Quality, justice, and 2015-16’s brave new world

Under the new guidelines, verticality matters.

Under the new guidelines, verticality is supposed to matter the way it was supposed to matter under the old guidelines. This is a good thing.

You may not be exceedingly familiar with James Thompson IV, Ethan O’Day, or even the Convocation Center in Ypsilanti, Michigan, but the 2015-16 college basketball season will begin tomorrow morning at 11 Eastern when those two guys contest the opening tip in said arena on behalf of Eastern Michigan and Vermont, respectively. Perhaps this strikes you as a rather inauspicious manner in which to embark upon an endeavor that will culminate with all eyes on Houston next April. For my part I’m too happy to care. The season’s finally here.

In the seven months since the final horn sounded in Duke’s win over Wisconsin, the NCAA has instituted a number of changes and issued several directives aimed at improving the game. Yes, the shot clock’s been shortened from 35 seconds to 30, but if you’re unfamiliar with everything else that’s new and different the NCAA just posted a briskly efficient 14-minute video that summarizes the main points. I highly recommend giving it a click.

This is the part where I scratch my head over the NCAA acting like the nimblest of daring Silicon Valley start-ups when it comes to bettering the game while at the same time the organization does a searingly convincing imitation of a cadre of Bulgarian apparatchiks circa 1953 and continues to define “top-50” wins with a metric that’s off by 50 spots or more seven percent of the time. Go figure, the “bettering the game” part of said schizophrenia is highly laudable. NCAA, I salute you!

In its video the NCAA says its changes are intended to “increase the pace of play and decrease the number of stoppages,” as well as reducing “physical play” and increasing “freedom of movement.” All of the above can win broad support in theory, surely, but I wonder whether it might not be better to view what the NCAA has done as a suite of changes aimed at essentially two goals:

— Improving the game’s quality
— Bringing greater justice to bear

Justice in particular is the unacknowledged gorilla in this room, and, speaking purely as a fan, I’m willing to make modest concessions in the direction of both stoppages and physical play if it will result in higher proportion of just outcomes. Let me offer a few examples.

Officials can now go to the monitors to review potential shot-clock violations at any time during the game and not merely in the last two minutes. This will, naturally, result in more occasions when officials halt the action and go to the monitors. I don’t particularly enjoy watching refs huddled around a monitor, but this change came about in large part because of a controversial play that took place with 2:40 left in the national semifinal between Kentucky and Wisconsin. If officials can quickly come to the correct call I’m willing to try something that’s both pro-justice and, alas, pro-stoppage. Justice and speed are often antithetical, and I guess you can mark this happy meliorist down as supporting experiments in search of the optimal balance.

Or consider the recent vogue for three-point shooters to kick out a leg mid-release in an obvious attempt to earn three free throws. In a more sane officiating world this would have been simply laughed off the first few times it was tried, but, strangely, it actually succeeded in baiting officials into calling roughing-the-kicker-variety three-shot fouls. Now the NCAA is quite rightly saying enough’s enough — a just outcome, surely, but one that may displease the sizable portion of my colleagues that marches under the banner of scoring essentialism. (No more wrongly awarded three-shot fouls.)

Lastly, I’m encouraged to note that technical fouls can now be called on players who during a flagrant review are found to have been floored by an invisible elbow. This change is perfectly neutral in terms of halting play (the review would be happening anyway), tempo, or freedom of movement. It’s all about justice, and we should be willing to use the j-word.

On the other hand the NCAA also made tweaks that are patently justice-blind and intended purely to improve the intrinsic quality of the game. A shorter shot clock and the elimination of one 30-second timeout qualify under this heading, but another example that hasn’t yet been talked up is the ability officials now have to assess one-shot technicals against egregiously dilatory coaches. Refs may be hesitant to use this newfound power coming out of traditional timeouts, but I can promise you I will literally stand and applaud the first time a coach is T’d up because he thinks substituting for a player who just fouled out is worthy of the deliberations prefatory to the Treaty of Versailles.

One paradox or spiritual kinship shared by basketball and baseball alike is that invariably many of the sports’ most consequential “reforms” consist of nothing more than a renewed commitment to enforcing the rules as already written. Screens really do have to be stationary, and bumping a cutter or displacing a player off the block really is a violation. So it is that in the coming days it will be said that it’s precisely this newfound strict constructionist attitude that’s resulted in all these darn fouls that are suddenly being called. Indeed the NCAA itself is already sounding this alarm. In its video the organization channels its inner Clubber Lang and says its prediction is pain: “At times the fans and media will not like the number of fouls being called, but we must stay the course and call the rules as written in the rule book.”

I don’t doubt for a moment that officials will signal their seriousness in November by minting free throws left and right, but it bears repeating that justice can be furthered by a no-call just as it can be by a whistle. Enlarging the charge circle could, one hopes, increase the prevalence of swallowed whistles, while the NCAA’s professed wish to stop rewarding “offense-initiated contact” will be nothing less than a no-call godsend if it comes to pass. I don’t want to see a foul called on Melo Trimble (just to pick a name purely at random), but a no-call the next time he flings himself like a horizontal missile into the chest of the nearest vertical-cylinder-inhabiting defender would most definitely be a just result.

It goes without saying that the drift and tenor of our new-look 30-second hoops will be judged by the NCAA and its critics alike according to points per game. I say to each their own; everyfan his or her own hoops connoisseur. For my part I will be looking instead at my dashboard readouts for justice and quality, the latter being in part a function of how much actual basketball transpires per 40 minutes. If the NCAA succeeds in moving either needle, I’ll know it soon enough. Maybe not as early as tomorrow in Ypsilanti, but soon enough.