College basketball getting it right with skill-first rules changes

They are the two biggest punching bags in all of college basketball: the easy-to-rip-on NCAA, and the zebra-striped referees. But today I come to praise them, not to bury them.

Today, may I raise a glass to you both. For in the first month of this surprisingly fun and up-tempo season, what you have done has been of great service to the beauty and the growth of the game of college basketball.

Before this season, the NCAA's men's college basketball rules committee -- made up of a dozen coaches, athletic directors, conference administrators and NCAA bureaucrats -- approved a slew of some two dozen much-needed rule changes. Most of these tweaks were intended to speed up the game and encourage scoring: a 30-second shot clock, the restricted area arc moved out to 4 feet from the basket, a reduction in timeouts.

But more important than any rule change? A directive to referees to allow more freedom of movement for offensive players.

In other words, referees were to limit too-physical play, enforcing the rules as they are written, not as they have evolved.

So far, the results couldn't be better.

Through this past weekend's slate of games, Division I teams are averaging 74.17 points per game. That's 5.37 points more than this point of the season a year ago.

The best part: The increase in scoring isn't a for-show increase that can be attributed solely to referees calling an enormous amount of fouls. Sure, there have been some games like Washington-Texas that was played in China, where referees called 66 fouls and the teams shot 83 free throws. But on average, referees are calling only an extra two fouls per game this year compared to last year, a nominal amount.

Part of the increase in scoring can be attributed to the shortened shot clock; teams are averaging an extra five possessions per game compared to last season. But part of it is more of a philosophical change that the rules committee and other college basketball power brokers like the National Association of Basketball Coaches deemed essential for the game. Which is why we've seen the pendulum swing more toward the offense as the game moves back to its roots, emphasizing skill over brute strength.

"This is a point of emphasis, not, 'Hey, if you get a chance, take a look at it,' " NCAA head of officiating J.D. Collins told me about the freedom of movement changes. "When I got out of the rules committee meeting, they gave me a directive: 'You will reduce physicality to allow more freedom of movement. It's the habit change and the philosophical change for referees. It takes a lot of effort on a referee's part to change a habit from what they've been doing the last 10, 15, 20 years."

You may remember a similar horn being sounded in college hoops two years ago, when freedom of movement for offensive players was considered a point of emphasis going into the season. There were several of those ugly games in which a foul seemed to be called every 30 seconds. At the beginning of the season, scoring increased, nominally. But come conference play, things reverted to the same physical style that over time we'd become used to in college basketball. There didn't seem to be any sort of commitment to force a change.

This season is different.

"It's because the coaches adjusted more in the preseason than ever before, and we're on the same page," Collins said. "They started coaching to it. 'Get your hands out of it.' 'Play defense with your feet.' It's a mindset. And it makes a world of difference."

When I visited Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber during the preseason, I asked him about preparing for these rule changes and about defending in a less physical manner. Weber, who prides himself as a tough, defense-first coach, had his players guarding one another while clutching towels between their two hands; they learned to guard ballhandlers with their feet and with positioning.

"You gotta keep your hands off but still be aggressive," he said. "It's learning a new balance."

It's easy to look at this from afar and call it the wussification of college basketball. College basketball is tough, old-school basketball, the thinking goes, and that's what differentiates it from the NBA.

That thinking is dumb. One reason is because the NBA is plenty physical; just watch LeBron James drive into the lane during the playoffs. The bigger reason is that basketball is a game that was invented with an emphasis on skill over brute strength.

To quote the fifth rule of Dr. James Naismith's original 13 rules of the game of basketball: "No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed."

"The game was designed as a free-flowing, athletic, fluid game," said Keith Dambrot, head coach at the University of Akron and the current chair of the rules committee. "That's the way it's always been played. But people realized that, hey, if you want to win, you gotta be great defensively. Then that evolves into do whatever you can do to be great defensively. And it turned into a tough man's sport."

That's all fine and good -- except when the rough-and-tumble nature of college basketball began to hurt the public perception of the sport. Plenty of coaches I've spoken to pointed to the 2011 national title game, where UConn beat Butler in an ugly 53-41 final, as one of the low points for college basketball. The trend needed to be corrected.

"The stakeholders of the game really had some concerns," Dambrot said. "Scoring is at an all-time low. The physicality of the game is more physical than the NBA. It was hurting us in the competition for entertainment dollars. You have to be flexible and adapt. So we made the right amount of changes that weren't really that drastic but that people would be willing to accept."

So far, the rule changes and the emphasis on freedom of movement seem to have had their desired effect. Scoring is up. So is tempo. And it's without a substantial increase in fouling that turns games into free-throw contests.

But the true test will come next month, when conference season begins. Will the referees stick to their guns? Are the power brokers in college basketball for real when they say they want to fix their game? Or will it be like two years ago, when the new year came and everything reverted to the old days?

Collins, the NCAA head of officiating, isn't all that worried.

"Is it in the back of my mind? Yes," he said. "But I have lot of confidence in the 18 coordinators of officials that I deal with. We're on the same page and singing the same song, nationally and regionally -- and that's a significant change."

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at