Rule Change on Hand-checking Poses Issues for Louisville and Russ SmithPosted by CD Bradley on October 17th, 2013
With every new college basketball season comes tweaks to the rules of the game, and this year’s version may cause problems for the defending national champions. A major point of emphasis this year will be the enforcement of rules designed to improve offensive flow in the game many complained had grown too sluggish. Among them are increased scrutiny of hand checking, particularly on the ball, and bumping cutters through the lane. Discussion of the rule this week quickly focused on Louisville, which relied on intense pressure defense to win a national title in April. The Cardinals ranked first in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, and second (to VCU) in forcing turnovers.
“Louisville isn’t going to have a team if we stick to this because they’re going to all foul out in the first half, and I love the way they play,” said Colorado State head coach Larry Eustachy to ESPN, whose team turned the ball over 19 times in an NCAA Tournament game against the Cardinals. “If you’re going to call touch fouls, it’ll be over in the first 10 minutes. (Rick) Pitino will have to play. It really is crazy.” Eustachy wasn’t alone. CBS analyst Doug Gottlieb, when asked about the impact of the rule on Twitter, replied, “Louisville will be called for a ton of fouls.” ESPN analyst Jeff Goodman said Louisville, along with VCU and Butler, would be hurt by the rules on the defensive end. “However, VCU and Cards will benefit offensively.” Surprisingly, Pitino is a big fan of the changes. “Last season was terrible,” Pitino told ESPN. “It was an ugly season. We need to change the game. The one thing the coaches can’t do: they can’t gripe about it. The first six weeks will be a transition for the players as well as the coaches.” He also said the rule changes would render Russ Smith “unguardable.”
How the rule change affects Smith, named preseason player of the year at Wednesday’s American Athletic Conference Media Day, could be key to Louisville’s title defense. On the offensive end, Smith stands to reap huge benefits. He set school records for free throws made (222) and attempted (276) last year, shooting better than 80% from the line. He drew nearly seven fouls a game, and nearly a third of his team-high 18.7 points per game came from free throws. With the rule changes, he could improve on those numbers this year, and may find it easier to get the rim. A huge amount of Smith’s value comes on the defensive end, where he averaged 2.1 steals per game last year and has two of the top eight season steals totals in school history. He also fouls, a lot. He had at least three fouls in 23 of the Cardinals’ 40 games last year, including eight of the last nine. He won’t be able to draw fouls, shoot free throws or grab steals if he’s sitting next to Pitino.
At media day, Pitino said this year’s team will be better able to handle the rule change than some past Cardinal squads due to increased depth. Last year, Smith, Peyton Siva and Kevin Ware played nearly 95% of the guard minutes for Louisville. Siva is gone, but Smith, Ware and Final Four hero/walk-on Tim Henderson will be joined by JuCo star Chris Jones and freshmen Terry Rozier and Anton Gill in the backcourt. Other AAC coaches, when asked about the rule changes during a media day roundtable, stressed that it will help offense just as much as it may hamper defense, and that they would maintain their defensive styles. “We’re still going to play our type of defense, and that’s ball pressure,” UConn Head Coach Kevin Ollie said. “We’re also going to put offensive ball pressure on the defense and make the refs make calls.”
“We’re going to press more,” said Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin, a former Pitino assistant. “I think one thing you’re seeing is a lot more of us bringing officials into our practices early in the season (to help the adjustment process).” Temple Head Coach Fran Dunphy took a measured approach. “Over the first couple of weeks, you’re going to see some adjustments made by both the teams and the officials. We’ll figure it out.”