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Mike Lopresti | | December 13, 2013

Early numbers suggest improved game

Behold the new world of college basketball, according to the number crunchers.

Scoring is up and turnovers are down. Shooting is better. There are more fouls, and more free throws that go with them. The offenses have gotten a helpful breeze – not statistically gale force, but clearly noticeable.

Such is the message from an NCAA study of trends after one month of this season of whistles by decree. By now, the new emphasis on rules which created such a fuss have gotten a good dry run. The mandate against arm and hand contact by defenders guarding the ball. The stricter guidelines for the defender on the block-charge call. They were designed to promote movement on the court, tone down the physicality and maybe pep up the scoreboard. In short, to free up the game.


INDIANAPOLIS -- Through the first month of the season, it is evident that changes to how arm bars and hand checks are enforced in defending a ball handler and to the block/charge rule have resulted in an increased number of fouls called in Division I men’s basketball games. Last season, teams were called for 17.9 fouls per game through games of Dec. 9, 2012. This year that number is 19.9 fouls per game for games through Dec. 8.


But more free throws attempts are not the only result of the increased whistles. Far from it, in fact. Made free throws, and free throw percentage, are up as well in the year-over-year comparison. At the same point of the season last year, teams were making 68.7 percent of their foul shots. Teams averaged 20.1 foul shots per game, making 13.8 of them. Through Sunday’s games, teams this year are averaging 24.7 foul shots per game, making 16.5 of them for a percentage of 69.3.


Made field goals, attempts and percentages also are up from a year ago. Last year at this time, teams on average took 55.8 shots, making 24.2 for a percentage of 43.3. This year, teams are making 25.5 of 57.1 shots for a percentage of 44.7. The same holds true for the 3-point line, where teams made 6.2 of 18.4 3-point shots per game (33.6 percent) a year ago, and are now making 6.3 of 18.5 3-pointers (34.3) thus far this season.


The improved shooting percentages have led to nearly an 8 percent increase in scoring, up from 68.4 points per game last year at this time to 73.8 this season. Turnovers per game are also down, from 14.2 a year ago to 12.8.

(See chart below.)

Have they? The one-month statistical snapshot nods yes, so far.

• Division I teams averaged 67.50 points a game last year. After one month in 2012-13, they were at 68.38. Now they’re at 73.81. And only half that increase has come from free throws. There has been a jump in two-point field goals as well.

• Field goal percentage has warmed from 43.30 at the end of 2012-13 to 44.71.

• Turnover average per team has dropped from 13.30 to 12.75.

• There has been an average of two more fouls per team a game, five more free throws taken, three more made.

Those are numbers talking. What about those who help shepherd the game?

“Very encouraging,” said Ron Wellman, chair of the NCAA men’s basketball committee.

“I would call it a successful experiment to date,’’ said Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, chair of the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Officiating Competition Committee.

“I think all those numbers are good. A lot of people have thought, well, they’re scoring more points just because they’re shooting more free throws. It doesn’t seem to me those numbers reflect that totally,” said Belmont coach Rick Byrd, chair of the Men’s Basketball Rules Committee.

This move was made in the summer after extensive consultation – and agreement – among coaches, officials, rules-makers and the NCAA. By general acclamation, the game had grown too gritty and too physical. The path to the basket was a forearm-lined gauntlet, and defense was a little too reminiscent of a goal-line stand.

“In the last 20 years, the quality of the game had really eroded,” said Dan Gavitt, vice president of NCAA men’s basketball championships. “Not in any one year, but slowing eroding. I think this effort to take more physicality out of the game is just imperative.”

The NBA had done similar soul-searching -- and made similar changes -- years ago.

A driving force behind that was Jerry Colangelo, now head of USA Basketball.

“It brought back the little guy and opened up play in the middle,” Colangelo said. “The percentages got better, the scoring got better and it was a better looking game. There was more fluidity. Now, it didn’t happen overnight. It takes a little bit of time.”

When he looked at the college game in recent seasons, he had seen the same blight.

“The game was not looking like it should. There was too much physicality. It needed to be sped up, it needed to be cleaned up. You want to have the kind of play that is entertaining to go along with all the other things about the game itself. If you have a slow, sluggish kind of game, that’s not very good for eye appeal in my opinion.”

The change has been a coast-to-coast topic of conversation since the season began. Everyone who knows what alternating possession means seems to have an opinion. It was Michigan State’s Gary Harris, for example, who mentioned in October, with unassailable logic, that what makes defense harder will make offense easier, and “You have to give a little to take a little.”

Byrd has taken the temperature of his coaching constituency.

“It seems to me that’s a pretty decent sample size now to see where the numbers are headed,” he said. “I talked to John Calipari and he thinks it’s great. I’ve read quotes by Rick Pitino and other guys that are real positive. I’ve also read some that have genuine concerns; coaches who have been around a long time.”

Statistics can define how things are going, but it will be people and not numbers who must decide if this is working. So let voices address the various issues.

Season-long consistency. Is this a change, or a fad?

Delany: “I always view the season sort of in three parts. November and December, conference play, and then the NCAA Tournament. Each of those has a different level of intensity and competition. The question is if we can sustain it. I think we can. I think coaches and players are making good-faith efforts to adjust.”

Byrd: “I do think it’s been a fair charge in the past that games in February don’t look at all like games that happened earlier in the season. That’s something the officiating world has to overcome this year, and I think they’ll do it. I think they have the message loud and clear. These are fouls and they have to be called that way now, and later.”

Wellman: “If the officials really develop a pattern and they’re consistent up to February, it’s going to be easier for them to carry it through in March. We have to remember the officials are being watched very closely on this as well.

Higher scores seemed as certain as Duke sellouts. But would it all be free throws?

Gavitt: “If I had some anxiety, it was that any increase in offense would have been only attributable to increased free throws. But basically half the increase has come from field goals. I went back and looked, the last time college teams shot 45 percent or more was 1992-93. We’re not quite at that level right now, but to go from 43.3 to over 44 percent, that’s not a marginal difference.”

Would the landscape be plagued with whistle-heavy games that dragged into the night, and lineups decimated by foul trouble? Would it be that the only three certain things were death, taxes and the double bonus?

True, there have been a couple of 100-free throw ordeals. Byrd’s Belmont team shot 52 in its opener. But the increases in average of five free throws and two fouls per team per game are not quite so terrifying.

Wellman: “Two more fouls per game, I don’t know that that’s had a major impact on the flow and rhythm of the game, which is a comment I hear often. Statistically, that just does not prove out.”

Byrd: “I think people would be surprised if they heard those numbers. If you look at all the games, it’s still the exception rather than the rule that you shoot so many free throws.

“Foul trouble is an issue. It has been a big issue for us, and we’re trying hard to do it right. No player wants to sit on the bench and no coach wants to have his best players over there.”

Colangelo: “It has not been a runaway train, and I would guess the fouls will come down over a period of time.”

And the future?

Delany: “We’re in virgin territory. This is the first time we’ve tried to really make this amount of change. I want to look at the end of this month, and then try to get through our conference season and see where it is, and then get through the NCAA Tournament and see where it is.”

Byrd: “I do think coaches and players are adjusting. It’ll be interesting to see where these numbers go from here. I think fouls will go down, not because the officials aren’t sticking with it, but because players will learn what they can and cannot do.”

Wellman: “I would anticipate that as teams and coaches teach playing defense with the feet rather than the hands, then we’re going to see a decrease in the number of fouls. Scoring is the line that really stands out to me. That’s a significant increase. Bottom line, that is what we were concerned about.”

Gavitt: “This is generational change. It is an effort to change a generation of student-athletes and coaches and the way the game has been allowed to be played the last 20 years. I think it is going to take two or three seasons to be fully realized.”

Colangelo: “You’re only looking at trends. I think the changes they made are positive but it’s way too early to give it a grade. Cynics overanalyze. Let the game take its own course. Let’s look at the end of the year and after two years.

“So far, so good. And it’ll get better.”

In the end, does the first wave of numbers suggest a better game?

Wellman required only one word. “Absolutely.”

Year-over-year comparison through games of Dec. 8, 2013
 FINAL 2013THRU 12/9/2012THRU 12/8/2013+/- this season
vs. last season
+/- vs.
same period
FG Pct.43.31%43.34%44.72%1.38% 
3FG Pct.34.05%33.62%34.31%0.69% 
2FG Pct.47.86%48.09%49.70%1.61% 
FT Pct.69.33%68.66%69.32%0.66% 
Personal Fouls17.6817.9119.851.9410.83%
Game DurationN/AN/A1:54 *  
* -- Indicates average time of 32 NIT Season Tip-Off games
It was an average of 1:49 for the 20 games with no TV; and an average of 2:02 for the 12 games on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPN3. One of those 12 televised games went three overtimes and lasted 2:58. If that game is removed, the 31 regulation games averaged 1:52 and the 11 televised games averaged 1:57. Only eight of the 32 games went longer than two hours and half of those were the four games of the finals played in Madison Square Garden.
* -- Single-season high for category


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