Don’t Swallow that Whistle: hand-checks and the referees this year

By Giovanni Scarcella

The new hand-check rules benefit college basketball, even if we hate them right now.

            Back in 1982, the Tar Heels defeated the Ralph Sampson-led UVa. Cavaliers in the ACC Championship by a score of 47-45. UNC utilized their now-infamous four corners offense and retained possession for the last twelve minutes of the game. They cut, passed the ball around the perimeter, and ate up time in what must have been an enthralling experience to witness live. Thankfully, in 1985 the NCAA finally caught up with the times and adopted an NBA-style shot clock. The three-point line, considered a gimmick even at the professional level, was added a year later.

The pace of the game picked up considerably. Per Basketball Reference, in the 1981-1982 season, Tulsa notched 80.2 points per game, the highest of any AP Top 25 team. Fast forward to the ‘87-‘88 season to find 15 AP teams topping that rate. Real progress towards a more exciting game had been made.

      In the midst of this change, the Chicago Bulls drafted a promising prospect out of UNC with the third overall pick of the 1984 Draft. In Dean Smith’s rather team-oriented system, the intriguing athlete put up solid numbers at UNC, punctuated by a game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA Championship game. Of course, few predicted that Michael Jordan would go on to become the greatest player of all time.

      Guarding him one-on-one was impossible. The end of Jordan’s career correlated with the rise of Shaquille O’ Neal, yet another dominant player that required a team effort to defend. In the interest of parity, the league gradually reduced its previously long-lasting restrictions on zone defense, culminating in the total elimination of illegal defense guidelines in the 2001-02 season. Opposing defenses breathed a collective sigh of relief.

      If you love seeing the success of physical defensive teams, you probably reminisce over the NBA period from the mid-90s to 2004. You’re also probably an accountant because you love the job security. You enjoy a lukewarm bowl of oatmeal every morning before work. On Saturday nights, you crack open a cold one (just one), sit in a recliner, and catch up on nature documentaries to let out your wild side. You’re boring. That period of basketball was boring. The Pistons won the title over the Lakers in 2004. That season, only two teams averaged over 100 points per game. On average, the league shot 43.9% from the field. The following season, the league introduced new rules to “curtail hand-checking, clarify blocking fouls and call defensive three seconds to open up the game.” It worked. Last season, twelve teams (40 %!!!) averaged 100 points per game or more. The average field goal percentage also increased to 45.3%.

Teams did not instantaneously adjust:

Avg. FTA per game

      Immediately after the rule changes, NBA teams got to the line at an increased rate, as expected. But over time the number of free throw attempts lessened as defenses adjusted to the new rules. Notice how free throw percentage did not change much either. You would expect teams to emphasize free-throw shooting to take advantage of the new rules, right? Perhaps it illustrates stubbornness among the players. Who wants to look like Rick Barry at the line? Maybe players were by and large comfortable in their free-throw shooting process at that point in their careers. Maybe it should have been higher, but Dwight Howard did enter the league in 2004-05.

      What does this mean for the Colonials? As usual the NCAA is a few years behind its professional counterpart. The new rule changes this season are, for all intents and purposes, the same as the changes the NBA made in ’04-’05. Anyone who watched Tuesday night’s Duke-Kansas game can attest to the increase in the frequency of foul shots. Last season, GW made 65.7% of its free throws. That was remarkably low last year and certainly won’t cut it this season in light of the recent rule changes. GW’s interior style of play will elicit a greater increase in trips to the stripe. Through two games, the team has gone 77.2% from the line. Kevin Larsen deserves special mention for hitting 90% of his free throws after shooting a below-average 67.1% last season. The sample size is far too small to make any predictions, but this is a positive sign. Only time will tell how the defense responds to the rule changes. The defense did not look great against Maine, but then again, they were playing with a significant lead for most of the game, a blowout by all standards. Let’s wait and see how the defense performs against better competition before making any judgments.
      This college basketball season, especially early on, will be painful to watch. Games will seem to go on forever, but this is a necessary evil. In the NBA, once teams adjusted to the change in defensive rules, some impressive basketball took place. Mike D’Antoni’s 7 Seconds or Less offense revolutionized the NBA. Gregg Popovich transformed his Spurs from a slow Duncan-centric offense based on post-ups to a Tony Parker-led whirlwind of cuts, screens, and open threes. More teams are playing small ball, forgoing an extra traditional big man in favor of more firepower. Defenses evolved as well. Those highlight reel fast-break plays from Wade to LeBron are a direct result of the Miami Heat’s aggressive ball trapping and turnover-based scheme. The professional level has simply become better and more entertaining to a wider audience. Let’s hope college follows suit, even if it takes a while.


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