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Pac-12 basketball preview 2013: Prepare for whistles!

Basketball is almost here! Hooray! Longwinded, occasionally philosophical discussions about basketball referring are back too! Hooray?

The Pac-12's new officiating coordinator, Bobby Dibler, speaks at Pac-12 media day.
The Pac-12's new officiating coordinator, Bobby Dibler, speaks at Pac-12 media day.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of many changes made by Larry Scott since he became Pac-12 commissioner was an attempt to improve the standard of refereeing across the board. Last year that could be seen in a push by the conference to call fewer fouls. The perception was that a) Pac-12 games had more whistles and thus the games were more disjointed and b) Pac-12 teams weren't prepared when they face more physical teams away from home or in the NCAA tournament. And as we detailed in a post breaking down the numbers, fewer fouls have been called in the Pac-12 over the last two years.

For the most part, fans seemed to applaud the move by the Pac-12 to reduce iffy foul calls and keep the game moving. But allowing more physical play has a hypothetical downside - less scoring and less offense. Scoring has been on the decline in college basketball for some time now.

It's worth noting that while scoring is down, offensive efficiency isn't. Scoring is down because teams have been gradually playing slower basketball each year over the last decade or so. It's worth debating whether or not this is actually a problem, and enough of a problem that rule changes are necessary.

But necessary or not, changes are coming. With a new season comes the dreaded ‘points of emphasis!' What will be emphasized this year? Evidently, hand checks, amongst many other rules:

This year the NCAA outlawed hand-checking and using the forearm to impede an offensive player, two rules the NBA adopted in 1994 and '97 respectively. In addition, the officials will call a foul when a defensive player puts two hands on an opponent and when a defensive player continually jabs at an opponent.

The NCAA also changed the ruling on the block-charge call, prohibiting a defensive player from moving into the path of an offensive player once he starts an upward motion.

My first reaction? This is great!

I love watching great offense, but too many teams try to shut great offenses down by trying to get away with as much grabbing, jabbing and touching as possible. Some of the best recent UCLA and Washington teams jump out as teams that knew exactly how much they could get away with. These changes should put a stop to that kind of chicanery.

My second reaction? Oh, how annoying the application of these new rules could potentially be.

I do appreciate any changes that result in more block calls and less charge calls. I do appreciate cracking down on hand checks. But there's a major challenge when you want to start calling a tighter game, a challenge that Zach Lowe describes very well in a column about the NBA:

The path to a cleaner game involves an endless slog of foul calls, and that's why the league tends to abort its trek down that path very early. "How many regular season games are you willing to sacrifice in order to clean things up?" [Jeff] Van Gundy ask. "How many horrible games are you willing to have in December or January?

You should read the entire article to get a sense of a) how difficult it is to even agree upon the rules by which players are bound and b) how difficult it then becomes to enforce those rules evenly. And although the article is about the NBA, everything in it applies just as much to NCAA basketball.

Your best case scenario? Coaches and players attempt to change how they play prior to the season, the refs call the new rules evenly, everybody suffer through a brief adjustment period over the first few months, and the change appears relatively seamless to fans. The end result is more offense without a marked increase in the number of fouls called, particularly later in the year.

Your worst case scenario? Some teams stop hand-checking and reduce their physicality on defense in anticipation of the new rules. Other teams don't. The rules aren't called with uniformity throughout the season or even within the same game. Confusion about what is and isn't a foul lasts for the entire season, and results in more than a few high-profile incidents and combustible coach tirades.

Your more likely, middle ground scenario? Minus a few inevitable screw ups, refs call the new rules consistently. The result is more offense, but at the expense of game flow. The number of fouls called and free throws shot balloon after a two year decline. Fans again grumble about the refs, but for different reasons.

To be honest, I think these rules benefit Cal more than your average Pac-12 team. Monty's defensive strategy has never been to force a ton of turnovers, and Cal has, on average, been less physical than an average Pac-12 team. And on offense, those more physical teams have been very disruptive to Monty's offenses, so the hypothetical elimination of that strategy could benefit Cal's offense.

So I'm in favor of these rules conceptually, but terrified about their application come game time. The rule changes might help Cal win games, but they're unlikely to help make games more entertaining, at least in the short term. It's certainly something worth tracking throughout the year.