Big Thought: Why gripes about new rules are good

This week, Michigan State's Tom Izzo became the first high-profile coach to openly bemoan college basketball's new rules of engagement. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

This week, Michigan State's Tom Izzo became the first high-profile coach to openly bemoan college basketball's new rules of engagement. This milestone came after his team's hard-fought Wooden Legacy Championship win over Providence, a game in which foul trouble effectively snuffed out a much-anticipated match between stars Denzel Valentine and Kris Dunn. Despite the win, Izzo "spent a large portion of his postgame press conference criticizing the new freedom of movement rules," according to MLive.com:

"I think I can voice my opinion and say I don't agree with it," Izzo said. "Why do you want the best players on the bench? Why do we want a free throw contest? ... I think there's a difference between freedom of movement, which is the big words they use, and touching a guy 30 feet from the basket. I just do. I think if you're impeding progress, that is a foul. ... I don't think [losing stars to foul trouble] makes our game as good, but that's me."

Well, well. The new rules really are working after all.

This first bit of backlash is undeniably good news. It is the best sign yet that officials are upholding the two vital responsibilities required of them during an ongoing project:

  1. Genuinely changing the way the game is called.

  2. Maintaining those changes even if they create short-term sacrifices -- like, say, stifling a matchup between two of the game's best players.

The most difficult changes in the NCAA rules committee's 2015-16 changes are not obvious headliners. It is easy to take five seconds off a shot clock. It is easy to add a wider circle of paint in the lane. It is far less easy to course-correct a sport's decades-long slide into institutional physicality.

Arguments like this hammer home just how deep that devotion to physicality goes. Amid assertions that the NBA has fewer set plays than college basketball, and that defending set plays inherently requires more defensive physicality (really?), the Big Ten Network's Joe Crispin writes:

In no way should any defender allow an offensive player to simply cut across the lane without impeding his movement.

Wait: Really? Why? Bumping cutters is a relatively recent development! James Naismith wrote the original rules 123 years ago; one of those rules literally says: "no shouldering, holding, striking, pushing, or tripping in any way of an opponent." For most of basketball's existence, its cutters have gone unbumped. Almost any pre-1990 game, college or NBA, is rife with offensive players moving hither and yon, unencumbered, free from the fear of an imminent hockey-check designed to redirect them off their path.

It is only in the last 20 years that the game was allowed to evolve into one in which a former player could argue that cutters in the lane have to get bumped, because if you can't blatantly impede the offensive player's progress with your body, how else will you possibly keep them from scoring?

This is where we are. This is really hard. On its face, the NCAA is requiring its officials to police reduce off-ball grabs and off-hand shoves and screeners that shuffle for 10 feet before throwing an elbow in the back of a rebounder's head, even if that means that star players play fewer minutes until they learn, one way or the other, that these are the whistles. But this is a first step, a short-term means to a long-term end.

And it's already working. On Tuesday, the NCAA released updated statistical comparisons through Sunday night's games:

Scoring is up from 67.64 points per game last year to 74.61 points per game so far this year. At this point of the season last year, scoring was at 68.97.

There are 20.22 fouls per game called. Last year, there were 18.20 fouls per game. At this point of the season last year, fouls were at 18.92.

Field goal percentage is up from 43.49 to 44.18 percent. Last year at this time, the percentage was 43.51.

Possessions per game are up from 65.78 to 71.29. Last year at this time, possessions were at 67.62.

Points per possession have risen from 1.028 to 1.047. Last year at this time, the points per possession were 1.020.

The NCAA is changing its rules, sure, and thus far the results have been excellent. But preventing the backslide of past efforts requires more than whistles in November. It means altering a 20-year worldview about the way the sport is played.

The efficacy of this effort will be measured as much by the volume of complaints as by the volume of players' points. It would be far worse if no one was complaining at all.

What we're thinking about today: