College basketball was not at its aesthetic best in 2012-13. You might have heard something about this; it was the unifying theme of the season. The pace of the sport, on a downward trajectory since the mid-1990s, slowed even further, with teams trading speed for a slight uptick in efficiency. Scoring stayed way down. Things got pretty ugly.
When Michigan and Louisville played a thrilling, offensive, up-and-down national title game, it stood out — not only because it was a good game in and of itself but because it ran counter to so much that came before it. It was, frankly, a surprise.
As Louisville coach Rick Pitino basked in the afterglow, he was asked about the state of the game, about what college basketball needed to change to rid itself of slow, physical play — or whether it even needed to in the first place. Pitino was happy to share his thoughts:
"What happened in the NBA now is they stopped all the arm bars, all the standing up of screens, all the coming across and chopping the guy," Pitino said in April. "They stopped all that. Now there's freedom of movement in the NBA and you see great offense. …. I always liked to watch the old films of Clyde Frazier and, you don't see defense touch anybody at all. Everybody cuts and passes, freedom of movement. That's what we got to get back to. The only way to do it is the first 10 games of the season, the games have to be ugly and the players will adjust, then you will see great offense again."
A few months later, the NCAA made Pitino's recommendations real. In addition to clarifying the requirements for a defensive player to earn a charge call, the Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved new emphases of current rules outlawing hand-checking and arm contact both on and away from the ball. Most of the sport greeted these new rules with approval. Do not count Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy among that number. Last week, at Mountain West media day, Eustachy pleaded that the new rules would cause players to foul out even more (hat tip: CBS):
“What are we thinking trying to put players in situations where they can be eliminated even more? We all witnessed it with Colton Iverson last year. It was a tragedy what the officiating did to him,” Eustachy said. “If you pay to go see Celine Dion, she’s not going to be fouled out at intermission. You pay to see Colton Iverson; you may only see four minutes of him. He may get two quick fouls and he has to sit the whole half.
“Louisville isn’t going to have a team if we stick to this because they’re going to all foul out in the first half, and I love the way they play,” Eustachy said. “If you’re going to call touch fouls, it’ll be over in the first 10 minutes. (Rick) Pitino will have to play. It really is crazy.”
You guessed it: Eustachy is both right and wrong at the same time.
In the short term? Sure. Assuming officials truly apply the new hand-checking emphases, there probably will be more foul-outs this season, particularly early in the year. Whole teams who've grown used to lots of contact — who have been coached to create it and use it to their defensive advantage — are in for a major stylistic adjustment. I would argue that Colton Iverson should learn to, oh, I don't know, play defense without fouling, but I see Eustachy's point. The officials have to find their balance, too. The learning curve could be steep.
But this isn't about the short-term. (Nor is this about tag being "outlawed on playgrounds" and living in a "depressingly soft world," as Coloradan columnist Matt L. Stephens wrote Sunday.) Nor is it about ridding the game of defense altogether, or about fast offensive basketball being inherently better than slow defensive hoops, or about some nascent desire to make the college game more like the NBA. I've had plenty of people write and shout at me about this: I like 55-53 games because I like defense, and the NBA doesn't play any defense and the players are all overpaid and spoiled and why don't you just go watch the NBA if you like it so much! Loud noises!
That all totally misses the point. The NBA is just the most obvious, applicable test case. (And anyway, sorry, I love college basketball more than anyone should, but if you don't think the NBA has the best pure basketball product on a nightly basis, you're wrong.) This is about correcting college basketball's slide into overly physical drudgery, about restoring balance to the Force. It's about redefining what defense is in the first place.
Good defense is not equivalent to strength. It is not a measure of how much you can get away with shoving and slapping and grabbing your opponent, or how much you can steer and prevent offensive movement through contact. No one learns to defend that way as a kid. At the college level, coaches have been given every incentive to teach it. But the basics are still the basics: sliding your feet, breaking down on close-outs, talking screens, reading help-side angles, challenging shots vertically, et al. There's no reason why these things can't be applied in the modern college game. I mean, they're already rules! They just aren't being enforced! Constant defensive contact is a crutch.
So, yes, the near-term effects will be ugly and unpopular. No one wants to watch officials make mechanically dramatic off-the-ball contact calls; no one wants to watch free throws; no one likes foul-outs. That, by the way, is the next rule we should change.
But once coaches and players adjust, whether it's after 10 games or 35, the sport stands to benefit from the same stylistic trends have improved the NBA's product by eons over the past 10 years. It could be a tough few weeks in November and December, but the benefits should be more than worth that cost.