The NCAA apparently doesn’t believe in the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” — at least, when it comes to college basketball.
This year the NCAA decided to change the rules by which the game is officiated. Although many of us love college basketball and the NCAA Tournament keeps hitting new heights of popularity, the NCAA was concerned that the college game had become too physical and too low scoring. So, this year, officials will be cracking down on “handchecks,” where defenders touch the offensive player in an effort to maintain contact and control. The idea is to make the game more free flowing, allowing skilled offensive players to dart up and down the floor, making acrobatic dunks and shots, unimpeded by pesky defensive players. Scores would rise, the theory went, and the game would have more dash and flair.
On Tuesday I watched my first game officiated under the new approach, and it sucked. The Ohio State Buckeyes played the Ohio University Bobcats, and the game quickly devolved into a whistle-blowing and free throw-shooting affair. The Buckeyes won, 79-69, after shooting 51 free throws. 51! OU would shoot from the outside and make or miss, then Ohio State would come downcourt, try to penetrate the lane, an OU player would touch the Buckeye ball handler, and a whistle would blow. The game was a leaden affair with no rhythm or flow and lasted about 20 minutes longer than normal. Five OU players fouled out.
Free throws can be exciting in certain contexts — say, at the end of a close game — but watching 51 of them being shot makes you feel like you’re hanging out at the local YMCA. I cringe when I think of what Big Ten games will be like, where the play tends to be more physical and some referees are eager to showboat whenever they get the chance. The depth of rosters will be sorely tested. How many players will still be eligible to play at the end of games?
College basketball coaches and NCAA people are now saying that this year is likely to be a transition year, where lots of fouls are called as players adjust to the new rules. Fans should just prepare themselves — it’s going to be a frustrating, free throw-filled year.