Updated on Nov. 11 at 5:00 p.m.
In an effort to create more offense and reduce physicality, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel adopted a number of new rules in June. The one making the most noise as teams prepare for the start of the 2013-14 men’s college basketball season on Friday is the rule regarding hand checking, which has been eliminated from the game entirely.
“Tons of fouls, a lot of free throws, long, ugly games. Hopefully fans can prepare for that. It is going to be frustrating,” explained former Florida Gators head coach Lon Kruger, who has led Oklahoma since 2011, in a conversation with USA Today.
Coaches across the nation are worried that games will stretch longer due to the new rule, which they believe will ultimately have the opposite of its intended effect. Rather than promote flow and offense, they think it will force more whistles to sound and too many games to be decided on the free throw line.
The Gators may very well have experienced the effect of the new rule first-hand during their exhibition game last Friday. Florida shot 39 free throws against Florida Southern, three more than it attempted in any game last season and the most since UF took 40 foul shots against Auburn on Feb. 18, 2010.
“The one thing I can’t tell you – and I think the officials even said during the game they’re still adjusting to some of these rule changes and the way the game needs to be officiated. I think there’s going to be a huge adjustment period for everybody at least the way they’re talking about interpreting these hand check rules, contact rules, block charge rules,” head coach Billy Donovan said after the 110-88 exhibition victory.
“All those kind of things are going to be an adjustment period for coaches, players and the officials. We did get to the free throw line a lot, but I don’t know if that’s maybe because of some of the new rules or did Florida Southern foul that much?”
Coaches and analysts often disagree about the importance of foul shooting. Defenders say it can be crucial to the outcome of any given game, while detractors and statisticians correctly note that being a handful of percentage points worse as a team amounts to about a one point differential per game over an entire season.
Take the Gators during the 2012-13 campaign.
Florida ranked 224th in the nation in foul shooting, hitting just 67.7 percent of their attempts. Had the Gators shot 74 percent from the line, putting them among the top 40 teams in the country, UF would have scored just 39 more points over the season or 1.05 points per game on an average of 16.8 attempts.
But if teams will indeed be heading to the line more often this season, free throw shooting woes will become even more blatantly obvious during games. Just because 1.05 points was the average rate does not mean teams foul the same amount in each game or have an equal number of opportunities at the line in close contests.
And considering the Gators fell by six points or fewer in six of their eight losses last season – dropping three of those games while shooting worse than 55 percent from the line – free throws have mattered to UF.
“I think it’s going to be really interesting. The way the game was being called for the last 20+ years, you kind of could build your defense around it. This is going to be different for everybody,” Donovan explained.
“You could end up looking at a stat sheet and saying, ‘Wow, we held this team to 38 percent from the field and 31 percent from the three-point line.’ And then you look at the stat sheet and the team took 35 free throws. We’re going to have to do a good job of adjusting, as everybody is, to some of the new rules and contact and some of those things.”
Florida enters this year having lost three of its best foul shooters – Mike Rosario (.831), Kenny Boynton (.822) and Erik Murphy (.784) – to graduation. The other two in the top five – senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin (.725) and sophomore guard Michael Frazier II (.839) – are still on the team and expected to start when available.
Three other senior starters – center Patric Young (.489), forward Will Yeguete (.570) and G/F Casey Prather (.583) – fall into the other category of poor free throw takers.
Yet, if exceedingly early returns are to be believed, some of the Gators worst foul shooters have gotten substantially better over the summer.
Young (7-for-10), Yeguete (4-for-5) and Prather (7-for-7) combined to shoot 81.8 percent in last Friday’s exhibition game, making 18 of UF’s 29 total free throws.
“I think we’ve got to understand as a team that’s got to be a big part of our offense, too, to increase our shooting percentage from the free throw line,” Donovan said.
On the flip side, Florida committed 18 fouls in the exhibition, just four more than the 14 per game the Gators averaged last season when they were ranked fourth nationally. Donovan has been critical of UF’s defense in fall camp, and it did look a bit sloppy.
Whether that newfound shooting prowess, like the Gators’ 39 foul shots, is an anomaly or the new normal obviously remains to be seen. It is impossible to draw conclusions from an exhibition game, though it can give one a glimpse into what’s ahead.
But considering the impact the new hand check rule is expected to have across college basketball – as well as the Gators’ recently inefficient foul shooting and supposed weakened defense – it is something worth watching at the start of the 2013-14 campaign.