KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As Big 12 coordinator of basketball officials Curtis Shaw rolled video illustrating the NCAA’s new campaign against physicality, clip No. 1 showed West Virginia defender Jabarie Hinds placing his off hand on the hip of Texas Tech guard and creating a turnover at midcourt.
“That contact with the left arm, that contact with the left hand, those are now fouls,” Shaw said. “The offensive player never had a chance to get his team into their offensive pattern, never had a chance to run his play, because 50 feet away from the basket he’s being harassed.”
After years of the college game moving toward bigger biceps and fewer baskets, a correction became necessary. Scoring plummeted and grind-it-out games sapped the sport’s fluidity. Enter the Freedom of Movement Era (or rather a return to it), whereby defenders will be challenged to guard in a decidedly less-handsy manner.
Coaches on both sides of the new rules anticipate a tectonic shift, and no Big 12 team’s style of play figures to be more impacted than West Virginia’s, where Bob Huggins’ hard-guarding guys have owned a reputation for being brawny on and off the ball.
“I think the fallacy is we’re not going to have contact,” Huggins said. “You can’t put 10 people that big, that strong, that fast in such a confined area. They’re going to run into each other. It just happens, and it’s always been a contact sport.”
Yet that’s where Shaw differs (not the first guy with a whistle to dispute Huggins). Harkening back 122 years to Naismith jotting down original 13 rules, Shaw contended “the focus of playing tough, physical defense was never the game of basketball. Let’s go back to playing an athletic game, not a physical game.”
While Kansas coach Bill Self understands the move toward improving offensive flow, he worries that a spike in fouls and free throws won’t necessarily make the game more watchable.
“Scoring will go up is because we’re shooting more free throws—it won’t be because of artistic play,” Self said. “Early in the season we may have some games where you can’t go up and down twice without having a stoppage because it’s going to be a broken game.”
During a decade-long NBA career that began in 1995, Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg saw the league attempt to dissuade grabbing and bumping through a series of offensive-minded officiating progressions.
“First you could hand-check guys, and then it went to an arm bar rule, and then you couldn’t touch anybody,” Hoiberg recalled. ”It was pretty ugly at first.”
Ugly was the precise description for a recent scrimmage in Ames where each team reached the double-bonus inside of 10 minutes. If players are parading to the foul line during the regular season, Hoiberg wonders how many teams will join Iowa State’s high-scoring realm from last season, when the Cyclones averaged 79.4 points per game, third-highest in the nation.
“I like the freedom of movement idea, and I think it will be great for the game,” said Hoiberg, who also favors a shorter shot clock to further drive up scoring.
At another scrimmage, Texas coach Rick Barnes thought three block calls were bogus, at least in real time. Upon reviewing the calls on tape, however, he realized the scrimmage officials were right.
“I think it’s going to be a drastic change in style of basketball if they enforce that rule and call it like they say they are,” he said. “I think zone can make a big comeback. There are going to be a lot of teams that will go back to the pack line defense.”
With teams receiving a preseason crash course in hands-off defense, some coaches worried about the possibility of games taking three hours and multiple starters fouling out. And unlike “points of emphasis” that officials essentially ignored during past seasons, supervisors pledge to hold their refs to the standard moving forward.
And the game’s participants must acclimate.
“It’s just a matter of getting used to what the new situations are and breaking some bad habits, because our kids have played so long doing certain things,” Shaw said. “We’ve got the smartest coaches we’ve ever had in college basketball, and they’ll adjust.”