By Seth Davis
If you’ve followed the first two weeks of the college basketball season, you’ve no doubt heard the debate about the huge impact of the new rules on physical defense. It is understandable, then, why you might not be aware of the following:
There are no new rules against physical play.
There is no huge impact.
There is no debate.
Confused? Allow me to clarify.
First, the “new rules” against physical play (hand checking, arm bars, bumping cutters, etc.) have long been a part of the NCAA’s rulebook. It’s just that they were stuck in the back of the book under Appendix III: Officiating Guidelines. However, since those were going unenforced, leading to an unsightly decline in scoring and shooting percentages, the men’s basketball rules committee voted in May to make that an official part of Rule 10, which addresses “Fouls and Penalties.”
So nobody wrote any new rules on this front. They just decided to give a new emphasis to what was already there.
(To be sure, there were some new rules written in other areas, most significantly the block-charge call, but most of the dialogue has been focused on the so-called increase in touch fouls on the dribbler.)
Second, while there has been a change in the data when compared to last season, that change is not nearly as dramatic as most people think. According to #KPI Analytics, there are only 2.71 more fouls being called per game this season than at the same time last year. That’s right — fewer than three extra whistles per game! That has resulted in 4.1 more free throws per game. Overall, scoring is up 5.86 points per game — a welcome increase — and slightly more than half of those points have come from field goals as opposed to free throws.
Tempo-free maven Kem Pomeroy has also crunched the numbers. While he discovered there was an 18.3 percent increase in free throw rate (FTA/FGA), he only found a 1.8 percent increase in the number of possessions per game. That’s disappointing. The most positive effect Pomeroy found was a reduction in turnover and steal percentages, which makes sense. If you can’t push the dribbler, it’s harder to steal the ball.
Yes, there have been some outliers. Niagara and Seton Hall combined for 73 fouls and 102 free throws, but that is not the new normal. And to the extent that we see some ugly games, we also saw lots of ugly games last season, and the season before that, and the season before that. It takes time to go from a duckling to a swan.