Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

November 5, 2013

Changes to NCAA foul rules could lead to free-throw marathons

I attended a Big Ten basketball game in Bloomington, Ind., a few years ago where I was seated so close to the floor that I had to keep my feet pinned under my chair so I wouldn’t trip the referee as he raced up and down the court. The view from courtside left me with one shocking reaction: I no longer had any idea what was a foul.

There was banging, pushing, shoving, probably even tripping, but nary a whistle was blown by the officials. The disclaimer of “no-harm, no-foul” was truly enforced.  

Now as another basketball season begins to unfold this week, could all of that be about to change? This year we are being told to expect something much different from the game’s three-man officiating crews. A new no-hand check rule will be introduced and fouls will also be called on defenders who body-bump offensive players on their way to the hoop.

The idea behind these rule changes is to increase scoring and reduce the grind-it-out, rough-house style of play that had come to dominate in the major conferences. 

But that might not be the case. Instead of high-scoring, fast-breaking action, fans could just as easily be fed a diet of games where players repeatedly spend time on the free-throw line trying their hand at one-and-the bonus.

If games become a free-throw marathon, it could easily stretch them out another 20 minutes or more, causing interest and excitement to wane.

Some coaches think that the changes could re-introduce pure athleticism to the game. If so, that would be good for the 2013-14 season. There’s a wealth of talented freshmen coming into the college game this year. That would be especially true at Kentucky and Kansas.

John Calipari is expected to start four freshmen, but this will be anything but a rebuilding year. He’s even talking about the possibility of going 40-0 and winning another national championship. Undefeated might be a stretch – it hasn’t happened since 1976 -- but hanging another banner in Rupp Arena is a real possibility. 

UK will showcase Julius Randle, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound center, who averaged more than 32 points and 22 rebounds a game last year. He’ll be joined by six other McDonald’s All-Americans on the UK roster, which includes two returning starters. Finding enough minutes to keep everyone happy might be Calipari’s biggest challenge.

ESPN’s Chad Ford thinks seven Kentucky players could be taken in the first round of next spring’s NBA draft. Talk about depth.

The story is much the same at Kansas. Coach Bill Self persuaded three of the nation’s top recruits to come to Lawrence.  No player in America is rated higher than Andrew Wiggins, a 6-8 forward, who has been compared to LeBron James, the Ohio native who turned pro out of high school. Guard Wayne Selden and 7-0 center Joel Embiid, a native of Cameroon, make one wonder how Kansas could lose many games.

As much talk as there is about Kentucky, the Cats might not even be the best team in the state. In Louisville, many believe the Cardinals stand a good chance of defending their national championship. What distinguishes this team from others is that it is set to start two seniors and two juniors. 

Michigan State is also deep and talented. Coach Tom Izzo’s Spartans return four starters, including standout guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris. Plenty of other teams – such as Arizona, Michigan, Florida and Duke -- could fall into a long list of other legitimate NCAA favorites.

Offensive firepower will be plentiful this season. That said, what’s likely to determine next year’s NCAA champ is what team learns to play the best defense, especially if officials stick with their hands off, no touching approach to calling the game. 

Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com

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