It seems as though every offseason, the NCAA releases a new set of rule changes or officiating areas of emphasis, with the same underlying message every year:
Let players cut. Let players move off the ball. Let players get open shots. Let players score.
It’s commonly referred to as “Freedom of Motion” and while these changes might draw complaints from defensive-minded coaches, they still accomplish their goal. After a flurry of high foul-total games in November, coaches and players alike settle in to the adjustments and the game is all the better for it.
Except this progress routinely suffers its largest setback in the college game’s biggest stage, completely disappearing during March Madness, and offering a huge advantage to hard-nosed, physical, pull-and-grab squads. Look through the bracket this year, and years past as well, at some of the most high-profile match-ups or improbable shockers, and this becomes abundantly clear.
Wisconsin stalemated Villanova’s fast-paced motion offense by simply not allowing players to cut off the ball through bodying them around in the paint. They won 65-62.
West Virginia went full Bob Huggins and push, shoved and grabbed Notre Dame all over the floor, regardless of if they had the ball. They won 83-71.
Purdue forced Iowa State to reinvent their offense in the first half as Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas failed to create space cutting along the baseline, regularly due to having a Boilermaker defender draped across both of their arms. They won 80-76.
Even NCAA darlings and Cinderellas are on the receiving end of the increased physical play. As VCU made deep runs in the tournament under Shaka Smart, they employed the “Havoc” system that was predicated on physical, chaotic defense. Both Iowa State and Baylor’s 3-14 upsets to UAB and Georgia State featured match-ups with high-octane offenses being drug down by physical, hands-on defense, resulting in final scores in the 50s.
Fans of this hard-nosed style might see no problem with their team’s play, but the problem isn’t the physical play. The problem is that a style of play that wasn’t accepted throughout the entire season is suddenly permitted.
I get it, I do. Teams will play hard with their seasons on the line and do anything to stay alive. Fewer clean looks at the basket lowers the score and allows a 15-seed a shot at keeping a game close or pulling off an upset. And no one, and I mean NO ONE, likes when an official decides a game. But that doesn’t mean, however, officials should stop making foul calls early in a game to set their standards and correct errant play. Yet, come March, all three of these issues are realized and we still love the drama.
And that’s the problem. It’s how freedom of motion dies every March.