RICHMOND — Alarmed wasn’t the right word, Virginia Commonwealth Coach Shaka Smart said. When he first got wind of NCAA rules changes aimed at increasing scoring and freedom of movement for offenses, Smart wondered how it would affect “Havoc,” the nickname for the Rams’ signature full-court pressure defense.
“Havoc” means aggression, and Smart was known for ignoring fouls in practice to encourage his team to create chaos on the court. That philosophy propelled the Rams to the 2011 Final Four, but last May, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Committee enacted rules to boost offenses after the national scoring average dropped to 67.5 points last season, the lowest since 1981-82.
The new rules — cracking down on hand-checking and more rigidly defining the block-charge call and how a player can defend in the post — have been met with a variety of opinions following the opening weekend of play. When Smart, who used officials in practice to acclimate his players to the new enforcement, was told Monday the 43 fouls called in No. 14 VCU’s season-opening win over Illinois State were actually lower than the Atlantic 10 average so far, he shook his head.
“Didn’t feel it,” he said. “We just have to adjust. Everyone has to adjust.”
Many coaches worry the rules changes could change the game for the worse and slow play to a snail’s pace. Virginia Tech’s James Johnson predicted last week, “The game’s going to be long, and [there’s] going to be a lot of free throws.”
But as ESPN analyst Jay Bilas noted on Twitter on Monday: “These are fouls, and always have been.”
And officials show no sign of wavering in their conviction.
“We’re not gonna go through four or five games, and because we’re getting screamed at, backpedal to where we were,” said John Clougherty, the ACC’s supervisor of officials. “There’s gonna be coaches that blister us. There’s gonna be fans that are screaming and hollering, and the easy thing to do is to resort back to where we were and that’s not what’s been handed down. That’s not what’s been told to us.”
Clougherty likes to point out the National Association of Basketball Coaches endorsed these rules changes once they were recommended, and the early returns suggest the difference in style of play through Sunday’s games was minimal overall.
According to KPI Analytics, a Web site managed by Kevin Pauga, a former data analyst for the Big Ten Conference and currently Michigan State’s director of basketball operations, scoring is up 4.5 points per game compared to the first three days of last season, and teams have been called for an average of 21.1 fouls per game, up 2.6 from last year. Clougherty said feedback he has received suggests fewer fouls were called involving the new rules in the second halves of games.
But Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany revealed at the conference’s media day last month that a study of every Final Four team since 1950 showed the average number of fouls per team per game was around 19 and “whenever you start getting up to 25 or 30 fouls a game, media turns off, fans turn off, coaches get upset.”
So naturally, some of the ugly box scores around the country this weekend raised eyebrows, such as the Seton Hall-Niagara game that featured 73 fouls, 102 free throws and took 2 hours 28 minutes to complete, or Oregon’s 82-75 win against Georgetown in South Korea that had 59 fouls and 74 free throws.
No. 25 Virginia, which was fifth in the country in scoring defense last year, was on the other end of that spectrum as an ACC-low 27 fouls were called in its season-opening win over James Madison on Friday. Coach Tony Bennett said he has been emphasizing body position in his trademark pack-line defense and calling more fouls in practice to prepare this preseason.
But the Cavaliers will face No. 14 VCU on Tuesday night in a highly anticipated nonconference matchup at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, and Bennett remains concerned about how the game will be officiated.
“When you play teams like VCU that are really attacking you off the dribble, getting down the floor fast, it creates more situations where the officials have to look and say, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Bennett said. “It’s the team you’re playing and the style that will dictate how the refs call it. And what refs you have, because everybody looks at things a little differently.”
The adjustment process is ongoing for many teams.
Virginia Tech, which will host West Virginia on Tuesday afternoon at Cassell Coliseum after being upset by South Carolina Upstate to start the season, wanted to use a full-court press extensively this year. But Johnson has dialed back those plans because of all the fouls called during preseason scrimmages.
Senior forward Cadarian Raines went one step further, telling reporters last week, “You can’t really play too much defense now.”
“It’s frustrating,” he added. “They’re trying to ref in the NCAA [tournament], so they got to do what their bosses ask them to do. They’re calling a lot of fouls. A lot of fouls.”
Note: Virginia announced freshman point guard Devon Hall will redshirt this season.