Last week, when the NCAA updated its Division I men's basketball statistics, the raw numbers came with a narrative: "Early numbers suggest improved game," read the headline, as chairs of the various basketball committees chimed in with their approval.
"I would call it a successful experiment to date," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney said.
"Very encouraging," chair Ron Wellman added.
"I think all those numbers are good," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. "A lot of people have thought, well, they're scoring more points just because they're shooting more free throws. It doesn't seem to me those numbers reflect that totally."
And you know what? They're right. Mostly, anyway.
The one-month sample Byrd was referring to are a week old now, but even after another seven days of basketball, the essential trends are holding. Scoring is up in a big way. Field goal percentage is up. Turnovers are down. And free throws, despite what you might have heard uttered in feverish tones in October and November, are not dominating the game as feared.
These are all desired outcomes, but they're confusing: If scoring is way up and fouls aren't, what explains the sudden influx of scoring? And what about those turnovers? This is where the NCAA's interpretation of the data falls ever so slightly short, and where the relationship between the number -- and the role of pace -- become most evident.
Kevin Pauga, director of basketball operations at Michigan State, has been publishing his own updates (with proprietary rankings) each week this season. On Monday, after five weeks of data, he got his arms around the "chain reaction" the new rules have had on the game [emphasis mine]:
A clear chain reaction progression has developed to help explain the statistical differences from last year to this year. More fouls are being called (up 2.2 fouls per team per game, 12.4% increase overall, 7.5% increase per possession). This is leading to more free throws (up 3.4 FTA per team per game, 17.1% increase overall, 11.9% increase per possession). More fouls and free throws are leading to shorter possessions and hence more possessions (up 3.1 possessions per team per game, 4.6% increase). The average length of possession has decreased from 17.99 seconds to 17.20 seconds this year. The increase in possessions is critical to the rest of the analysis.
Made field goals are up 5.4% (FG% is up from 43.3% to 44.0%), but up only 0.8% per possession. 3-pt field goal makes and attempts per possession are down 1.6% and 1.3% respectively. Points per possession are up 2.8%.
Does that sound like a more entertaining game? It should. After all, the game has been more entertaining. The preseason concern-trolling about an excess of fouls and dystopian free throw-line marches has been mostly just that. Anecdotally, we've had dozens of entertaining games to date. The number of contests "ruined" by fouls, at least judging by my Twitter feed, has held steady. I've enjoyed myself. Have you?
The stats back it up: According to ESPN Stats and Info, through five weeks, 77.8 percent of college basketball's points have come via field goals; 22.2 percent have come at the free throw line. Last season, that split was was 79.9/20.1. This is not exactly Rock N' Jock-rules we're talking about here. No, the new rules have been more like a tweak -- a subtle reorienting of the game back to a place where defense wasn't so routinely afforded the benefit of the doubt. From Pauga:
Turnovers are down 6.0% per possession and steals are down 8.2% per possession, clearly identifying that more plays that were last year turnovers/steals are now being called fouls.
Is this the key enforcement? Even this early in the effort, the general understanding of the new rules has made teams less likely to reach and far less likely to slide under in an attempt to steal shaky charge calls. This is as much a mental network effect as it is a matter of practice: The price of a foul is too great a risk if you aren't in obvious set position. Many players have learned this without getting in foul trouble to do so.
The only question is whether this decidedly positive start for the new rules is sustainable. Last week, when Ken Pomeroy looked at turnover trends -- splitting steals and "non-steal turnovers" into separate groups -- he found the sort of low turnover numbers in 2013 that Pauga described above. Historically, offenses get better and better, and commit fewer and fewer non-steal turnovers, as each season progresses. But this season, even as overall turnovers remain way down, non-steal turnovers have remained:
The interesting thing is that the difference in NST's between this season and previous seasons is rapidly disappearing. The entire difference over the past few days could explain just under one charge per team per game. It also could be that teams are traveling more or making other unforced mistakes more often, but given that the trend in steals isn't changing, that seems a little more difficult to believe. This is far from a conclusive study, but the charge may be sneaking its way back into the game.
Stage one of the NCAA's aesthetic overhaul was getting new rules in place. Stage two -- sustaining those changes over an entire season, and then in the years to come -- is far more crucial. It's also eons harder. Every game, every angry coach, every charge is one more tiny erosion in officials' resolve. Will sheer attrition wipe away progress? Let's cross our fingers and hope not.