The fouls outside and the pictures in our heads

Ah, Marcus Thornton and the 2009 SEC, truly the golden age of college hoops. Wait, what?...

Ah, Marcus Thornton and the 2009 SEC, when the game was “open” and offenses “flowed,” truly the golden age of college hoops. Wait, what?…

We now have three days of the 2013-14 season under our belts, more than enough hoops to hand out some awards:

Player of the Year: Trevor Cooney, Syracuse (an effective FG percentage of 112.5 is quite good)
Coach of the Year: Tom Izzo, Michigan State (the “forfeit” line was precious)

Congratulations, everyone. And as for that whole business about the rulebook and the number of foul calls we’ve seen this season, here’s one admittedly subjective tour-guide’s quick narration of the still shifting terrain.

This all began with something most people will support, or can at least agree to try. I think we can all get behind certain broad areas of national consensus, namely, puppies, ice cream, enforcing the college basketball rules already on the books, and tweaking the block/charge statute to deter defenders from sliding under players driving to the basket.

Foul calls may yet occur at a “normal” rate, even early in the season. On Twitter over the weekend there was discussion of the number of games on opening day/night in which teams shot more than 50 free throws. Also on that first night one of the young season’s ugliest games took place directly in front of one of my profession’s keenest observers. Lastly, Saturday brought us Seton Hall-Niagara, and that was no one’s idea of an oil painting. As a result there is an impression afoot that a new age has dawned and that we’re seeing a lot of fouls called.

That impression is, as yet, unfounded. After three days of action, the Division I median for team FTA/FGA (0.365) is all but indistinguishable from last season’s corresponding figure (0.358). The sheer number of foul shots per game is indeed up slightly, but not nearly as much as the number of field goal attempts per game. Anyway, that number for FTAs per game is merely where it was in 2010-11, and no one then was running around screaming with their hands above their heads because of all those dreary foul-fests and two-and-a-half-hour games.

To be sure we may see the new emphases enforced with particular zeal on occasion by certain crews. I suppose there’s even a chance that your spectating risk of encountering something like SHU-Niagara has ticked upward very slightly. But in any population of a few hundred games every foul-fest will be accompanied somewhere that same night by something like Michigan State-McNeese State (16 total FTAs), the only difference being that no one will respond to the latter by proclaiming a new dawn of sub-two-hour foul-free games.

The net result of a few memorably foul-filled games and widespread normalcy would be normalcy.

Using overall Division I scoring as your preferred “quality of play” metric implies a keen interest in the America East’s tempo that I’m not sure you actually possess. Division I scoring is determined for the most part by the 76 percent of D-I that plies its trade outside the major conferences. It is indeed the NCAA’s charge to attend to the sport across the width and breadth of those 351 member institutions, so I don’t certainly blame the folks in Indianapolis for tracking points per game Division-wide.

But for the rest of you characters (yes, you), using overall D-I scoring as proof that somehow the snippets of ACC action that you catch here and there aren’t as good as they used to be raises nettlesome observational issues of the “this rock keeps tigers away” variety. And even the good people in Indy should bear in mind that the primary driver of their points-per-game stat in recent seasons has been a steady deceleration in tempo.

If you want to address that deceleration directly, shaving five seconds off the shot clock would seem to be a logical thing to trot out on a trial basis some November soon. Maybe it’ll help, or maybe we’ll decide we don’t want to go in that direction after all. But even in a worst-case scenario the milk spilled would be minimal. It’s worth a try.

Complaints about the decline of college basketball will always be with us. That doesn’t mean those complaints can’t be valid on occasion, of course, but experience suggests that a modicum of skepticism is warranted when this brand of boilerplate recurs each March. For some reason such complaints have attached themselves to college basketball in particular since at least World War II in a way that they never have to other team sports.

Why this is the case is a pitch for a good longform piece. From time to time I hear fogeys say “no one knows how to tackle anymore” in college or pro football, but such laments are self-evidently subsidiary to a gee-whiz admiration for the ever more cunning offensive geniuses on the sidelines and in the booths and the incredible quarterbacks now at their disposal. People fret about the survival of college and pro football in an era of concussion litigation, of course, but any complaints about the “quality of play” in football pale in comparison to what is heard literally decade after decade in college hoops.

There’s no way we’ll acknowledge something as vague, impressionistic, and diaphanous as a quality-of-play paradise when we get there. I know because the metrics that critics now love to cite looked fine within the tenure of our nation’s current president, but no one was shouting from the rooftops about the Greatest College Basketball Season Ever.

You want “flow” and plenty of scoring? Look at the SEC in 2009. It was a shootout. The conference as a whole averaged exactly 70 possessions per 40 minutes, and as a result the scoring average in league play that season was 72.5 points per game, a total that Division I hasn’t achieved since 1996. Huzzah for quality of play, right?

Well, no. In 2009 observers believed — I think correctly — that the material point about the SEC was that it wasn’t very good at basketball. The Gillispie era was in its wretched death throes at Kentucky, Florida was NIT-bound, and when those two programs sneeze at the same time the whole league catches cold. No one cared about a high number of points per game.

It’s certainly possible, of course, that foul calls really will register an increase in 2013-14, and if that happens it will be too bad. Free throws are boring. But at the moment it’s too soon to sound that alarm. Until then sit back, relax, and enjoy Kentucky-Michigan State tomorrow night. It may turn out to have a normal number of whistles.