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Coaches fear controversial new rule changes may result in the year of the whistle

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Expect plenty of animated conversations like this between refs and coaches this season (USATSI)

In the middle of his team's foul-plagued exhibition victory over St. Catharine (Ky.) on Saturday night, Morehead State coach Sean Woods glanced at the video board and cringed.

There had been so many stoppages that 10 minutes of real time had somehow passed without a full minute coming off the game clock.

The barrage of whistles exemplifies why many coaches are concerned about the impact of rule changes meant to increase scoring in college basketball by limiting defensive contact and allowing greater freedom of movement.

Morehead State and St. Catharine combined to commit 66 personal fouls, a higher total than every non-overtime Division I game but one last season. The 97 free throws attempted by the two teams caused an exhibition game not delayed by TV commercials to drag on for nearly 2 1/2 hours.

"I get that they're trying to make the game better and increase scoring, but I don't think the way they're going about it is good," Woods said. "I just hope it doesn't get to the point where it's hurting our game because it slows it down so much. You can imagine the pace of a game with that many fouls called and that many free throws."

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It's too soon to accurately assess how many more whistles and clock stoppages there will be this season than years past, but early evidence suggests Woods has a right to be worried. Fifty-foul games have been unusually common in exhibition play the past two weeks as defenders struggle to adapt to rules designed to wean them off hand-checking or arm-barring and to force them to play defense with their feet.

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins joked that all the whistle-induced dead time this season will "help beer sales tremendously" after his team won an exhibition game featuring 63 fouls and 82 free throws on Monday night. Rhode Island coach Danny Hurley admitted he doesn't know what a foul is anymore after an exhibition victory that included 56 fouls and 71 free throws last week. Neither Huggins nor Hurley will get any sympathy from Dayton coach Archie Miller, who endured an astonishing 70 fouls and 96 free throws in his team's exhibition victory Saturday night.

"Early on, the refs will be the game, not the players," Miller said. "Refs will be operating as the evaluated people. To be honest, it's going to backfire and refs will be attacked not by coaches but by fans and TV [commentators]. They will become the bad guys."

All the grousing among coaches raises the question whether the long-term benefit of the new rules outweighs the short-term damage to the game. Is reversing college basketball's recent downturn in scoring worth potentially turning a season defined by star power nationwide into the year of the whistle?

Proponents of the rule changes say yes because they believe college basketball requires an overhaul.

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The speed and artistry that once defined the sport has waned in recent years as freedom of movement has diminished and physicality has increased. Louisville coach Rick Pitino compared some games last season to "semi-football, semi-rugby," lamenting that dribblers were often impeded by forearms and cutters were bumped and bodied like receivers jammed by cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage.

The proliferation of rough, bruising defense is likely one of the culprits for scoring in Division I plunging to 67.5 points per game last season, the lowest in 31 years or the entirety of the 3-point era. That's an alarming trend for university officials and NCAA administrators because of the potential impact on gate receipts, merchandise sales and television ratings.

Out of the need to halt the decline in scoring came a proposal by the NCAA Basketball Rules Committee in May to crackdown on hand checking. St. Peter's coach John Dunne said momentum had gradually built in favor of the proposed changes during his four years on the rules committee until the 12-person group decided last spring that the time was right.

"Obviously right now it uglies up the game, but that was expected," Dunne said. "The players have to adjust and the referees have to fall into a rhythm of what they're going to call and not call. Overall down the road, I think it will make for a better flowing, more enjoyable game."

The new rules were adopted by the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel in June, a decision that has since been hailed as one of the most dramatic changes to the sport since the addition of the 3-point line. The panel also approved the rules committee's proposal to make block-charge calls easier for referees by mandating that a charge be called only if a defender is in legal guarding position when the offensive player begins his upward motion to pass or shoot.

Bobby Dibler, coordinator of officials in the Pac-12 and Mountain West, said he believes the rules changes will improve the sport in the long-term even if an adjustment period is required this season. Dibler said that simply touching a dribbler will not result in a foul, but obstructing a ball handler with two hands, jabbing at him with a forearm or impeding his path to the rim with an arm bar will.

"What we're looking for is for defenders to back to using their feet rather than their arms and their hands," Dibler said. "I want my referees to have a feel for the game, but at the same time I want them to enforce the rules as they're written. The onus is not on the official to keep from blowing the whistle. It's clearly the defenders guarding the ball who have to adjust. I'm one who believes that if we do our jobs consistently, players are going to adjust because they don't want to be sitting on the bench in foul trouble."

One of the most challenging aspects of the rules changes for coaches is many remain unsure how much they'll have to alter their methods to adapt.

Some have reluctantly implemented more zone in an effort to close off driving lanes and keep their stars out of foul trouble. Others have instructed their guards to attack off the dribble whenever possible this season because the chances of getting to the foul line are higher than ever. And the majority have run players through more drills emphasizing defending with quick footwork instead of jabs and hand checks.

"We've brought out the old towel drill on defense where you hold a towel over your head and can't use your hands," Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. "The other coaches kind of laughed at me, but we used to do that a long time ago with [Gene] Keady at Purdue. We've also worked on more zone this year than we have in my last 20 years. You might have to go to it if you're in major foul trouble or a team is a dribble-drive team and you can't do anything about it."

Perhaps Woods might want to borrow the towel drill from Keady. His team was already the most foul-prone in the nation last season, and the new rules will only exacerbate that.

Woods says he'll continue to work with his players to move their feet better defensively and to slide into position to draw charges earlier, but he's also hopeful referees will ease up a bit too as the season goes along.

"I don't think there's a coach in the country who's not paying attention to how the game is called and trying to adjust how they teach from a defensive standpoint," Woods said. "It's going to take some time to get used to, and hopefully we can find a happy medium. Ninety-seven free throws in a basketball game, I don't think fans want to see that."

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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