The turn of the year marked a competitive border for ACC men’s basketball. The nonconference, or discretionary, segment of schedules essentially ended with 2015, yielding a few stumbles, bruises and surprises along the way. With the ACC regular season at 18 games, teams won’t face outsiders again until the conference’s early-March tournament in Washington, D.C., is over.
The schedule’s year-end demarcation affords a convenient point to draw tentative conclusions about the much-debated new rules and points of emphasis installed this season to facilitate the game’s offensive flow. Once ACC play begins, higher stakes and intensity, familiarity with opponents, greater equality in talent and coaching, and better officiating are apt to suppress scoring. Last season ACC teams averaged about 6 more points in early non-league games than in conference play (73.1 versus 67.4). In 2014 the difference approached 9 points (75.2 compared to 66.6).
Experience, or at least cynicism, also suggests officials will revert to old habits as the season progresses, despite incentives to advance in postseason assignments according to adherence to this year’s changes.
Late-December statistics and simple observation confirmed the predicted results with a shortened shot clock and more restrictions on defensive tactics – scoring, possessions and field goal tries were up, both in the ACC and nationwide. Other impacts on how the game is played, and ways in which certain teams have employed the rules to their benefit, are more subtle.
Not everyone agrees anything significantly different is going on. “I haven’t seen much change, not negative or positive,” says Mike Krzyzewski.
The Duke coach notes a forgotten emphasis from several years ago meant to limit carrying the ball, which he now sees as a rampant abuse benefiting offensive players. He also laments a persistent failure to penalize illegal screens, as promised. “I don’t really see much of a change,” he says. “Maybe when we get into the conference.”
Krzyzewski spoke to the media just moments after Elon coach Matt Methany left the room. Illustrative of the subjective manner in which even experts view the game, Methany had praised officials’ heightened vigilance in calling fouls, and mentioned particularly the “great job” done policing illegal screens.
Days earlier Xavier coach Chris Mack said his game strategy anticipated more fouls called on defenders. “We try to use it to our advantage on the offensive end, much like Wake, one of the top teams in the country getting to the free throw line,” he said following a close win at Winston-Salem.
But after a decisive block-charge call in the late going went Xavier’s way, Danny Manning was disinclined to celebrate such commonality, even with a top-10 team. “I think if you’re an analytic guy, you look at numbers, you can make a case for whatever,” the Wake coach said. “But it comes down to what it’s always come down to – what the three officials during that game are calling.”
For years, if not decades, rough play inside has been a source of consternation. This season rules were again massaged to address the issue, including the introduction of a larger restrictive arc under the basket.
“Post play continues to be a challenge, and rebounding continues to be a challenge,” says John Clougherty, the ACC’s coordinator of officials for men’s basketball. “That’s going to be much harder to see improvement than we see in perimeter play.”
The pre-conference season produced a negligible bump in trips to the foul line as teams quickly adapted to the new regulatory landscape. Through last week, ACC teams averaged 23.1 free throws per game, compared with 22.6 on about the same date in 2014-15 and 23.4 in 2013-14. That minor variation is reflected nationally, as is a nearly 6 point per game jump in scoring, fueled mostly by field goals. ACC teams averaged 5 more shots than in the past few years.
Miami quietly capitalized on the altered dynamic with its 2015-16 personnel. The Hurricanes averaged 85.2 points at year’s end – compared to 64.5 at a similar juncture last season, and 15 points more than any previous squad under Jim Larranaga. “The 30-second clock has created more possessions, I think you get more opportunities to do whatever you do,” the coach says. “Other teams are shooting a little faster. Our defense has been pretty consistent. The more they miss, the more chances we get to run. The more we run, the better we score.”
More broadly, especially in the legislated absence of the 5-second, closely guarded rule, there’s also increased “freedom of movement,” according to J.D. Collins, NCAA national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating. Along with what he calls accelerated “pace of play,” that was a key objective in revising the rules. (The average game nationally is three minutes shorter so far this season.)
Close monitoring of hand checks, bumping, arm bars, and holding on the perimeter are points of emphasis. Limiting those violations, which Clougherty says “are fairly easy to identify and call,” creates enhanced operating room outside. One possible consequence: 3-point shots are up nationwide and in the ACC. League teams attempted about two more 3-pointers per game than in recent nonconference play. That’s again reflected across the country.
Threes made up a third of the increased shots nationally, more than 40 percent in the ACC. Through the end of December, ACC squads participated in 21 games in which the competing teams combined for 50 or more 3-point attempts, compared with eight in 2013-14 and nine last season. Duke and Elon launched 60 between them.
Enhanced maneuvering room, and no prohibition on a ballhandler burning the clock with extended dribbling, enabled N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried to convert an apparent liability into an idiosyncratic strength. “I thought the rules, the changes this year, would benefit Cat,” Gottfried says of point guard Anthony Barber. Then he set out to make it happen.
Gottfried anticipated his squad’s largest need would be a creditable backup playmaker; without one he expected Barber to play nearly every minute of every game. Sure enough, Barber paces the ACC in playing time (38.8 minutes per game through New Year’s Day). He also leads in scoring (23.1-point average), his point production abetted by an offense that puts the ball in his hands and runs isolation plays for him.
The slithery, acrobatic junior capitalizes on those situations with an extraordinary ability both to earn free throws – a category in which he ranks second in the nation (131) – and to make them (.847 percent).
“Me being so quick, guys can’t hold onto me, and I’ve got this kind of trick up my sleeve – I know how to draw fouls,” Barber offers. “With that rule in there, and me doing what I do to draw fouls, it’s hard to stay in front of me.” The junior declines to reveal his secret but does admit matter-of-factly, “I don’t feel like (any)body can stop me. That’s just me.”
While not everyone is suited to the newly engineered competitive environment, it appears coaches, players and officials have readily adapted to changes dubbed “drastic” by one newspaper last summer.
Reflecting that ease, shot-clock violations have not risen, as projected. Nor has the game been reduced to a hollow reflection of NBA basketball. So far, the college game just seems a little more open and interesting, less of a slog. Whether it still looks that way after the rigors of league play will be the more telling measure of how much additional tinkering is desirable.