VCU and reigning A-10 Defensive Player of the Year Briante Weber will be mindful of NCAA rule changes this season.

VCU and reigning A-10 Defensive Player of the Year Briante Weber will be mindful of NCAA rule changes this season.

RICHMOND, Va. – Could new NCAA rules leave VCU’s Havoc in a foul mood?

With changes in the way games are officiated on deck for the 2013-14 season, Shaka Smart and VCU might have tweak their signature brand of Havoc defense, a full-court assault of athleticism and in-your-face pressure, or risk more whistles.

VCU has ridden Smart’s fully realized Havoc vision to great success. The Rams have led the nation in steals and turnover percentage each of the last two seasons. But it’s also a style that comes with an inherent physicality. VCU ranked 305th nationally in personal fouls (19.7 per game) last season.

This summer, the NCAA altered its interpretation of the block/charge foul call. From the NCAA:

Under the revised block/charge call in men’s basketball, a defensive player is not permitted to move into the path of an offensive player once he has started his upward motion with the ball to attempt a field goal or pass. If the defensive player is not in legal guarding position by this time, it is a blocking foul.

In addition, referees have been directed to consistently enforce fouls when defenders hand check, put two hands on a ball handlers, and extend their forearms into the body of an offensive player.

At the heart of these changes is basketball’s buzziest phrase of 2013: “freedom of motion.”

Division I teams averaged 67.5 points per game in 2012-13, the lowest since the 1951-52 season, even as offensive efficiency experienced an uptick. Foul calls also reached a historic low (17.7), and teams shot fewer than 20 free throws per game for the first time since 1976. Scoring is down more than nine points per game since 1991 (76.7), and teams have averaged fewer than 70 points per game for 10 straight years; a stretch unmatched since the NCAA began keeping records in 1947-48. Editor’s note: VCU averaged 76.9 points per game in 2012-13, which ranked 14th nationally.

The NBA tackled similar issues in the 90s. With scoring on the decline and physicality on the rise, the league, through a series of rule tweaks and changes, gave offensive players more room to operate. Hand checks and forearms were out, while freedom of movement was in. Teams averaged 95.6 points per game in 1997-98, but as new rules were implemented, scoring eventually rose to over 100 points per game. Last season, NBA squads averaged 98.1 points.

VCU led the nation in turnover percentage for the second straight season in 2012-13.

VCU led the nation in turnover percentage for the second straight season in 2012-13.

The changes, made the summer by the NCAA Playing Rules and Oversight Panel, were well-received by many coaches.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more blocks called. Which ultimately is good for the game,” said Richmond Coach Chris Mooney Oct. 8 at the Atlantic 10 Conference’s annual Media Day. “The more that are called, the less guys will take, the more open the lane is.”

“I was fine with those,” added Duquesne Coach Jim Ferry, who favors an up-tempo system. “You know, the way that championship game was played between Louisville and Michigan, I think that’s the way the game should be played… I think if we can all play towards that mindset, I think the game will open up a little more and maybe get the scoring level up to where it used to be.”

Mooney believes the NBA’s example proves the changes can work.

“The NBA totally cleaned it up,” he said. “You watch an NBA game now, there’s freedom of movement. There’s more exciting plays. There’s fluid. Where it used to be, a guy went down the lane and you held the guy. So I think if the NBA can do it, we can certainly do it.”

For VCU, that could mean growing pains as the Rams attempt to walk the fine line between defending aggressively and playing outside the rules.

“Again, it’s the Havoc, they’re aggressive, they’re hands-on a lot. They’re physical,” Ferry said. “If they’re going to call that every single time, I think that’s going to affect that a little bit. I think Shaka might have to tweak some of that.”

“It could [affect them],” says Mooney. “Because pressing teams…a big part of their plays are a kid taking a charge under the basket or a block. So I do think those plays show up more against a pressing team. I think they’ll adjust.”

If VCU changes nothing, it risks seeing personal fouls – and bench time for key players – skyrocket. So Smart has made adjustments to his own approach.

The fifth-year VCU coach says he and his staff traditionally didn’t call many fouls in practice. Smart wanted to foster an aggressive mindset. He said he felt players could adjust to the referees in-game, once it was established how tight each contest would be officiated. But Smart won’t wait this year.

“We’ve called a lot more fouls in practice because we just cannot afford for our best players to get little ticky-tack fouls with 10 minutes left in the first half, and now they’ve got to six next to me for 10 minutes because they’ve got two fouls.”

Senior Rob Brandenberg was one of six Rams to record at least 30 steals in 2012-13.

Senior Rob Brandenberg was one of six Rams to record at least 30 steals in 2012-13.

Sunday, at the team’s Black and Gold Game, an intra-squad exhibition that featured two 15-minute halves and real NCAA officials, Smart appeared pleased at his team’s discipline. The two teams combined for 20 fouls, and 10 of those came from freshmen Jordan Burgess and JeQuan Lewis. No other player was whistled for more than two personals.

“Tonight there were not a lot of fouls called, which is hopefully a good sign,” the VCU coach said. “Hopefully our guys are learning to play without fouling.”

But while Smart has to emphasize defensive discipline, he also doesn’t want his team to lose the edge that helped the Rams force turnovers on 28.5 percent of their opponents’ possessions in 2012-13.

The Black and Gold teams forced a total of 30 turnovers during Sunday’s exhibition, but Smart doesn’t believe VCU has found the right balance between the new rules and old Havoc. Not yet, anyway.

“Our traps were not tight enough tonight,” he admitted. “We need to close the traps down. So when you get aggressive in traps and you’re closing traps down, now you’re at risk to foul. It’s really a fine line that we walk here with our style of play, but we really believe it works and it’s the best for us.”

Besides, not all the rule changes are necessarily bad for VCU. The NCAA has also instructed officials to use the shot clock to determine 10-second backcourt violations, instead of keeping their own count. The Rams have forced numerous backcourt violations during Smart’s tenure, and have narrowly missed on probably just as many.

While Smart sees room for improvement, it’s important to note that the Rams are still three weeks away from the regular season. There’s still time to get whistles out of the way while the Rams are at Franklin Street Gym, and many league coaches and observers believe the Rams will find a way to take the rule changes in stride.

“Shaka’s a Smart guy though, I’m sure he’ll figure out a way to adjust it,” said Ferry.

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