Rules changes to create flow will have opposite effect early on
PROVIDENCE -- In the quiet of the losing locker room, Boston College Coach Steve Donahue sat on a wooden table with his legs rocking back and forth. His tie -- a collage of shamrocks and the BC logo -- was loosened slightly at his neck.
His head shook slowly in bewilderment, trying to figure out what he'd just seen in BC's 82-78 overtime loss to Providence.
"That was the weirdest game," Donahue said, "I've ever coached."
BC and PC welcomed in the 2013-14 basketball season with an overtime game that featured 10 ties and 10 lead changes. But instead of a classic, it had all the flow of a ballet in a mud pit. And along the way, it offered an opening night microcosm to just how different college basketball will be this season as it undergoes a significant overhaul in the way the game is called.
Thanks in part to new stricter rules being enforced this season regarding hand checking and similar calls, there were 55 fouls, 60 free throws and six players fouling out. Instead of exhilarating, the game ended up being more exhausting.
"I'm sure it wasn't entertaining for the fans," said the BC guard Joe Rahon. "I'm sure it wasn't entertaining on TV."
The game personified the real-time conundrum of the 2013-14 college basketball season. In an effort to make college basketball freer flowing, higher scoring and eventually rescue it from its rut of regular season irrelevancy and anemic ratings, officials have been mandated to call hand-checks and arm bars that would have been ignored in past years.
The result? No flow. A conga line to the free throw stripe. Every shriek of a referee's whistle dissected ad nauseam. And just think what happens when legitimate pressure defense teams play each other? BC is a finesse team that finished in the Top 50 in least fouls per game last season. PC is far from a defensive juggernaut.
There's a chicken-egg feel to what's playing out here. In order to improve the game, fouls need to be called to change the way the game is played. In order change play, a slow-paced sport already declining in popularity becomes less watchable.
"It wasn't pretty at all," said Providence Coach Ed Cooley said. "There's no flow. If you want flow, all the fouls can't occur. You can't get both."
Consider this season as a diet before beach season. There will be strict discipline and a steady diet of kale and arugula required to reach beach season. And nights like tonight will make us wonder if we ever get there, as we got nothing more than a winter's chill at the thought of a season full salads. If we're going to hold the dressing, pass the whisky. This could be rough.
"It should have been a great college basketball game," Donahue said, "and it was just choppy."
The defining image of the night came from Rahon, who was saddled with four fouls, and actually played a defensive possession with his hands locked behind his back. Rahon had just been called for a questionable foul -- or at least it was questionable last year -- trying to get over a high-ball screen and slow down jitterbug Providence point guard Bryce Cotton.
After the whistle, he extended his arms out wide to show that he hadn't touched Cotton, who finished with 28 points. He then put his hands behind his back, a silent protest to the stricter calls.
"I didn't say anything to the ref, I didn't look at him," Rahon said. "I wanted to make sure like, look, I'm going to make you make something up if you want to call a foul."
Neither Donahue, Rahon nor any of the BC staff blamed the officials for the loss. The Eagles didn't play well, and Donahue made it explicitly clear that he was not blaming the officials.
After the game, in Donahue's press conference, the answers kept coming back to how the game was called. He made it clear that he wasn't criticizing, but the rules have just changed the game that much.
Cooley agreed with that. He brought officials into to speak to his team four or five times this preseason to be sure they adjusted. Donahue credited Providence for adapting and not letting the officials get in the players' heads.
"There's going to be an anxiety and frustration," Cooley said of the season. "And it's not so much toward the official, but toward the pace of play."
The officials apparently don't like it either. Rahon expressed his frustration at one point, saying, "It's turning into a free throw shooting contest." He said the official responded to him, "This is what the rules committee told us to do. Talk to them."
The Rules Committee's intent behind the spree of whistles is simple and altruistic. Scoring has submarined in college basketball, by most metrics, for the past two decades. Offenses lack flow from the bump-and-grind of bigger players and the game's aesthetics have made it borderline unwatchable in recent years.
"I think everyone is going to make a good faith effort to try and figure out if we can deliver a product that's more art than brute and try to sustain in," said the Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany.
The prevailing thought among fans may be that officials will lighten up and eventually call less fouls. But that's exactly the opposite of what the officials are thinking.
If this diet is going to work, officials need to keep making calls, and keep becoming less and less popular. And eventually players will change the way they play defense. The ACC coordinator of officials, John Clougherty, was in attendance tonight and said that there were a half-dozen calls tonight that wouldn't have been called last year (That seemed a bit on the light side.) But Clougherty said the officials can't back down.
"It will only work if the officials will stay committed, and not only ACC or Big East, but across the board," he said. "The most experienced ones have to do it. The mid-level ones won't do it if the more notable officials don't."
Consistency is the biggest worry of coaches. And tonight's officials -- Ed Corbett, Brian O'Connell and Mike Roberts -- were pretty brutal. Both ways. Hey, they need to adjust to all of this, too.
Officiating in college basketball was already inconsistent from conference to conference before this. Will this help conform it? No one knows.
But in the short term, there will be a lot of grimaces from TV executives over the length of games, coaches who lose star players and especially fans from having to stomach it all.
"From a fan's perspective, this is not going to be fun to watch," Florida Coach Billy Donovan said earlier this week in a phone interview. "But down the road, it could be good for our game."
The sample size on opening night is ridiculously small. But it's obvious we're going to have to stomach a lot more kale in college basketball this season.