West Virginia's Juwan Staten (right, covering Oklahoma State's Markel Brown last season) had better keep his hands to himself under new rules taking effect this season in college basketball.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - It could change college basketball like nothing has since freshman eligibility or legalizing the dunk.Then again, maybe it won't.There seems an almost unanimous feeling among coaches, however, that new hand-checking and defensive rules that go into effect this season will change the way the game is played. They just aren't sure how it's going to manifest itself."I think the fallacy is that we're not going to have contact,'' West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said Tuesday. "You can't put 10 people that big, that strong and that fast in such a confined area and think they're not going to run into each other. I mean, it just happens. It's always been a contact sport.''Indeed, basketball always has been a contact sport. The rules-makers, however, are taking a huge step this season in an attempt to restrict that contact, which in recent years has gradually become almost thuggish.It is commonly referred to as hand-checking, the act of a defensive player reaching out to put his hands on an offensive player, particularly the offensive player with the ball. More and more, that hand-checking has become grabbing, elbowing, pushing and guiding.And almost all of it is illegal now."These rules were always in the rule book, but they were in the back of the rule book,'' Big 12 supervisor of officials Curtis Shaw said during the league's annual media day at the Sprint Center. "They were under guidelines and points of emphasis. The rules committee decided this was so important they moved it into the actual rule and said these are no longer judgment calls."These are no longer plays that we're going to give [officials] some leeway to decide if it matters or not. If these things happen, it's an automatic foul.''
Among those things is hand-checking. Shaw said hand-checking in order to measure up an opponent or begin the guarding process is OK. Once. But the constant hand-checking is illegal and will be called.So will other forms of defensive contact. Block/charge rules have been adjusted, too, to dramatically curtail the ability of a secondary defender to step in and take a charge.All in all, the rules are designed to, as the NCAA rules committee writes, "penalize illegal contact by the defense which prevents players from cutting freely, running their offense and otherwise creating a more free-flowing game.''For the most part, the coaches seem all in favor of it. Huggins is fairly non-committal - "Ask me a year from now and I can eloquently answer your question. Or at least I think it will be eloquent,'' he said - but everyone sees it for what it is, which is an effort to reverse a trend toward brutish basketball."It's going to be a drastic change in style of basketball,'' said Texas coach Rick Barnes before offering a caveat. "If they enforce the rule and call it like they say they are.''
In the short term, of course, it could make the game almost torturous to watch. That's not because it is intended to, but because there will no doubt be a period of adjustment. The game has for years become more physical and to think that it will automatically become less so because of a rule change is naïve. Many players have spent a lifetime perfecting - and coaches coaching them - the very techniques that are now outlawed. When they revert to those techniques as a matter of habit, it will mean more fouls, perhaps a lot more.
"The games will be ugly early,'' said Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger. "Everyone will be unhappy about it. But hopefully they can sustain it and call it the way they're projecting. It will be a huge adjustment."We were talking about it coming up this morning. It's as big an adjustment for the game as we've seen, and that includes the [shot] clock, the 3-point line. It's going to have a huge impact on the game.''It's already had a huge impact on the NBA."The NBA went through this cycle back in the year 1999-2000,'' Shaw said. "Their scoring had gone from the 120 points a game to 100 points a game to 80 points a game. That's when they realized they had let it get too physical.''Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg knows all about that. He played in the NBA during that time."I went through it in the NBA as a player where you could hand check guys and then it went to an arm bar rule and you couldn't touch anybody,'' said Hoiberg, who played from 1996 to 2005 with Indiana, Chicago and Minnesota. "It was pretty ugly at first. I remember some of the games would take over three hours just because of all the fouls that were called.
"But eventually the players adjust to it and the officials will adjust to it.''The idea is to make the game more ballet than brawl and to increase scoring. A scoring increase could be immediate, not because of more offensive freedom but because of more free throws. That's contrary to the motive, of course, but the hope is that it's a short-term issue until players adjust to the style."One of the unintended consequences early may be more fouls,'' Shaw said. "But we have the greatest athletes we've ever had in college basketball. We've got the smartest coaches we've ever had in college basketball. And they'll adjust."It's just a matter of getting used to what the new situations are and breaking some bad habits because our kids have played so long doing certain things."Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.