With a desire to bring back a free-flowing, offensive-oriented, fundamentally sound brand of play, women’s basketball stakeholders set sail a few years ago in search of those seemingly lost components.
Years, numerous areas of concern and rules changes later, they appear to have found them. The pace of games has improved. Scoring is up. And a majority of fans, coaches and student-athletes have come to embrace the new look and feel of the game.
The shift began several years ago with an expressed intent to enforce the rules of the game to allow for freedom of movement and allow officials to be consistent in applying those rules.
It continued this season with several rules changes put forward by the NCAA Women’s Basketball Rules Committee with the support of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Board of Directors.
First came a move to enhance the flow of the game by moving the game to four 10-minute periods instead of two 20-minute halves. Also, a team is now awarded two free throws for each common foul after the fifth team foul in a period, with the fouls resetting at the beginning of each period. The one-and-one foul shot, meanwhile, was eliminated. Finally, in the final 59.9 seconds of the fourth or any overtime period, when a timeout is charged to the offense, that team has the option to advance the throw-in spot to the 28-foot mark in the front court on the same side of the court as the scorer’s table.
Through games played Jan. 24, statistics are bearing out a positive change. Points, field goals, 3-point field goals, steals, blocks, assists and possessions are all showing improvement compared to 2014-15 end-of-season statistics. Specifically, points per team are up slightly from 64.80 points per game to 65.03. Free throw attempts are down 1.30 per team, per game. And teams are combining to have an additional 1.2 possessions per game, with games taking an average of 1:48 to play, versus 1:49 last season.
The most obvious impact has come from the new four-period format.
“I think it’s been a great change,” said University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. “I think it’s been great for the players, the coaches, the fans and for television. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t benefited from the four-quarter format. I think the committee did a great job and I think we should continue looking for more ways on how we can make even further improvements. But it’s been a huge success as far as I’m concerned.”
Certain conferences have experienced larger scoring increases than others. Take, for example, the Big Ten Conference, which has experienced an offensive explosion this season with teams in the league averaging an increase of 9.98 points per team, per game, compared to end–of-season statistics from 2014-15. Scoring in the Big 12 Conference has seen an increase of 5.54 points per team, per game, while the Pac-12 Conference schools are scoring 4.37 more points.
“I absolutely love the format of four quarters,” said University of South Carolina, Columbia, coach Dawn Staley, who has seen scoring in the Southeastern Conference increase by 4.98 points per team, per game. “It creates parity in our game. It’s fast-paced. Our fans are also more engaged as there seems to be more opportunity to engage fans with the timeouts and quarter breaks.”
Coach Doug Bruno of DePaul credits the courage of the Women’s Basketball Rules Committee in making the leap that has led to additional opportunities for coaching strategy.
“The Women’s Basketball Rules Committee chaired by (University of Richmond coach) Michael Shafer should be commended for taking the lead and doing the work to make these progressive and positive changes happen,” said Bruno. “The new rules have greatly benefited the game of women’s basketball, not just because of the quarter-break in and of itself. The timeout rules have also helped keep the game flowing, while last-minute advancement of the ball has been great for fans.”
“The committee’s goal was to create a more free-flowing game and improve the pace of play,” said Brad Duckworth, director of athletics and women’s basketball coach at Alverno College and the current chair of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Rules Committee. “Initial reactions and statistics indicate that we are accomplishing these goals. Moving forward, the committee will examine the size of the ball, reducing the length of the shot clock, substitution rules, the 3-point distance and the width of the lane. The committee will continue its efforts to ensure the best possible experience for our student-athletes, coaches and fans.”
Officials have also had to adjust to the new rules.
“Officials are used to adjusting, and the rules changes are easy to implement when there is a philosophy in what you want it to look like,” said June Courteau, NCAA national coordinator of officiating. “It makes it so much easier when everyone has an understanding of what is trying to be accomplished. I have been all over the country and the response from officials, coaches, players and fans has been overwhelmingly positive in regard to the new rules. The courage by the rules committee to make these changes last summer was powerful. At the end of the day, things might look cosmetically different, but the game remains the same for the officials.”
While the rules changes have been lauded for the most part, not all are in agreement.
“I am not a fan of the four quarters. I never understood why we changed to begin with,” said Baylor University coach Kim Mulkey. “I don’t find that it makes the game any more exciting or that it scores any more points through the course of a game. In fact, I find that it disrupts the game as the timeouts are too long. As far as calling a timeout in the fourth quarter where you can advance the basketball, I don’t even know if I’ve used that. I don’t know if I’m a fan of it or not, but I can see, in a tight game where it can be a situation that could be helpful, it really makes for some good coaching at that moment.”
Women’s basketball has had a long history of tinkering with the game, both with the championship format or rules, but most coaches agree to let the new rules and areas of concern play out, even though several tweaks might be worth considering.
“Obviously, they have addressed a lot of the areas, but there are some minor things that I think we can address moving forward,” Auriemma said. “One being the substitutions during free throws. Right now, you can’t make a substitution before the first shot. You can substitute after the first one and after the made second free throw, and this is making it more difficult for the offensive team to quickly inbound it and start a break. Coaches are using this to slow the game down a little bit.”
“Because there were a large amount of rule changes, for now we are settling in on playing with these new rules,” Staley said. “It accomplished what we needed to accomplish in that the game runs a lot smoother. There’s not a whole lot of breakage in it, and it’s easier to watch.”
For Anucha Browne, NCAA vice president of women’s basketball championships, it boils down to improvement.
“What we see is improvement, and so long as each year we can look back and we’re able to say we’re improving in key statistical categories, that is really important,” Browne said. “I would say the pace and flow is exactly what we wanted to see, and it has resulted in a better quality of play, which is what the rules committee hoped for when making these changes.”