NCAA rules changes deserve optimism

Thursday afternoon, the NCAA announced its Men's Basketball Rules Committee had come out of three days of meetings in Indianapolis with a few recommendations. Tweaks, really. The only potentially revolutionary rule change under consideration this offseason — and we're all for revolutionary rules changes here -- was the possibility of a new, shorter shot clock. The NCAA left it be. It chose to tinker instead.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. (Myron Medcalf wrote more on the shot clock earlier.) Indeed, it's clear, both in Andy Katz's reporting and in the NCAA's faux-article PR release, that most rules committee members thought minor rules changes, and better officiating emphases, could cure what ails college basketball.

The three rules "changes" recommended this week involve slight changes to the high elbow rule (good, but whatever), increased monitor reviews in the final two minutes of a game (more on that below), and a tweak to the block-charge rule that the NCAA seems to think will be enough to change the game entirely.

The monitor stuff is interesting, if only because it seems slightly counter to the goals of making the game more open and free-flowing. That's not just about the basketball on the court, either. It's also, at a much more fundamental level, about the way the game is presented, about the number of timeouts and stoppages we are willing to stomach during 40 minutes of basketball, about how the logistical and entertainment infrastructure of the game affects what happens on the floor.

The NBA has too many timeouts. The college game has too many timeouts. It's my personal belief, having spent formative summers playing soccer for stern Englishmen and Scots who stared quietly at the 14-year-olds in their charge, that a coach should have his team prepared to play before the game begins. That's what practice is for, right? We'll give you a timeout per half and halftime to straighten things out, and you can always yell and dance from the coach's box. But no one needs to bust out the whiteboard 15 times a game. It's gotten silly.

Are the increased monitor reviews recommended by the rules committee a bad idea? Not really. They'll allow officials to go to the monitor in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime to figure out which team should retain possession, as well to determine shot-clock violations, and I'd argue the marginal benefit of correct calls outweighs the marginal cost of adding another possible stoppage to our stoppage-riddled college hoops crunchtime. But it does give us the chance to raise the more fundamental overhauls again: College basketball needs to stop less often. It needs to be allowed to flow for five, eight, 10, 15 minutes at a time. It will be better this way — less compressed, more rhythmic.

Which brings us to the next bit of rule switchery: The block-charge. This is a long time coming. And yet the change is more of an adjustment. From Andy:

In the past, [Art] Hyland [the secretary editor of the men's rules committee] said the official had to judge if the defender was in front of the offensive player with his two feet down and facing the offensive player. He also had to determine if the offensive player had left the court before the defensive player was set.

Now, Hyland said, the defensive player cannot move into the space once the offensive player has started his upward motion with the ball.

"We think this will allow the official to make the call correctly and perhaps increase the scoring," said Hyland. "If you call a charge then the ball is taken away. If it's a block then the player gets to the line or could convert a three-point play. If that happens two or three times a game that's seven or eight points more in a game."

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that scoring won't jump by seven points per game in 2013-14, but otherwise … yes. Yes, yes, yes. This is good stuff.

Your humble blogger is a self-ascribed block-charge radical, in that I believe we need to totally rethink the very meaning of a charge call in the first place, and rethink whether we're cool with defenders sliding in front of offensive players, folding his arms over his chest, standing motionless, and intentionally drawing contact to stop an offensive play. Why is that defense? Why shouldn't we force a player to make a play on the ball?

I recognize that the NCAA rules committee is never going to go this far, though, and in lieu of that the committee's recommendations are a great start. Without getting into the nitty-gritty mechanical details, no, a defender should not be able to slide under no matter whether he is set or not, and in general we should be giving the advantage to the offensive player anyway. If the game ever becomes less physical, less defensive, and less slow, then we can look to rebalance things then. But right now, yes, the offensive player should have the advantage.

The final takeaway here: The NCAA rules committee gets it. This is not something we can always say about NCAA committees, or the membership itself, but there is a clear sign here that the major complaints of the past five seasons -- including The Great Aesthetic And/Or Existential Crisis of 2013 -- are indeed making their way to Indianapolis. In the NCAA's release, it said it believes the block-charge change will:

  • Allow for more offensive freedom;

  • Provide clarity for officials in making this difficult call; and

  • Enhance the balance between offense and defense.

It also is stressing to officials "that they must address these rules throughout the game."

  • When a defensive player keeps a hand or forearm on an opponent;

  • When a defensive player puts two hands on an opponent;

  • When a defensive player continually jabs by extending his arm(s) and placing a hand or forearm on the opponent;

  • When a player uses an arm bar to impede the progress of an opponent.

Whether the first set of goals is too lofty for one call, whether merely emphasizing the right calls to officials will change things dramatically, whether that effort can be sustained over an entire season, whether it can be coordinated on a national level -- these things are all up in the air. By next January, it's possible we're right back where we started.

But I can't help but be optimistic. It is hugely positive just to see the rules committee agree with what many college basketball fans have been saying for years: The game we love can be better. Whether everyone agrees on the solutions, and whether we spend another couple of years tweaking, the rules committee itself appears fully on board. This is a good thing.