#25 Gennifer Brandon of Cal and #22 Jude Schimmel of Louisville both chase after a lose ball during the 2013 NCAA semi-final. (File photo by Kelly Kline)
#25 Gennifer Brandon of Cal and #22 Jude Schimmel of Louisville both chase after a lose ball during the 2013 NCAA semi-final. (File photo by Kelly Kline)

The Ackerman Report (6); Changing the rules

August 28, 2013 - 10:56am

(This is the sixth in a series of commentaries on Val Ackerman’s report on the state of NCAA women’s basketball.)

Just as the “good old days” generally means whenever the person talking was 21, so “pure basketball” reflects the game whenever the person talking was growing up.

But “pure basketball,” if you look at it historically, would be jump balls after every score, no ten-second backcourt and scores in the 20s. Of course, the game always changes, and will continue to, so the question isn’t really whether, but how – and continuing the theme of the last article, what changes to the rules of women’s basketball would make the game more fun to watch? Or, to put it in business terms, a better product for television and in person?

Since offense is more fun than defense, and watching a team like Villanova run 25 seconds off the shot clock every time down with a series of screens and perimeter passes isn’t exactly riveting entertainment, the first fallback is almost always to shorten the shot clock to 24 seconds from 30. There’s a lot to be said for this move – it’s the standard overseas and in the WNBA, and it definitely increases the pace of the game. And again, what’s more fun to watch? Players running up and down the court looking to score, or players walking up the court to run a patterned offense?

That said, though, the shift from 30 to 24 seconds doesn’t come without a cost. Those lost six seconds limit what coaches can do offensively, and the result will be more pick-and-roll basketball and less variety in offensive style. Purists may bemoan this shift, but it’s unlikely that the casual fan – the one women’s basketball would like to attract – will notice.

So if a faster pace is a good thing, and I’m saying it is, then why not go to an eight-second backcourt instead of 10? That too is a FIBA and WNBA rule, and on the surface, it seems to make sense. But dig a little deeper, and the eight-second backcourt rule will actually detract from allowing skilled players to take center stage, and will favor tall, long, athletic types who may or may not be good shooters, passers or all-around players.

Start with this: Athleticism erases skill. A long 6-1 wing who doesn’t shoot or handle well can defend a 5-9 wing who’s not as quick but who can shoot threes and make pinpoint passes (both skills that fans, coaches and the media enjoy). The 6-1 wing will get steals which will lead to layups, and will score on offensive rebounds, and though perhaps she’s not a great passer or shooter, if she holds the 5-9 wing to fewer points and rebounds, then coaches will play her.

That, in short, is the SEC, a dominant conference in women’s basketball, but one of the least entertaining to watch. Often SEC teams just throw elite athletes at each other, and the result is a game won by attrition, not skill; by jumping and bumping rather than shooting or passing. (Of course, this is a generalization, and of course, SEC teams win lots of games.)

Last season, if a more athletic team pressed a less athletic team, the less athletic team could methodically work its way downcourt without worrying about a ten-second backcourt violation. Patterns could be set up, and without the pressure of time, the press could be eventually be broken.

Add the element of time, especially if it’s eight seconds to get across halfcourt, and suddenly the equation changes dramatically. Now the reward for double-teaming smaller, less athletic players in the backcourt is much easier to attain, and the advantage to the athlete, as opposed to the skilled player, increases.

To an extent, shortening the shot clock to 24 seconds also favors taller, more athletic teams, but there’s still time – putting in an eight-second backcourt rule, though, will make it even harder for the skilled player to find a place in the women’s game. And if fans want to watch athletes, then they’ll watch the NBA, because those are the best athletes in the world; what women’s basketball can offer is similar levels of skill, so long as those skilled players can be competitive with pure athletes.

Of course, one of the options mentioned in Val Ackerman’s report was limiting pressure defenses, but that’s a slippery slope. If a team can’t pressure in the backcourt, does that mean a steal on an outlet pass is illegal? And if teams can’t pressure beyond the three-point line, what about the player who develops a deadly 24-footer? Does that mean no one can guard her?

That seems to me to be too extreme, but it also seems to me an eight-second backcourt will simply exacerbate the dominance of the 6-1 athlete over the 5-9 skilled player (though again there are plenty of 6-1 skilled players and some 5-9 pure athletes). Similarly, limiting defensive options also seem self-defeating, as adding an offensive three-second rule, for example, would make it easier for players to focus on just getting to the rack rather than developing an all-around game.

The other suggested rule changes are minor (aside from lowering the rim, which is enormously expensive and simply impractical) but worth considering.

I’ve always liked the restricted area under the basket, which gives shooters an advantage, and I think women’s basketball should seriously consider allowing teams to advance the ball to the other end of the floor after timeouts in the last two minutes. At the same time, though, it might not be a bad idea to limit the number of allowable timeouts in the last two minutes to avoid the elongated final seconds of a close game as coaches alternate calling every one of their carefully hoarded timeouts.

Again, rule changes should be considered not in terms of “pure basketball,” whatever that might be, but what will make the game more fun to play and watch. A 24-second clock will pick up the pace with somewhat of a loss in offensive variety, and advancing the ball on late timeouts will make a close game more exciting, so there seems little negative about either of those suggestions.

I would be very wary of the eight-second backcourt rule, however, as it favors athleticism over skill, especially if officiating continues to allow lots of physical play in traps and other double-teams. Trying to limit pressure defenses is also tricky, as the NBA found out when it tried, and failed, to outlaw zone defenses. Interpretation of illegal defense rules is arcane, and application variable, so best to stay away from that thicket.

There’s no question, though, that examining the rules should be an ongoing process, and as the athletes and coaching styles change, adjustments must be made. Now is as good a time as any to tinker with the rules, but it’s important to keep in mind the ultimate goal – which should be to make the game as fun as possible to watch and play.