Headline-grabbing events in Division I women’s basketball abound this season: UConn’s NCAA-record winning streak nearing 100 games, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer closing in on 1,000 career coaching victories, and Washington’s Kelsey Plum averaging over 30 points per game as she nears the all-time NCAA career scoring mark.
However, a season-long story that has gone largely untold has been the significant uptick in Division I women’s basketball statistics nationally this season, with 16 of the 19 major statistical categories showing increases.
Through games of Jan. 29, scoring is up almost one point per game (65.67 this season compared with 64.73 last season). Also, shooting is better, with the overall field goal percentage up 0.18 of a percentage point and 3-point field goal percentage up 0.39 of a percentage point. Points per possession is up slightly from 0.9157 percent to 0.9213 percent. Rebounds, assists and steals per game are also up compared with last year.
“I think that it might be a combination of a lot of things, including the fact that there are more skilled athletes and more skilled players,” said VanDerveer, who stands one win shy of becoming the second women’s coach of all time to achieve 1,000 wins, joining Pat Summitt. “It could also be the officiating where shooting and movement aren’t impeded or maybe teams are not as physical. Teams might just be emphasizing offense more than defense, as well.”
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 last 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.
To enhance the flow of the game, four 10-minute periods replaced two 20-minute halves. Also, a team was 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.
“I think some of the rule changes have really helped,” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, whose team is chasing an NCAA-record fifth straight national championship in 2017. “The more freedom of movement and the more players are allowed to cut, the more their offensive skills are going to play, and the more you are going to see this keep rising.”
"There are more talented players, and coaches are gearing more toward allowing their talent to play and not be so regimented in running sets,” said Dawn Staley, South Carolina head coach. “Teams are also scoring more in broken plays, which happens a lot in our game."
Teams have eclipsed the 110-point mark in 23 games this season, with Baylor leading the way, averaging 90.7 points per game, and Maryland close behind at 90.5. The Lady Bears put up 140 points Dec. 15 against Winthrop. UConn led the country last season, averaging 88.1 points per game.
“I think going to four quarters has framed the game differently,” Auriemma said. “At the 10-minute mark a couple years ago, if you were struggling, there was no stoppage of play, and you would continue struggling. Now, you can just regroup after a bad quarter. Also, the free-throw situation where you are in the two-shot bonus after five fouls, the good teams have realized you don’t foul and you don’t want to put yourself in that situation. So you add all those things up and you have a much more appealing and free-flowing game.”
“I think the other rule change that also might affect more scoring is the fact that you don’t shoot a one-and-one, you shoot two shots,” VanDerveer said. “That might actually be a big part of why. You’re standing at the free-throw line, and you’re not worried about missing the first one because you know you’re going to get two. That could easily be one point a game.”
Shooting in 2016-17 also stands out. UConn leads the nation in field goal shooting percentage, connecting on 51.7 percent of its shots. The Huskies are joined by three other teams in Maryland (50.9 percent), Baylor (49.9 percent) and Drake (49.1 percent) shooting 49 percent or better this season. UConn is currently the nation’s top 3-point field goal percentage team, as well, connecting on 41.9 percent from behind the arc. Michigan (41.6 percent) and Vanderbilt (40.7 percent) also are connecting on over 40 percent of attempts.
“Believe it or not, moving the line back (20-feet, 9 inches) has really helped as it has spread the floor out a little more,” Auriemma said. “Now, there is a higher premium on good shooters shooting 3s. It used to be that everyone just thought, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ ”
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The most-improved field goal percentage team this season is Portland State, which has improved 10 percentage points from last season. Others shooting the ball markedly better this season are Ole Miss (up 7.0 points), Hartford (up 6.9 points), Mississippi State (up 6.1 points) and Rider (up 6.1 ).
“The rules change I like the most is advancing the ball. I think it keeps teams in games that otherwise you would not be in, and it makes it more exciting,” VanDerveer said. “By having quarters, instead of having two finishes you have four, and maybe your time and score situational calls have to be better and your execution might have to be better to score at the end of a quarter.”
The overall vibe seems to indicate that the women’s game is in a good place.
“The four quarters makes the game a little bit quicker, as well as being able to advance the ball,” Staley said. “When watching men’s basketball, I always forget it’s different. The men’s game can benefit a lot from the changes that have been made in our game, both strategically and also quicker games.”