TERRE HAUTE — The biggest change in college basketball for the 2013-14 is not really a change at all in the truest sense of the term.
Starting this season, several officiating guidelines that had slipped out of use by officials and teams in an increasingly physical sport, were codified by the NCAA.
Keeping a hand on an opponent, putting two hands on an opponent, jabbing with a hand or forearm and use of arm bar to impede dribblers are all rules rather than guidelines. Moreover, an emphasis was placed on the block/charge play in favor of the offense.
This is a sea change for college basketball, and particularly, in the Missouri Valley Conference. The most successful teams in the MVC in the last decade-plus have used the kind of defensive tactics the new rules are trying to stamp out.
Evidence of the new rules came into play during Indiana State’s 96-95 loss at Belmont on Nov. 14. A total of 50 fouls were called as the Sycamores and Bruins marched to the free throw line 65 times.
While teams that can’t adjust to the new emphasis will suffer, there will be winners as well. Players who can penetrate the lane and get to the basket should thrive under the new edict. It’s something that hasn’t been lost on coaches.
“I’m guessing every coach is emphasizing ball-penetration. Drive it. If this player has a foul or two and he’s their best player, let’s figure out if we can get him isolated,” Illinois State coach Dan Muller said.
For ISU, one player immediately comes to mind as far as who might benefit most from the new rules -- senior point guard Jake Odum. There are other Sycamores -- Khristian Smith, Devonte Brown and Manny Arop -- who can penetrate, but no one has the ball in their hands more than Odum does.
Odum has always had the ability to penetrate the lane, and as far as drawing contact, his elasticity in turning his body to draw contact and get off a shot is renowned. Odum was dangerous before the rules were changed. Now? He could be an extremely valuable asset if games are called as promised.
“I think [the rule change] fits me perfect. I’m not as aggressive on the ball on the defensive end as some of the guys on our team, but I am more aggressive on the offensive end,” Odum said. “I’ll be looking to attack, especially when they have one of their better players guarding me. I’ll be looking to get them into foul trouble.”
Through three games, the proof is already in the pudding for Odum. He’s averaging 16.7 points per game and has been to the free throw line 29 times. Odum has converted 27 of them.
Odum isn’t the only player in the MVC who should thrive with the new rules. Kinetic Bradley guard Walt Lemon jumps to mind. So does Evansville’s D.J. Balentine, who has gone to the line 38 times in three games so far.
“Walt Lemon is going to get to the line 20 times a game. You can’t guard him because he’s so fast and athletic. You have to make adjustments to keep him in front of you,” Odum said. “Guys like him and myself will be more aggressive and try to get to the line three or four more times per game.”
The intention of the rules changes is to increase, but many coaches feel the rules change might have the unintended opposite effect. Why? To make defenses effective, many coaches who are dyed-in-the-wool man-to-man proponents might have to switch to zone defenses just to hold serve. And if a team can’t shoot over a zone, the effect of the new rules could be negated.
Already, ISU -- one of those dyed-in-the-wool man teams -- has considered a zone defense. Other man coaches have thought the unthinkable as well.
“In past years, we worked on zones so our offense was ready to play against it. We weren’t working on it to play it. It’s the first time in four or five years we’ve worked on it that way,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said.
“One [reason is] to stay out of foul trouble and to keep teams off the free throw line. We want to sit there and force them to shoot jump shots. That could lead itself to a game that isn’t as much fun to watch,” he added.
Odum acknowledges that the zones could be coming, especially if he continues to average nearly 10 times to the line per game.
“There’s going to be a lot of zone. There’s going to be teams that hate to play zone put in a soft matchup type of zone because they’ll be able to control dribble penetration. It’s going to change the game a lot. There will be teams that play zone the whole game,” Odum said.
Some MVC coaches fear that the changes could damage the MVC’s brand.
“I’m OK with more scoring and I’m OK if you want to shorten the shot clock. I’m OK if you want to take a backcourt violation down to eight seconds. I’m not OK with shooting free throws,” Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson said. “People don’t want to watch people shoot free throws. That’s not the way the game was designed to be played.”
Jacobson said it could change the way he approaches a game.
“Where and at what points in the game can you impose your will on a team physically and competitively? With the new rules, is that still going to be part of the game?” Jacobson asked.
“There’s a number of teams in this league over my 12 years as an assistant and coach that have been able to do that. It involves physical and competitive play. That has to be part of college basketball. Right now? I’m not sure where it fits in,” he added. “Our league has always stood for that. I don’t think it’ll leave the game, but it will take some time to find out how its a part of it.”
Until that happens, dribble-penetrators like Odum will lick their chops. The rules were designed for them to thrive. They hope that they can.