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Tightening hand-check rule good for college basketball


College basketball is going cold turkey. It has chosen to abruptly cease a bad habit over gradual reduction, accepting the nausea and hives and dizziness and headaches and muscle pains all at once.

Three words: It’s about time.

Prepare yourself for ugly games that drag on like a basketball version of “War and Peace.” Accept that you will hear more whistles over 40 minutes than a month’s worth of strolling the boardwalk at Venice Beach.

Recognize that if you believed referees to be inconsistent in their craft before this, you will deem them utterly hopeless within the next month.

But also understand that the result of watching such a painful and monotonous affair will be a better, more fluid product.

The goal: returning a college game to its proper roots of creativity and freedom of movement by forcing players to defend with athleticism and skill rather than brute force.

The season begins for real this week, and arriving with it are stricter rules against hand-checking and arm bars. You can’t jab or extend an arm when guarding anymore. You can’t impede the progress of a dribbler as much.

All great changes.

Basketball is in again; football and wrestling are out.

“Our game has gotten away from us,” college basketball analyst Jay Bilas told reporters on a recent conference call. “It’s been a long time coming. Finally, we can stop the organized fouling, and that’s what it is. Many coaches have admitted this. They’ve been teaching fouling as strategy simply because the referees will not call it. So the referees have no excuse now. They have to call these fouls. They’ve been fouls forever, and they need to call them.

“It’s something we have to stick with. Stop fouling. I mean, these are fouls. They’ve always been fouls. Everybody hearkens back to the ’80s as the heyday of college basketball. Everything that is now being done that coaches are complaining that you can’t do was a foul in the ’80s. All of this was fouls. And everybody says, ‘Well, Georgetown, those big bullies in the ’80s.’ They played 3 feet off the ball handler, and you couldn’t touch anybody back then relative to today. It’s ridiculous.

“The NFL changed its game with regard to chucking receivers and putting your hands all over receivers. The NBA fixed its game. The NHL fixed its game. And we’re way behind. And now we’re fixing ours.”

It won’t happen overnight. It will get worse before it gets better. The only thing uglier than watching players tug and hold and hack one another might be players who have no clue where the line of accepted physicality exists. Defending dribble-drive is about to become a personal hell of uncertainty for some.

But it’s desperately needed for a college game that saw scoring last season — 67.5 on average — dip to its lowest mark since 1981-82. If games need to become free-throw shooting contests to drive home the point about less fouling, so be it. In such cases, I would assume most programs nationally are kicking themselves for not scheduling UNLV this year.

Consider: In the past five decades, the one stat that has not fluctuated in the college game is the number of fouls called. College basketball has changed everywhere except when it comes to the times a whistle is blown, and yet scoring continues to decrease.

There is something wrong about that.

“This is how it’s going to be now, and as long as (the calls) remain consistent, we’re just going to have to adjust,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “It’s a significant change. When you think about how physical the game has been for the last number of years, it’s going to take time. When practice starts every year, every coach is preaching about playing hard and being tough. It’s a major adjustment, then, for every program to start managing the new way fouls will be called.”

I for some time have existed in the camp that believes college officiating varies from average to dreadful on a given night, that referees are overworked and for it the game suffers. They will struggle deciding what to call and what not to early on, meaning evaluations will be critically important in properly teaching those blowing whistles how games need to be officiated now.

Just know that for the foreseeable future, even more boos than usual will rain down nightly from arena rafters across the country and that Rebels senior Carlos Lopez-Sosa more often than not will respond to being called for a foul with the dramatics of a Shakespearean sonnet.

OK, so not everything has changed.

But this needs to be done. It must happen.

Cold turkey is the only reasonable way to go, with all the nausea and hives and dizziness and headaches and muscle pains the game can handle at once.

It’s a simple edict and about time those in college basketball demand it.

Quit.

Fouling.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.