There was no bigger star in college basketball during the 2020-21 season than Iowa center Luka Garza. That’s not a controversial statement, is it? He was honored with the Sporting News Player of the Year Award in early March, and that was followed by the Naismith Award, the Oscar Robertson Trophy and the John R. Wooden Award. He ranked as the No. 3 scorer in Division I and led a team that entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed.
The people in charge of the sport surely would want such a player on the court as much as possible, wouldn’t want to limit his participation simply because of a rule that’s been around for decades, the one that mandates disqualification after five personal fouls.
Which is fine, because Garza didn’t foul out of a game once.
One of the issues contained in the annual NCAA men’s basketball rules committee survey of coaches, officials, media members and other interested parties was the possibility of changing to a six-foul DQ rule. There is some anecdotal support for such a change. ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes tweeted, “Every official I have talked to is in favor. Game is too fast and physical to stay at 5.”
The truth: This is a solution desperately seeking a problem. There is no need for college basketball to mandate six fouls for disqualification. There’s never been a worse time to call for such a change.
In the 2020-21 Division I season, officials called 17.24 fouls per team in an average game. That’s the lowest figure in the 73 years that the NCAA has been compiling statistics. That’s a small decline from 17.53 in 2019-20, which was down from 17.76 the year before. Prior to 2018-19, fouls had not fallen below 18 per team. EVER.
There is no logic to increasing the disqualification limit if fewer fouls are being committed than at any point in the game’s history.
Unless, for some perverse reason, the desire is to have more fouling in college basketball.
It is true that the NBA has a six-foul limit. NBA games last 48 minutes, compared with 40 minutes in college. A 20 percent longer game equals 20 percent more fouls allowed. It’s that simple.
The push behind the six-foul DQ is, ideally, to keep star players on the floor more. That seems like a worthy pursuit, but again, this is a concern based on a myth. The five consensus All-Americans this past season fouled out six times. Combined. They averaged 33 minutes of playing time per game. In games from which they were disqualified, they averaged 32 minutes.
Among the 15 players on the Sporting News’ three All-America teams, there were only 13 total disqualifications out of 447 games. That’s a 2.9 percent rate, which is lower than the 3.2 average for all players. Seven of the 15 All-Americans did not foul out once.
So there is no justification to make the change. There are lots of good reasons not to.
In the 2013-14 season, after scoring in Division I basketball had plunged to its lowest level since 1952, the rules committee and John Adams, then the NCAA officials coordinator, began the “freedom of movement” movement, an effort to remove unnecessary defensive contact from the sport and return to an emphasis on basketball skill. The process has not been an uninterrupted success, but scoring did jump from 67.5 points per team in 2012-13 to 73.77 in 2018. It has tailed off the past two seasons, but still rests at a much higher level than when the crisis was declared. Teams scored 71.11 points per game this past season.
A rule change that would not mandate disqualification until the sixth personal foul would give license to all players on the floor to be as physical as they wished in defending because the likelihood of fouling out would be almost zero.
We know this because the Big East Conference experimented with a six-foul disqualification from 1989 to 1992. I covered the conference during those seasons, on the Pitt Panthers beat for The Pittsburgh Press. And though such extraordinary players as Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens, Malik Sealy, Eric Murdock, Tate George and Terry Dehere populated the league then, the basketball was not what it could have been, what it should have been.
Research done by statistician Ken Pomeroy shows that Big East teams fouled roughly — and I do mean roughly — twice more per game during the six-foul years. And those numbers are for all games. The six-foul experiment only was in place for Big East Conference games, not for non-league games or the postseason.
“As someone who was there when the Big East experimented with a 6-foul rule, you don’t really want to go there,” tweeted Mike Waters, who has covered Syracuse for three decades at The Post Standard. “Basketball turned into rugby.”
ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla was an assistant coach then at Providence, under head coach Rick Barnes. He tweeted that the six-foul experiment in the Big East was a “disaster.” And that seems a fair description.
A stat sheet unearthed by John Gasaway of ESPN.com for UConn’s 1990-91 season showed that the Huskies and their opponents fouled each other a total of 44 times in an average conference game. That would be 10 more fouls per game than what we saw nationally in 2020-21.
“The games got more physical,” Fraschilla said in his tweet. “We had WWE every night.”
It was the WWF then, before Vince McMahon rebranded his wrestling enterprise.
In the Big East of that era, the F stood for “fouls.”