KANSAS CITY -- Here are five quick observations from Wednesday's Big 12 media day at the Sprint Center:
1. Media days can be sleepy affairs. Coaches step to the podium for early-morning interviews, answer a couple of rote questions ("Could you talk about the importance of experience for your team?") with mostly vague platitudes ("I really like our team") and then shuffle off to the next scheduled requirement. Everyone goes through the undercaffeinated motions. With rare exceptions, very little is learned.
Curtis Shaw is not a coach. He's the Big 12's coordinator of officials. On Wednesday morning, he staged a brief, scheduled interruption midway through the coaches' news conferences. Shaw's incursion wasn't just a break from the typical media day protocol; it was a genuine burst of self-criticism and new information on the NCAA's ongoing efforts to create a better, more fluid brand of basketball.
Shaw was on hand to talk about rules. More specifically, he was at the Sprint Center to discuss the so-called "freedom of motion" changes the NCAA rules committee made last season, why those changes were made, and how they'll be implemented anew in the season to come.
"The rules committee is made up of coaches," Shaw said. "They're the ones who decided the game didn't look well. The UConn-Butler game in the Final Four a couple years ago -- everyone said, 'This is enough. We're not playing basketball like this anymore.'"
As the numbers demonstrate, the changes made before the 2013-14 season really did have a positive effect. The game was more free-flowing. Scoring was up, even as the pace of the game -- maybe something only a shot-clock reduction could substantively affect -- stayed steady. But all was not well, as Shaw saw it. Even the one area where reviews for the changes were mostly positive -- the block-charge -- Shaw saw serious room to improve.
"We butchered it," Shaw said. "By January 1st, I could watch film and couldn't tell you if it was right or wrong."
The problem was not that officials didn't take the NCAA's changes to heart. It's that the interpretation lacked uniformity and created confusion. Now, the new emphasis will remove any distinction between primary defenders and secondary defenders, to streamline the block-charge call into one simple calculation: When the offensive player leaves the floor, any defensive movement is a blocking foul. That simple.
But it's not all about defense; offensive strategies also have a role to play in freedom of motion. Shaw brought a raft of clips with him to this effect, comprising a number of situations the officials will police even more closely this season: holding and tugging cutters away from the ball, illegal jostling for position on the block, illegal screens on the perimeter.
To demonstrate, Shaw showed a clip of Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes displacing a defender with his shoulder. The defender was in legal, established position as Stokes gained an advantage with his sizable torso. A made basket (and no call) were the result. Others showed tugging away from the play, the kind of thing officials might hesitate to call in the past. But after coaches insisted these kinds of plays were as crucial as any on-ball contact, Shaw is determined to hold the whole court to the same standard.
The ultimate goal? A better, more balanced understanding of legal play on both sides of the ball, no matter the position of the player or the play. In other words, a better game -- at least as far as the officials can create it.
"A rules official said three years ago, "Our time in the weight room became more important than our time in practice,'" Shaw said. "That's not the intent of basketball."
2. West Virginia might be the most intriguing team in the Big 12, in that the Juwan Staten-led Mountaineers have a seemingly equal chance of being really good or really mediocre. So what will the Mountaineers do differently this season? To guide us on our quest for knowledge, a bowtie-clad Bob Huggins offered some classically Huggins-esque guruship:
"I think we're finally maybe going to try to guard somebody, which would be something new," Huggins said. "Actually, maybe [we'll] try to run to the rim and shoot a layup. We've been kind of like your dog, you know, with the electric fence. We run right to that 3 and kind of stop right there. So we're going to actually try to run in past the 3‑point line this year and see if that works."
No further analysis required.
3. Kansas, reigning Big 12 champs 10 years in a row, were the coaches totally predictable preseason title pick. But they weren't unanimous: Bill Self admitted he chose Texas and said the Longhorns' five returning starters, plus super-talented incoming freshmen, made them the selection.
"I think if you're looking at it in terms of their roster, they should be the favorite," Self said.
"We're working on it right now, figuring out each other's tendencies -- when to cut, when not to cut," Holmes said. "I've played some 3. I know the plays. It's just about finding what I can do against defenders, where I can make things work."
4. Self is being polite, of course. He's also pretty optimistic about his roster, even if he and his players don't quite know what the rotation will look like when the Jayhawks begin the season in November.
It's hard to overstate just how new different the 2014-15 Jayhawks will look from the freshman-dominated version that Self rolled out last season. There are talented freshmen here -- Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre chief among them -- but there are also a host of returners and veterans (and a transfer or two) all vying for time in the starting lineup. That competition is ongoing, meaning neither Self nor his players could say what the rotation will look like just yet.
"We've got a LOT of guys," Perry Ellis said. "And everybody's going against each other every day, trying to earn minutes. It's a different look for sure, but it's making us better as a team."
5. Any short list of 2014-15 Big 12 contenders must include Iowa State, even an Iowa State team that lost its two best players (DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim) to graduation. One reason? Transfers, of course: As he's done every season of his tenure, Fred Hoiberg has lured a crop of immediately ready transfers to Ames, the most notable of which, Bryce Dejean-Jones, should be a major contributor right away. The other reason? The emergence of Dustin Hogue, a great rebounder and role player who looks likely to push Georges Niang for post touches in the season to come.
So, how does Hoiberg do it? How do you get so many new players to integrate so quickly, each and every season?
"It's all about freedom," Hogue said. "Playing his offense is about learning how to express yourself on the court. You have to unlearn how you played before, like, 'Oh, I'm a 3, I have to play here.' You play everywhere. You can't be robotic. But once you figure that out, everything feels much freer."