Two seasons and four weeks after significant rules changes were put in place to bring back a free-flowing, offensively oriented, fundamentally sound brand of play, NCAA women’s basketball stakeholders are still praising the improvements while statistical data continues to confirm that the needle is pointing in the right direction.
“I think every single rule change was a positive one and it’s had an incredibly positive effect from a playing and coaching standpoint. I thought the rules committee was spot on with all those changes,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “I know the players have benefited and I know the coaches have enjoyed it and I think the fans appreciate it.”
The seismic shift in women’s basketball began prior to the 2015-16 season when the NCAA Women’s Basketball Rules Committee, with support of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Board of Directors, made several rules changes to address areas of concern in the game. Game officials, at the same time, set course to more actively enforce the rules of the game to allow for freedom of movement and to be consistent in applying those rules.“The rule changes have been really good for the game,” said Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, who has led the Irish to the Women’s Final Four seven times. “The rules have added excitement after each quarter. The referees are allowing the games to flow better, and as a result, there are fewer dead balls and the game moves up and down the court. In addition to teams getting into a better rhythm, the two-shot foul has caused scoring to increase. Overall, I think all the changes have been good for the game. It’s more fun to watch.”
The flow of the game was enhanced by moving to four 10-minute periods — instead of two 20-minute halves — and teams being awarded two free throws for each personal foul after the fifth team foul in a period, with the fouls resetting at the beginning of each period, with the one-and one foul shot eliminated. When a timeout is charged to the offense in the final 59.9 seconds of the fourth quarter or any overtime period, that team is now allowed the option to advance the throw-in spot to the 28-foot mark on either side of the front court.
“We like the four quarters,” said South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, who led the Gamecocks to the 2017 national championship and will be the head coach of the USA Basketball Senior National Team for 2017-20. “It’s what we see in the WNBA and internationally. We love that we are able to advance the ball and we think it makes it more exciting for our players and our fans. I think all teams and coaches have adjusted and it actually makes the flow of the game better with less time outs.”
Scoring per team has increased by 1.13 points per game this year compared to Dec. 11 of last year, with the current team scoring average of 67.38 points per game registering at 2.06 points higher than final statistics a year ago. That’s almost five points higher than it was on this date during the 2012-13 season, when teams averaged 62.80 per outing.
“I think the skill level coming to college is definitely better,” said Oregon head coach Kelly Graves, whose team is currently fifth in the nation in scoring at 89.6 points per game. “At the high school and club level there is more of an emphasis on skill development. The influx of international players has contributed to it as well. Basketball in general - NBA and WNBA - has seen an increase in scoring. We put a priority on recruiting offensive-minded players. Our passing this year has been outstanding and that’s something we focus on in skill development.”
Twenty-five teams have already topped 110 points in a single game this season. The season-high by a team to date was the 131 points scored by the Tennessee against Troy on Dec. 6.
Three teams are currently averaging more than 90 points per game this season, led by Troy at 94.0, followed by Baylor (92.6) and Ohio State (90.7). Behind the nightly explosion of points, 9-1 Baylor is running away from opponents with an average winning margin of 36.1 points per game.
Officials have a tough job...— NCAA Women's BKB (@ncaawbb) December 13, 2017
Take a look at the few areas they'll be focusing on this season to help increase freedom of movement in gameplay. pic.twitter.com/yED0Nasqst
“I think there are fewer fouls so there is more movement,” said Auriemma. “There are also more natural breaks. Players, at the end of every 10 minutes, get a chance to regroup as opposed to one long 20-minute half. I think the officials have cracked down on hand checking so that promotes movement as well. Finally, the players are getting a little bit better and that’s great for the game.”
Scoring is not the only category on the rise so far this season, field goal percentage stands at an average of 40.64 percent per team, up 0.59 percent from last year, teams are averaging 6.16 made three-pointers a game, up from 5.82 a year ago, with teams shooting 31.72 percent from behind the arc.
A more wide-open game, there are currently four teams averaging more than 11.1 made three-point field goals a game.
Understandably, teams that shoot it well win. The top-shooting teams in the country so far this season – Oregon State (53.6 percent), Baylor (52.0), UConn (51.7), West Virginia (51.6) and Iowa (51.6) are a combined 43-4. Oregon State is the most improved shooting team in the country, raising its team field goal percentage 11.38 percent this season.
“I think the game gets much faster every season,” said Staley.
NCAA National Coordinator of Officiating June Courteau feels that there is a correlation between better overall play, coaches making adjustments to the flow of the game and strong officiating.
“While the game remains essentially the same for the officials, points of emphasis this year include rebounding, verticality and consistency on the 50-50 block charge plays and letting plays finish,” said Courteau, who noted that call accuracy during last year’s championship improved to 90.12% based on private evaluation. “Officials, coaches, players and fans have been overwhelmingly positive in regard to the new rules enacted several years ago and most feel that has led to the positive results we are witnessing today.”
“I think we are doing a better job of protecting the players with the ball and protecting shooters,” Auriemma said. “I also think the officials are getting the block charge call right more often than not. We are understanding what’s a foul on a rebound and what’s not. I just see things that lead me to believe that the offensive aspect of the game has gotten a lot of attention and I think that’s good.”
Teams are currently averaging 17.74 personal fouls a game, up slightly from the 17.52 average during the 2016-17 season.
“There will always be issues with post play and tagging the guard on top with hands,” Staley said. “Our biggest concern is those players that flop and put offensive players in physical jeopardy. They are trying to be as consistent as possible, but some games are harder than others.”
Coaches are in agreement to let the new rules and points of emphasis continue to play out as they look for other ways to improve the game.
“We like the game as is,” Staley said. “We do not want to see any drastic changes especially anything that would move us away from the men’s rules. We would like to maintain common rules so that the casual observer doesn’t have to know a different set of rules.”
“I think it’s incumbent upon the coaches to continue to stress how we take care of the ball and cut down on turnovers,” Auriemma said. “I think the number one thing is to continue to develop the players.”