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Rule changes lead to upticks in scoring, fouls, points per possession

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

Coaches weren't always happy, but the game did see big jumps in critical areas. (USATSI)

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The question coaches and officials were asking themselves as the season came to a close and they looked back on what was undoubtedly a transitional year for the sport: Was it worth it?

The 2013-14 season was a trial year for college basketball. New rules and points of emphasis for officials were put in place to allow for more "freedom of movement" for players. With that came an uptick in whistle tweets. More fouls meant for a cleaner game but a tougher (and sometimes grueling) watch. The block/charge rule earned some more clarity, albeit with bumpy outcomes along the way.

And we won't even get into the quagmire that was end-of-game monitor reviews.

This season, referees were instructed to pay close attention to hand-checks and also not bail out the defense by calling charges in cases where it wasn't safe or appropriate. These points of emphasis were put into place to bring back more offense to college basketball which, in 2012-13, had its lowest per-game points mark since the 1950s.

But now that we have an entire season behind us -- a whopping 5,947 games! -- let's look and see how college basketball's scoring, fouling, turnovers and possession trends were altered. Because they undeniably were altered.

We tracked these trends throughout the season. But our last look came a month prior to the start of the NCAA Tournament. Much happened afterward, and as you'll see below, this year's Big Dance actually offered up some surprising data. Some coaches bemoaned (privately) how officials were calling games differently in the NCAA Tournament due to how the zebras get graded differently as opposed to the rest of the season.

But did that really affect scoring or foul trends? We've got the info to determine that. As I've done all season to track all the information at hand, I'm using Kevin Pauga's tremendous KPI Sports database. So, first off, here's how the trends changed per month. Note that April only had three games, so in this case, we can see how the Final Four and national championship game compared to months prior.

Month
Possessions
PPP
Turnovers
Team fouls
PPG
November
70.2
1.043
13.2
20.2
73.2
December
68.5
1.033
12.8
18.9
70.7
January
66.9
1.046
12.3
19.1
70.0
February
66.3
1.049
12.1
18.7
69.5
March
65.8
1.050
11.6
18.6
69.1
April
65.1
1.051
11.7
19.4
68.4

Earlier this year I spoke with NCAA coordinator of officials John Adams about the rule changes and how the game was being impacted. At the time he was plenty pleased with the transition. I suspect that's still the case. (I reached out to Adams for a follow-up for this story, but he's yet to get back to me.)

As we've done throughout the season, you can even inspect and see how the major categories affecting game flow/pace have traversed week-by-week. The graph below includes play for all games except the final two weeks of the NCAA Tournament.

Date
Possessions
PPP
Turnovers
Team fouls
PPG
Week 1
72.0
1.016
13.7
21.2
73.1
Week 2
71.0
1.044
13.3
20.5
74.1
Week 3
69.9
1.046
13.1
19.9
73.1
Week 4
68.3
1.057
12.6
19.3
72.1
Week 5
68.8
1.033
12.8
19.2
71.0
Week 6
68.9
1.033
13.1
19.1
71.2
Week 7
68.0
1.040
12.8
18.9
70.7
Week 8
68.1
1.031
12.8
18.5
70.2
Week 9
68.1
1.035
12.7
18.9
70.5
Week 10
67.6
1.050
12.2
19.4
71.0
Week 11
66.3
1.040
12.3
19.1
68.9
Week 12
66.4
1.051
12.2
19.0
69.7
Week 13
66.4
1.048
12.3
18.8
69.7
Week 14
66.5
1.046
12.3
18.8
69.5
Week 15
66.4
1.052
12.1
18.8
69.9
Week 16
66.0
1.054
11.8
18.7
69.5
Week 17
66.4
1.045
12.0
18.8
69.4
Week 18
66.3
1.049
11.9
18.8
69.6
Week 19
64.6
1.043
11.3
18.7
67.4
Week 20
65.7
1.058
11.1
17.6
69.5

Get this: Compared to scoring average from 2012-13, every single week of 2013-14 had a higher per-game scoring average, sometimes by as many as as a seven-point difference.

Interesting to see that turnovers continued to dip as we went on -- and fouls actually took a drop as well. And if you're curious, over the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four and national title game, teams averaged 18 fouls. That's fairly regular, if you will. Want to explicitly talk NCAA Tournament? I've embedded the KPI PDF with all of the stats below, but let's reel off some facts about how the 2014 Big Dance differed from 2013's.

-- The 2013 NCAA Tournament saw teams averaged 65.8 points. In the 2014 NCAA Tourney, the average was up to 68.4.

-- The 2014 tourney had fewer possessions per game (64.3 to 2013's 65.1) but better scoring rate (1.064 PPP to 1.011).

-- Three-pointers made (5.8 to 6.0) and 3-point attempts (17.4 to 18.1) were also down from a year ago, but the rate was up to 33.6 percent.

-- Steals were down, blocks were down, turnovers were way down (12.0 to 10.3). That 1.7 difference represents the greatest fluctuation (14.1 percent) in any category from a year ago. Free-throw attempts were up from 19.1 to 19.8.

-- Overall, it was a closer tournament, with the average margin being 10.9 points; it was 12.9 in 2013.

And across the board the NCAA Tournament in 2014 -- and this happens in most years -- saw drops from the regular season patterns. Fewer possessions, field goals, field goals made, turnovers, points, blocks, etc. Every single tracked category took a dip in the Big Dance.

And if you're curious as to how this year on the whole compares to how all of last season shook out, the differences are right here: more possessions, more points per possession, fewer turnovers, more fouls, and more points per game overall.

Season
Poss./Game
PPP
Turnovers
Team fouls
PPG
2012-13 (5,669 games)
66.7
1.012
13.3
17.7
67.5
2013-14 (5,947 games)
68.1
1.043
12.7
19.3
71.0

I'm not one to believe that the rule tweaks were a direct cause-and-effect here, but it's fair to draw conclusions from what the data is presenting. The number of fouls per game truly weren't out of hand; the number of foul-shot attempts didn't seize watchability for college hoops; and possessions/points per shot up anyway.

In a number of ways, the sport saw a big year. Next season will be even more critical and interesting to track. The NCAA is very vested in these numbers and patterns, and if the progress can still be improved upon, we might see scoring and efficiency rise even more.

For an entire look at the data, zoom in on the PDF below.

2013-14 CBB Season Trends

 
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