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Tom Izzo fears for college hoops' style of play under new officiating

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

Tom Izzo was grateful for the win but ripped the state of the game afterward. (USATSI)
Tom Izzo was grateful for the victory but ripped the state of the game afterward. (USATSI)

NEW YORK -- You listen to Tom Izzo after his No. 1 ranked team wins a tough game, moving to 6-0 on the season, and you can't help but believe he's speaking on behalf of college basketball as much as his own team when he spends nearly 10 minutes discussing his "dislike" for the way college basketball has changed so dramatically less than three weeks into the season.

It's been a really good year, PR-wise, for college hoops. I can't remember the sport being talked about this much, in such a positive way, by the casual fans and national pundits. The blueblood teams are dominant yet again, many a freshman face is already familiar, and the crop of talent in this sport is shaping up to offer the best NBA Draft pool in a decade, some believe. Then there's the scoring. Early reports are that the points are up and the transition to a more free-flowing game has seen some benefits. (And critics.)

But it's the way games are being officiated and the unintended consequence of that which is downright concerning to Izzo. It's also the pace. It's the style and the inconsistency and the future effects on coaching and how players will be taught. He's looking at college basketball and where it's headed and does not like what he sees.

"Everybody's going to think points are up, but they're up because of free [throws], in my estimation," Izzo said to a cluster of media outside Michigan State's locker room well after midnight at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. "What I'm worried about, guys: Are we gonna teach, 'Just dribble in and get fouled'? Is that good basketball? We had a two-hour-and-32-minute game last night. Is that going to be good for basketball?"

Michigan State knocked off previously unbeaten Oklahoma 87-76 on Saturday night. The Spartans held OU at bay for most of the second half, but near the end, Oklahoma was within five with less than three minutes remaining. Izzo said he told Keith Appling if he took a jump shot "he'd kill him." Izzo demanded his player attack the rim, which would be a virtual guarantee to draw a contact and a foul and thus the best option for MSU to put itself in position to win.

He did it begrudgingly. But he's a coach: He'll do whatever's needed in order to get the victory. Doesn't mean he has to be thrilled with the process.

"You forget you win championships by getting your nose bloodied. I'm glad Appling got his bloodied; maybe that'll be a good frickin' thing for us," Izzo said, later adding, "I'm gonna coach it this week. It's going to be drive in ... I'm gonna put on football pads again. Not to rebound. Offensively. Just klunk. Go in there, fullback dive. Three yards and a cloud of dust."

Saturday's game featured 50 fouls and 66 free throws. It took nearly two and a half hours to complete.

"I just feel bad. I feel bad for the officials," Izzo said. "And you know what the problem is? We've played in more games that haven't been like this. We've taken six free throws in one game. Twelve. Ten."

Inconsistency between officiating crews has been a challenge of coaching since they first put on uniforms more than 100 years gone, but the dramatic change in how crews will call games has the potential to be as drastic as it's ever been. Scouting reports could be rendered moot depending on which officials are working which games. To combat this, Izzo expects many coaches to eliminate aggressive defense techniques in the name of saving players' minutes.

"I think before it's done you're going to see more teams zoning," he said. "It'll get slower yet."

Wouldn't that be devilish, depressing irony.

The new points of emphasis for the refs has affected the top-ranked Spartans, according to the coach, because his team has gotten a little soft in some areas. Izzo said he wants this team to run, to score in the 90s and showcase its offensive talent, some of the best he said he's ever had. But shootouts won't get this team to where he thinks it needs to be. He called his team "too much pretty-boy" at the moment. He wants some oomph factored in.

"I've been so paranoid about the fouls, that I think some of it's my fault," he said. "We used to get after people. And I don't mean 10 years ago, when it was a football team on hardwood. I mean, just normal (physicality), like everyone else. And I think I've gone too far to the right with paranoia."

Izzo said widening the lane and adding a sixth foul would help, but not fully solve the problem.

Let's remember we're still only 16 days into college basketball's season. Officials and coaches and players are still figuring this out. Are scores up solely because of an increase in foul shots? We don't have the data to support that just yet, but we've certainly seen stand-alone instances where that's the case.

What seems undeniable is the central thesis to Izzo's complaint: that college basketball players could soon be coached as if they were rocks out of a slingshot. Hurtling players into the paint for the sole purpose of drawing contact, going to the foul line, getting points that way and repeatedly using that technique isn't basketball. But coaches will do whatever they can to win, and if this becomes the ramification of new points of emphasis with physical play, Izzo has a point. The nature of how the game is played could be changed in a way many won't find inviting.

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