MADISON, Wis. - It's one of the best ways to win a basketball game: don't give your opponents free points. Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery is Exhibit A: his two technical fouls gave Wisconsin four extra free throws on Sunday in what turned out to be a 75-71 win for the No. 4 Badgers.
McCaffery said in his post game press conference that he didn't think his technical fouls cost his Hawkeyes the game. But even though Iowa had chances to re-take the lead, those four extra free throws still loom large in a game the Hawkeyes had a chance to win.
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By contrast the Badgers have done a great job of keeping their opponents away from the free throw line. It's a big reason why they're 15-0 so far this season: Wisconsin's opponents are averaging under 14 free throw attempts per game, despite the NCAA doubling down on calling hand-check fouls this season.
Because unlike other teams who struggled early on in the season to stop themselves getting too 'handsy,' the Badgers haven't seen a spike in personal fouls this season. They're averaging 14.9 fouls per game this year compared to 14 one year ago, which Wisconsin assistant coach Gary Close said is because the Badgers didn't have to adjust their defense to match the NCAA's new focus on hand checks.
"I don't think it was much of an adjustment for us, just because we don't teach playing [defense] with your hands," Close said Monday. "There was a little bit of an adjustment early, just because it was a little bit different, but we adjusted pretty quickly. It's an important stat- obviously you don't want to get people on the free throw line."
So far this season the Badgers have put their opponents on the line just 206 times, good enough for ninth in the nation and second in the Big Ten. Close said hand check fouls are bound to happen if a player drives with the ball and the defender gets caught off guard, and that young players who are new to Wisconsin's system have trouble keeping their hands to themselves as they get used to the speed of the college game.
"I think it's more the quickness that they're not used to. So they're beaten and their first reaction is to throw up their hands to stop them from getting around you," Close said. "That's where they've got to improve- it's more of their feet, so they're not beat to the point where they have to use their hands."
Of course, the Badgers said it was easier to adjust to the new rules this year because they are not really new. Rules against too much hand or forearm contact or using an arm to bar progress have been on the books for a while, but college referees were more prone to letting the players play until the NCAA cracked down in an effort to increase scoring.
"It's not like it's new," sophomore forward Sam Dekker said. "They should have been the rules all along, they're just kind of enforcing them a little more. For some teams it might be a little harder, but I think by this point teams should be ready and used to it."
The Badgers are no strangers to using another team's hand-checks to their advantage on offense, either. They've already gotten to the line 339 times this year, and so far they've rebounded from last year's strikingly poor free throw shooting percentage. The Badgers made just 63.4 percent of their free throws last year (last in the Big Ten), but have bounced back so far this year and are shooting 73.5 percent from the line.
And while new rules and points of emphasis can take a while to sink in and change how the game is played, Close said most teams are already figuring out how much leeway they will get from the officials. So the Badgers will try to take advantage of any extra edge the hand check rule gives them, because it's hard to say when or if it will actually open up scoring at the college level the way the NCAA intended when they made the change.
"I think for the most part it's been good, certainly for us," Close said, adding that he was originally ambivalent about the rule change. "I don't think it has adversely affected us. It maybe in some cases has helped us, just because of the way we play."
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