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The NCAA Basketball Rules Changes and What They Mean

While the NCAA's recent rules changes are being almost universally applauded, let's stop and think about this for a minute shall we?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, the NCAA approved a package of rules changes designed to, in the words of the NCAA,

significantly improve the pace of play, better balance offense with defense and reduce the physicality in the sport.

All righty then.  So, the NCAA bought into all of the complaints that people had about college basketball.  Meanwhile the NCAA Tournament continues to be one of the most-watched sporting events annually, suggesting that while people complain about the sport being unwatchable, they are still, in fact, watching it.  No, the regular season's television ratings and attendance are not very good, but this is largely related to the same phenomena that are causing the ratings of a lot of sports to drop.  That's for a different article, but let's just say that the college hoops regular season is no different from the regular season of most of the non-NFL sports in this country.

Of course, it's not like the NCAA hasn't tried this before...

The committee made a similar directive before the 2013-14 season, and it felt the changes improved the game. For a variety of reasons, after gaining some positive traction, the balance between offense and defense again tilted toward the defense. Scoring in Division I men’s basketball dipped to 67.6 points a game last season, which neared historic lows for the sport.

In many ways, this all depends on what you consider to be an "improvement."  Is more scoring good?  Maybe, but consider baseball's steroid era, when every two-bit middle infielder suddenly became a dangerous hitter capable of knocking 20 homers a year.  Or, well, football at any level today, when every rules change of the last 20 years or so has made defending the pass a near-impossible task.  In football's case, some of the rules changes have been done under the guise of protecting the players, but the result has still almost universally been in favor of more offense.  Saying that the balance between offense and defense titled toward the defense is a tell.  The NCAA is following along with the media and fan chorus expressing a preference for more offense and less defense.  But, as has been seen at various times in baseball and currently in football and hockey, and to a certain extent in the NBA as well, you don't want too much offense.  You don't want the sport to get to a point where scoring becomes too easy.  That's not much fun, either.  At least in my opinion.  Hey, I'm allowed to have opinions that are unpopular.

The key areas the committee will focus on in the upcoming season are:

• Perimeter defense, particularly on the dribbler and strictly enforcing the directives put in the book before the 2013-14 season.
• Physicality in post play.
• Screening, particularly moving screens and requiring that the screener be stationary.
• Block/charge plays.
• Allowing greater freedom of movement for players without the ball.

"Physicality" and "freedom of movement." There are a couple of more buzzwords (or buzz phrases, if you will) that suggest what the NCAA is really up to here.

Again, the people complaining about the game are expressing a preference for a certain style of basketball, and now the NCAA is joining them by effectively making styles of basketball they do not like illegal.  Read the comments over at A Sea of Blue any time rules changes are brought up and you'll know exactly who does not like things like the pack-line defense or less athletic players "clutching and grabbing."  Effectively, this is akin to the MLB making defensive overshifts illegal because it does not like that style of play (and yes, MLB is considering doing this.)

"Freedom of movement," in short, means that defenders are not allowed to impede offensive players who don't have the ball.  Where I grew up, that was called "playing defense," but apparently some people have a problem with this because I guess it makes it so damn hard for the offensive players to do things, but again, this is the NCAA and certain fans and media members expressing a preference for more offense at the expense of defense.

Essentially, though, to a large degree the NCAA is attempting to make the college game much more like the NBA.  And that could lead to some unforeseen problems.

If you've ever watched an NBA game, yes, there is more freedom of movement, and yes, physical play is cracked down on a lot more -- and, in fact, the NBA even has the "illegal defense" rule (or defensive 3-seconds) that prohibits defenses from packing the lane.  While to some this is a more aesthetically pleasing style of basketball, there is an important distinction between the NCAA and the NBA that exactly no one is considering: competitive balance.

In the NBA, mismatches are mercilessly exploited when a team spots one -- but the NBA has enough competitive balance that mismatches are comparatively rare.  The draft and the salary cap (as well as a variety of other rules) ensure that you don't have a team full of superstars facing off against a team of scrubs.  College basketball, though, has no such mechanisms to ensure competitive balance.  In fact, as anybody who has noticed the number of McDonald's All-Americans and NBA lottery picks gracing the rosters of Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina in recent years might have noticed, if anything the mechanisms in college hoops work in the opposite direction.

And that's important to note, because it has to do with exactly why college basketball became a more physical game in the first place.  Former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett, when he was the coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay back in the 1990s, first implemented the pack-line defense because he knew there was no way he had the personnel to guard Jason Kidd one-on-one.  Green Bay pulled off a famous upset in what turned out to be Kidd's final college game.  7-foot future lottery picks are frequently guarded by 6'8" post players, who play physical in response to the fact that, well, what else are you going to do there?  Shorter and slower players on the perimeter respond to taller and more athletic players by... what do you think?  Just running around with them and ending up getting beat every time?

What's effectively happening is that the NCAA has decided to listen to the people who have a problem with less-talented teams throwing the kitchen sink at more-talented teams in order to keep the game competitive.  The result, I predict, will be a lot more aesthetically-pleasing... 30-point blowouts.  And I think the NCAA should be careful what it wishes for here, because while NBA-style basketball can be fun to watch, the intrigue depends a lot on the teams being closely matched.  People will stop tuning into March Madness when the underdogs are getting run out of the gym on an annual basis.

Which is not to say that there isn't anything good to come out of the rules changes.  Reducing the number of timeouts -- and implementing a rule that a team timeout called within 30 seconds of a media timeout counts as the media timeout -- were needed changes, but in those cases there was really little argument in favor of keeping the rules as they were.  Allowing the officials to use the monitor on shot clock violations (hello, Nerlens Noel!) -- yeah, that one needed to be put in place too.

Of course, then there's this:

• Removing the prohibition on dunking in pregame warmups.

...yeah, I think we know who these rules changes were all about.