IOWA CITY — College basketball stood at a crossroads with dwindling popularity a year ago, and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany wanted changes.
According to a Harris Poll, 10 percent of fans identified men’s college basketball as their favorite sport in 1989. Over the last quarter-century, that number has slipped to 3 percent in both 2012 and 2013, ranking seventh among major American sports.
Delany saw flaws in the game he played at North Carolina, where he guided a pair of Dean Smith squads to Final Four appearances. In 2012-13, Division I men’s squads averaged 67.5 points per game, the lowest since 1952. Only 17.68 fouls were called per game last year, the fewest since the NCAA began compiling statistics in 1948.
In an email addressed to college presidents and NCAA officials last March — which was obtained by The Gazette through open-records laws — Delany outlined areas of concern with hopes of elevating college basketball’s national profile.
“We lack a national basketball mechanism to effectively address change in the game,” Delany wrote. “Those who claim men’s basketball as favorite sport are down from 6 to 3 percent per ESPN fan poll in recent years. Scoring down and contact up. ... It’s my view as a competition committee member we have at least the responsibility, clearly not the authority, to suggest comprehensive change to the rules committee. It may be that the notion of some sort of consolidation of authority in this area in the national office is appropriate to break the log jam and inertia against change.”
Delany and other members of an informal competition committee, which includes ESPN analyst Jay Bilas among others, watched clips of every Final Four from 1950 onward. They analyzed data ranging from field-goal percentage to fouls and points. They saw better athletes, tighter defense and more physical play emerge over the years.
Their committee recommended changes, which were adopted in concert with the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee and the National Association of Basketball Coaches. The points of emphasis prevented defenders from putting two hands or maintaining one hand on an opponent. Defenders can’t jab at an opponent’s forearm or use an arm bar to impede a dribbler’s progress. The intended outcomes are to force defenders to use their feet, limit physical play and allow freedom of movement.
“I hope the players play with their feet more and less with their hands,” Delany told The Gazette and other reporters last fall. “I hope the coaches coach to it. I hope the officials have the good sense to blow it when it’s appropriate and not when it’s not appropriate. I don’t expect it to be a smooth transition. If you’re trying to make real change, you always get some hiccups and some discontinuity.
“But my hope is as the year goes on and everybody adjusts and we have a game that’s a little freer flowing, one that’s within a reasonable time, one that’s pleasing to the fan.”
Two-thirds through the recent season, the results are mixed. Field goals are up nearly 3.5 percent. Scoring has increased almost 6 percent, more than four points a game. In the Big Ten, scoring is up more than 3.3 points per game year-over-year. Turnovers are down by 8 percent (about one per game). But fouls are up more than 9 percent and free-throw attempts have soared nearly 16.5 percent.
NCAA officials tout the numbers as progress. More scoring and more freedom of movement allows the game to grow, said Ron Wellman, chairman of the Division I basketball committee and Wake Forest athletics director. Through Sunday, teams average 71.68 points a game, the highest since 1996.
“The beauty of college basketball is that we have great athletes out there,” Wellman said. “When people are playing defense as it has been played the last couple of decades, we don’t have the opportunity to enjoy the athleticism that our college basketball players have. We’re seeing that more and more today.
“We are very encouraged about the trend line we are seeing in the way the games are officiated, the way the coaches have responded to the new emphasis on freedom of movement, and the way the players have adapted to it, as well.”
Some players also prefer the new points of emphasis, like Iowa’s Devyn Marble, the only player to score double digits in every league game. He said the league remains physical but said “guys can actually play basketball.” He compared Big Ten games last season to football on a basketball court.
“Now you’ve got to move your feet and be an athlete and show that you’re able to move your feet defensively and quickly,” said Marble, a player of the year candidate. “For me it’s really helped because now guys can’t check me and I’m able to get around them.”
There were initial concerns about officiating, and those have lingered throughout the season from coaches and fans. Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo was among the staunchest critics of the new interpretations, both in the off-season and during non-conference play. He repeated those concerns in the aftermath of a 71-69 overtime win at Iowa. Michigan State was whistled for 29 fouls, leading to 43 Iowa free throws. Iowa was called for 19, which gave MSU 20 free-throw attempts.
Izzo was asked afterward about the officiating and showed frustration with his retort.
“You baiting me into a $10,000 fine or you want me to answer?” Izzo asked. “I’ve said all year, we went too far to the left or to the right. I’m definitely not a politician, but I’m definitely not in favor of it as you can tell. We went way too far. I said that from day one.
“I feel sorry for all four parties. I feel sorry for fans. I feel sorry for the players. I feel sorry for the coaches, and to me we put them in such a bad position — only a little bit — but I feel a little bit sorry for the officials because of these mandates. But coaches can’t change this. We have no say. But maybe the media can.”
NCAA officials are committed to making these changes work. After Delany’s email, he received a swift response from Mark Lewis, the NCAA’s executive vice president of championships and alliances. Lewis wrote that Dan Gavitt, a former Big East Conference executive and now in charge of the NCAA tournament, planned to organize a group “to talk about the next 75 years of college basketball.” That’s where Delany, Wellman and other officials are with the points of emphasis. There may be frustrations but there’s no going back.
“I think for them to be sustainable, we’re going to have to find the right balance between players playing, coaches coaching and officials officiating so that there’s predictability,” Delany said. “There has to be some order of predictability in order to have sustainability. Because if you have media, fans, coaches, commentators, uncertain about what a foul is and what it isn’t and how you adjust to it, it will be difficult to have sustainability.”
“We know that this is going to be a multiple-year process,” Wellman said. “We’re not going to achieve everything that we want to achieve for the game of college basketball in the first year. But we’re very encouraged about how everyone from the officials, coaches and players have responded to the new points of emphasis.”