College basketball hand-checking rules might actually work


Michigan State’s Matt Costello and Kentucky’s Dakari Johnson battle for the ball during the Champions Classic. Michigan State defeated Kentucky, 78-74. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

I was prepared to hate the new rules in college basketball, the ones that are supposed to make blocking/charging calls easier to determine and crack down on hand-checking, all in an effort to increase scoring. The early returns suggested this wasn’t going to work: More fouls were called, which means more free throws, which might mean more scoring but probably not the high-paced, exciting kind envisioned by the NCAA.

Mark Giannotto laid out some of the worst examples in Tuesday’s Post. Seventy-three fouls and 102 free throws in a Seton Hall-Niagara game topped the list. I watched Kansas and Louisiana-Monroe commit 58 fouls and take 72 free throws — and saw the referees review a blocking/charging call. If we’re adding instant replay to all these fouls, well, March Madness will need to start around Valentine’s Day.

But of course, that’s not going to happen. Teams worked with referees during practices to help players understand the new rules, but only by playing games that count (sort of; it is early in the season) will players come to grips with . . . not coming to grips, I guess. The National Association of Basketball Coaches approved these changes, so coaches have no one to blame but themselves, although somehow I’m sure they’ll still manage to ride the officials.

The new rules are sobering when you consider stats such as this: Georgetown was called for 31 fouls in its loss to Oregon after averaging 17.4 per game last season. But by the time the conference seasons begin, players should be much more familiar with what they can and can’t do. And that should lead to more scoring and less dozing off during 48-40 victories.

Calls are still going to be disputed, especially blocking vs. charging, but hopefully those won’t require trips to the scorer’s table to watch replays. One great thing about college basketball is the fairly predictable length of its games: two hours plus a smidge of minutes. Adding TV timeouts can increase that to 21 / 2 hours, but barring overtime, a college basketball game is not an all-day commitment. That’s what makes the first two days of the NCAA tournament so great: The games can be layered in such a way that you can play 16 of them in one day and still get breaks for dinner, the bathroom or putting the kids to bed.

Nonetheless, I was prepared for annoyance (it’s way too early for anger) when I tuned in to the Champions Classic on Tuesday night. Four of the five top-ranked teams in the country were playing — although I think we can all agree rankings mean diddly-squat in November. Kentucky, Michigan State, Duke and Kansas all have smart and successful coaches who I am confident are emphasizing the changes in practice every day. So I expected improvement, not perfection, in abiding by the rules.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Michigan State and Kentucky committed 46 fouls between them and shot a combined 53 free throws. Kansas and Duke did not do as well — 53 fouls, 63 three throws — but still an improvement.

More importantly, Kansas made 77.1 percent of its free throws and Duke 57.1 percent. Kansas won. Michigan State made 76.5 percent of its free throws, Kentucky 55.6. Michigan State won.

The Spartans and Jayhawks didn’t win simply because they got more trips to the line and shot better from the line than their opponents. But free throws have always been important, especially in March, as some fans have learned to their despair, and unless the number of foul calls subsides to last season’s level, free throws are going to be even more crucial this year. Personally, I hope Bill Self is spending as much time in practice on free throws as he is on his players defending without using their hands. (But then, I have similar hopes every year.)

However, by the time the conference tournaments and March Madness roll around, the number of fouls and free throws should be close to last year’s statistics — perhaps not quite there but better than what we are seeing now. If that happens and the average points per game are up, then the rules will have achieved their goal and the aggravation of November will be forgotten. If games are still slower and scoring hasn’t improved, then we’ll all be a little less mad about March.

For more by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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