When Nebraska takes the court for its unofficial season opener Monday night in an exhibition contest with Nebraska-Kearney, players, coaches and fans alike will be introduced to a much different style of game on both ends of the floor from what they saw just a year ago.
Starting with the 2013-14 season, the NCAA has instituted a number of rule changes geared to help increase scoring across the country and allow for a better overall offensive flow than what it's been in recent years. In other words, officials will be cracking down and calling fouls on plays that previously might have gone by without notice.
While the idea is to get teams to adjust the way they play defense in order to provide better scoring opportunities and create a more exciting game, the fear of many coaches across college basketball - including Nebraska's Tim Miles - is that games could be reduced to free-throw shooting contests and battles of foul attrition as players try to figure out what they can and can't get away with defensively.
"I think that uncertainty is unsettling for everybody: coaches, fans, players, you name it," Miles said. "You just need as much depth as you can have. That's going to be really interesting. We're not a heavy on-the-ball pressure team, but if you come in the lane, things get physical at times. I'm just curious to see where it all ends up."
The new rules changes were a result of college basketball scoring reaching historic lows over the past five years or so. Teams averaged just 67.5 points per game at the Division I level last season, marking the lowest since 1951-52 and a drop in the national average for the fourth consecutive year. It wasn't just problems getting into the lane, either, as the national 3-point shooting average was the lowest it's been since the 3-point line was created in the mid-1980s.
Because officials were calling such few fouls - the lowest number of foul calls in NCAA history, in fact - the game also saw the fewest free-throw attempts since 1976.
In an effort to give the advantage back to the offense, the NCAA re-evaluated how certain plays would be officiated, particularly in determining the difference between a block or a charge. This season, defenders will be unable to change the direction of a ball handler once he begins to leave the floor for a shot or pass. Instead, defensive players are being encouraged to either try and block the shot or simply to avoid making contact and drawing a foul.
Other new calls officials will be looking for include when a defender keeps a hand/forearm or places two hands on an opponent, continuous "jabbing" of a ball handler with hands or forearms, and using extended arms to impede the progress of an opponent.
Miles said he and the rest of the Big Ten Conference head coaches actually met with league and NCAA officials on Wednesday night before their annual Media Day on Thursday and voiced their concern about the rule changes and they're potential impact on the game and the quality of product on the court.
"How many foul shots are we going to want to sit through?" Miles said. "I mean everybody: fans, coaches, players. I mean, what's going on with this? And can we carry it over? Is this going to last two weeks? Two months? Is this going to last the whole season? What's manageable? Truly, what's manageable? Oddly enough, there happens to be on occasion incidental contact in a basketball game, and there are times when it's not a foul. There are times when it's initiated by an offensive player, which really doesn't constitute a foul. Is that an automatic absolute that that's a foul on the defense? That's not fair.
"So where do you draw the line? Are we going to hide behind a set of rules that says any of this are these absolutes? That's foolish. Anything in life - I don't care what you do, you can have knowledge about the situation, you can have all the official mechanics, but at the end of the day it comes down to judgement. It's judgement: the understanding of the rules that you know so the game is fair. You can't legislate judgment. You can't teach judgement. They've either got it or they don't. So hopefully we've got high-level and high-caliber group (of officials) we usually deal with. Hopefully it goes well."
With new rules, free throw shooting a bigger priority than ever
On the other side of the issue is the increased importance of team free-throw shooting, as some are expecting games with as many as 60 fouls called during the early stages of the season. During Nebraska's recent scrimmage with South Dakota State, the Huskers reportedly shot roughly 50 percent from the line in a 69-65 loss to the Jackrabbits.
Miles said NU's shooting from the charity stripe obviously needed to get better, but clarified on the scrimmage numbers by saying one player "missed about nine" of the failed free throw attempts. Overall, Miles said Nebraska has been "OK, but not great" at the line since the start of official team practices last month. He said the Huskers have charted each player's free-throw shooting in practice and even end each practice with a "game" that requires five different players to make a free throw in order to complete. For every miss, the entire team must sprint the length of the court and back.
In that game, Miles said his team has actually done quite well, which is a promising sign given it not only provides a pressure-filled situation but also forces players to concentrate and execute when they're dead tired at the end of practice. Miles said so far the Huskers have shot just as well in the game as the Colorado State team he coached in 2011-12 that finished sixth nationally in free-throw shooting at 76.9 percent.
There's also the issue of the Huskers having to adjust to shooting in an completely new environment at Pinnacle Bank Arena, where Miles said they've practiced about 25 percent of the time so far. Depth perception has been a unique hurdle for players at the line, as they try to adjust to focusing on the basket in a 15,000-seat arena compared to the condensed Hendricks Center practice facility court they've practiced in the past two seasons.
Senior guard Ray Gallegos said it's been a bit of a challenge in trying to figure out the different shooting dynamics of the new arena, but was confident it would only be a matter of time before the Huskers got a handle on the nuances of their home court.
"It's kind of a difference," Gallegos said. "You can tell, obviously, but we've just got to get used to it. We're in there getting up extra shots and stuff, and I think the more we're in it the more comfortable we'll be. I think we'll be alright."
Around the rim
***Miles said freshman guard Nathan Hawkins was questionable for Monday's exhibition, as he's been out with a foot injury that resembles a similar injury he suffered last season. It's not believed to be serious, but Miles said it could keep Hawkins out a bit longer.
***Miles also said junior forward Leslee Smith was still dealing with issues in his surgically repaired knee, and even aggravated his hamstring in his opposite leg because he was favoring his injured knee too much in practice. He is expected to play on Monday, though.
***The good news on the injury front is that sophomore forward Walter Pitchford is good to go after missing a week with a shoulder injury.
***Miles said his starting five against UNK would be Tai Webster, Gallegos, Shavon Shields, Terran Petteway and Pitchford. He said Smith, David Rivers and Benny Parker would be the first group off the bench.
***Miles said there have still been no final decisions on potential redshirt candidates yet, but he planned to meet with some players next week to discuss their options. Miles said freshmen Hawkins and Nick Fuller could be candidates, as could players dealing with injuries that have limited their practice time too much.
***Ideally, Miles said he would like to have an eight- or nine-man rotation this season, but with the new rule changes and the potential foul trouble issues, he said he may be forced to play more guys.
***Gallegos said one way Nebraska is working on improving its free throw shooting is by having each player make 500 free throws from the start of practice last month to the first regular-season game against Florida Gulf Coast on Nov. 8. Gallegos said he's only attempted about 200 free throws so far, so he has some work to do to get to that 500 mark.
***Miles said the Huskers have the ability to drive to the basket and create plays, but the problem is making the right decisions when they do drive and not throwing the ball away with bad shots or passes.
"We do drive it," Miles said. "Now, what we're going to do with it as we drive it could be - you know, if I'm in the first four rows of Pinnacle Bank Arena I may want to get some disability insurance, just in case."