Rule changes have made college basketball fun to watch once again

PHILADELPHIA — If you’re a basketball fan, you’ve enjoyed something about this NCAA Tournament beyond the late-game dramatics and surprising upsets. The quality of the games is much better.

“The more they can open the game up and allow offenses to run, the better,” North Carolina guard Marcus Paige said Thursday from the NCAA Tournament East Regional.

Offense on the rise
Stats through Sunday compared to last year’s final stats.
2014-15 2015-16
Points per game 67.64 72.99
Field goal percentage 43.49% 44.01%
3-point field goal percentage 34.51% 34.72%
Possesions per game 65.78 69.93
Points per possession 1.0282 1.0439

The NCAA’s rules changes worked. The shot clock was shortened from 35 to 30 seconds, officials were instructed to emphasize cracking down on physical defenders for a more free-flowing offense, defenders can no longer get a five-second call against a dribbler, and the number of timeouts that can be called got reduced.

Division I teams are averaging 73 points per game, up from 67.6 last year (the lowest single-season total since 1952). Teams are scoring 1.04 points per possession, up from 1.03 a year ago.

There was some concern that the shot clock change would lead to more rushed shots and turnovers. Instead, turnovers are only up by one percent from last year and assists are up six percent. The average assists per game by team (13.4) are on pace to be the NCAA’s highest since 2008.

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Scoring isn’t up simply because of more foul shots or possessions. Teams are shooting 44 percent from the field (the second highest-mark in the past eight years). The number of 3-point field goals made (7.11 per team each game) are going to set an NCAA single-season record — a dramatic swing from 6.41 made last season. Shooting from 3-point range is on pace to be the NCAA’s best since 2008 (34.7 percent).

College teams are trying 20.5 3-point shots per game, up 10 percent from last season. It’s easily the most 3-point tries since college basketball introduced the shot in 1987.

“The point guard handles the ball more than anybody on the floor now,” said longtime college basketball observer Sonny Vaccaro. “Before, you never knew who was going to handle the ball. They would pass the god damn thing around and waste 30 seconds and it ends up in your hands late. Look at the penetration and kick-outs and the guys waiting for the passes. I’ve never seen so many open 3s. It’s because the point guard controls the game now.”

What do the players think of how the game has been impacted by the new rules? It’s a mixed bag based on opinions at the NCAA East Regional, where North Carolina, Indiana, Wisconsin and Notre Dame offer some different approaches to offense.

The East Regional has three of the eight most efficient offenses in the country: No. 5 North Carolina, No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 8 Indiana, according to kenpom.com. The Hoosiers (82.5 points per game) and Tar Heels (82.4) meet in the Sweet 16 as the highest-scoring teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament.

“I like the 30-second shot clock,” Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell said. “That means more possessions, more shots going up, up-and-down pace a little more, so I don’t mind that all.”

If there’s one thing players really don’t like it’s the elimination of the five-second call on the perimeter.

“If I was a defender, I’d want to get a five-second call if I was pressuring them out there,” Ferrell said.

Said Paige: “They should bring back the five seconds closely guarded on the dribble. A couple times you see guys out at half court like crab dribbling for 25 seconds to burn the clock. I don’t really like that.”

But this season has shown teams can adjust to a shorter shot clock and thrive. After Notre Dame went through a stretch in late February when it scored in the 50s and 60s, Mike Brey changed things up. The Irish started practicing with an 18-second shot clock in order to get more possessions for their quality shooters to get shots up.

“One thing we were struggling with is we’d be passing it around and cutting and getting into situations where (point guard) Demetrius Jackson had the ball with six seconds on the shot clock and he just had to create for himself and everybody else,” Notre Dame forward Matt Ryan said. “Coach said, ‘Screw this, we have to play faster.’

“Sometimes we get a shot up in six seconds and that’s not something Notre Dame is necessarily known for. But when you have dudes who can make shots, it just makes more sense to get up more shots in a game. Ever since then, we’ve been in a great groove and I think that’s what helped us get here. Now it doesn’t matter who’s shooting it as long as it’s a good look, and it’s a much more fun way to play.”

Indiana practices with a 24-second shot clock. “We don’t really recognize (the difference to 30 seconds),” Indiana forward Troy Williams said.

It’s more noticeable at Wisconsin, which runs a deliberate offense and practices with 25 seconds. The Final Four-tested Badgers have the lowest offensive efficiency among the remaining 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament.

“You know the history of Wisconsin,” Badgers guard Jordan Hill said. “We end up in a lot of shot-clock situations and I think it’s kind made teams play a little bit faster. Granted, when you start playing a little bit faster, there are more fouls called because people are behind on defense, which is what people want to see. It’s more entertaining, I can say that for sure.”

No matter what style a team plays, there is overwhelming frustration from many players about questionable foul calls on hand checking. Wisconsin prides itself on not fouling. Early in the year, the Badgers practiced with players holding tennis balls so they wouldn’t be inclined to touch or grab.

“I’m not happy about (the cutdown on physicality),” Hill said. “I love chucking guys coming through the lane, but you know, you’ve got to do what you have to do. There are some points where you pick someone up full court and there’s a touch. I don’t think that’s a foul. I see a lot of fouls getting called like 50 feet away from the basket and it seems kind of unnecessary. It does give the offense a pretty big advantage.”

North Carolina guard Joel Berry II puts it this way: “Sometimes it can be too many with the ticky-tack fouls, like if you’re out on the wing and somebody starts driving and you hit ‘em. I mean, I understand because as a guard, if someone hip-checks you, it kind of bounces you and turns you off and the guy can stay in front. Sometimes it gets to the point where they call too many and the flow of the game gets messed up.”

In the past, the NCAA officiating community emphasized preventing defenders from hand-checking guards and bumping cutters, only to see those calls disappear as the season progressed.

“Sometimes games are going to be called very tight and some aren’t,” said Williams, the Indiana forward. “But now that March has come in, they’re calling a lot more fouls now.”

Despite the extra possessions, fouls are only up 1.1 per team each game. Ryan, the Notre Dame forward, said he notices the NCAA Tournament is being called “very close” this season. It’s too close for his liking.

“Like this could be a foul with the ball,” Ryan said, gently touching a reporter’s leg. “On-the-ball defense is already as hard as it is and if you can’t even touch the guy, that’s tough. I do agree with off-ball stuff. Guys should be able to come off the ball freely and guys shouldn’t be able to grab them. But even that, those are things you’re taught growing up. You don’t just let guys cut through the lane. Certain guys’ games are meant for that to be physical.”

Still, players are adjusting. That doesn’t mean improvements to the game aren’t still needed.

But it’s a more attractive game. It’s a game that better rewards dribbling, shooting and running instead of clutching, grabbing and stalling.

“It’s a better game,” Paige said.

The new rule changes have made the game fun again. (USATSI)

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