Changes could peel away at the uniqueness of the college game, and in the eyes of fans firmly entrench the sport as nothing more than a far less-talented version of the NBA.

That may not be how coaches or analysts see it, but really, it doesn’t matter. That’s exactly how the fans might see it, if changes are made haphazardly with an eye mainly on what the NBA and international leagues do and not with careful consideration of all stakeholders in the game.

The terms “crisis” and “unwatchable” have been thrown around about college hoops’ on-court product so many times they seem to have been accepted as gospel. That’s unfortunate, because while there may be a hint of truth to them, in large part they are embellishments.

There really is no crisis. Certainly the sport is not in such depths that it should want to all but rewrite the sport’s rules in an effort to mandate a particular style of play. Yes, the sport does need tweaks and changes, in fact, we wrote about that exact topic last year, but mostly systemic changes from within, over time, not from changing rules.

Of course, the chief topic has been scoring and pace of play. Truth is, this shouldn’t be nearly the problem it is currently perceived to be, because we had a solution for the problem very recently.

Just a year ago, freedom of movement rules were a point of re-emphasis going into the season. On the strength of them, scoring jumped 3.5 points per game, from the 60-year low of 2012-13 right back to the late 1990s levels when the sport was still largely considered on solid footing. It is mind-boggling just how quickly this fact has been forgotten by those crying so loudly about the state of the sport.

If the object is scoring and more possessions, just a year ago it was mission: accomplished. One year ago! That was until some loud voices in the coaching community bucked against the rule re-enforcements, officials backed off of them as last season went on and completely wiped them out this year.

The numbers proved it: the sport didn’t need rule changes. It simply needed more balance and enforcement of the rules it already has.

Offensive players need to be allowed to move without the ball; that will encourage variety and invention on offense by at least some coaches, which will spur scoring. This won’t solve every problem (there’s only so much one can fix with the number of transfers, NBA early entries, and the poisonous effects of AAU basketball) but it will solve enough of them that we can live with the others.

Of course, it may be true that even this is putting too much emphasis on the officiating aspect, and not enough of the blame on NCAA Division I coaches themselves. The same rules used in D-I are the ones used in Divisions II, III and the NAIA. None of those levels are having problems with scoring, and the numbers prove it.

It is widely accepted, though, that the sport has become way too physical, and no coincidence that as physicality increased over the past 20-25 years that scoring went down. Watch any game from 1990 and now, and it’s blatantly obvious. The sport currently rewards physicality and defense; it does not reward movement. As such, it’s no surprise that coaches would prefer to focus on that side of the ball.

Yet it seems any number of influential shareholders believe the sport needs to be blown up at the core. The consensus from them is that a shorter shot clock, a wider lane, a longer three-point arc, and larger arc under the basket are all must-haves to get the sport better.

Every one of them is a staple of the NBA, which for whatever reason has been adopted by coaches and analysts as the ideal of what college basketball should be.

There is plenty to suggest the pro game is not nearly as good as it gets portrayed. (A title contender can score 73 points in a 48-minute NBA game with a 24-second shot clock and yet we hear nothing about that being “unwatchable?” ) Whether the pundits are right or wrong about which is better, though, doesn’t change the fact that fans in general may already have their opinion.

The NBA’s regular season TV ratings also are struggling, just like college basketball’s. The Final Four’s ratings in this “unwatchable” era blow away the ratings for the NBA Finals, and the same is true for the NCAA tourney first weekend vs. the NBA Playoffs first round. Television viewership says that fans are not only happy with college basketball-they prefer it to the pro game.

It would be thoroughly unwise for rule makers to not consider this heavily. Despite its warts, college basketball fans still like their sport, and the casual fans are still flocking to it far more than they do to the comparable professional version.

Hard core fans enjoy college basketball for its diversity, of which the NBA has very little. Basically, they like it because it’s not the NBA.

We all know it: the players make the NBA. When it comes to styles, the NBA has superior players and athletes, but it is not seen by many as a better game, and there is a difference.

Where NBA rules work, it is because NBA teams are loaded with the best of the best. The best shooters, the best rebounders, the best guards, the best players at creating shots in a short amount of time. College teams overwhelmingly do not have this. It’s so obvious that it shouldn’t even require explanation: very, very few teams have NBA-ready talent to create shots or drain deep three-pointers as the shot clock runs out.

(Perhaps that style of play wouldn’t be such a problem if college basketball had a better balance rewarding offense and defense…but again, doesn’t that indicate the real problem is that lack of balance?)

When it comes to variety, though, the NBA stylistically has next to none. Even with teams like the Hawks and Spurs, the vast majority of NBA basketball is still one-on-one, clear-out, pick-and-roll-based with a lot of guys standing around.

There is no pressing or trapping. Zones are technically allowed, but not encouraged. We won’t even get started on the oft-liberal interpretation of traveling, which turns off more fans than many think. Most games look very much the same, but superb athletes and better players obscure this.

Even in its watered-down state, college basketball still has more recognizable styles than the NBA ever will. VCU has “Havoc.” Georgetown and Princeton run the Princeton offense. Wisconsin runs the swing offense. Syracuse plays its 2-3 zone. Virginia has the pack line defense. Teams like BYU, Iona and VMI in recent years have gladly pushed the tempo, and if you’re not seeing enough of them, blame TV, not the teams.

The appeal of different styles may not matter to coaches and analysts. It matters to college basketball fans. The comments on the multitude of Web stories this year about the sport’s issues (such as here) show it. There are plenty of fans who might accept light changes, but drastic changes could easily be as big of a step back as a step forward. The sport would be foolish to diminish what makes it unique any more than it already did when it shrunk the shot clock from 45 seconds to 35.

As for the casual fan, they typically love college basketball for 1) their favorite team or 2) the NCAA Tournament. The former aren’t worried about rules, so long as their team wins. The latter, though, very well are attracted specifically for the product.

The tourney is one of the most popular events in sports because of its unpredictability. Specifically, it is made by its inclusiveness. Not just upsets, but the sheer possibility of them.

Anything that detracts from that also would be a significant step back for the sport. If the men’s tournament ever became like the women’s tournament-where upsets are exceptionally rare and top seeds advancing to the Final Four are common-it will be a major blow for the sport.

Of course, all involved in college basketball would love for the sport to be enjoyed for its superstars, too, the way it once was. The fact is, those days are mostly gone, and the only rule change that will amend that is if the NBA ever went to the baseball model requiring three years in college if not turning pro out of high school, a highly desirable one but unlikely in a world ever more dominated by lawyers.

Whatever rule changes come about, it would be wrong if they penalize a team for playing its style well (and within the rules). Wisconsin is a very patient team offensively, and so were Northern Iowa, Oregon State and Wyoming this year. All also were very good. Why should they be penalized for running a patient offense? Can’t we have fast teams AND slow ones?

Also, what unintended consequences could there be when teams are forced to play defense five less seconds on each possession? It can easily be argued that the shrinking of the shot clock to 35 seconds made it easier for teams to play defense for a full possession, as scoring has gone down since the shot clock went from 45 seconds to 35 (another one of those facts that it is incomprehensible that does not get more consideration).

Rule changes or re-emphases should be such that they encourage teams to play different styles while maintaining a balance in the sport. When rules can encourage certain styles without detracting from others, that’s when one knows the balance is right. That’s when the sport will appeal to the hard core and casual fan. Judging by the numbers, college basketball is doing far better at this than many think, and any rule changes this offseason should represent as much.

Tomorrow: we’ll recap the rule changes we would like to see this offseason, as well as the ones we can do without.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam

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