The NEC was the fastest conference in the nation last season and the league’s teams roasted opposing defenses during the 18-game conference slate. Teams scored an average of 1.06 points per possession, the second best in the nation behind only the Summit League. Scoring might be even higher this season.
The NCAA is set to enforce hand-checking rules more strictly this season and it will definitely impact how games are officiated and how much freedom offenses have to operate. Coaches and players have mixed opinions about how these new rules will impact what they do on the defensive end.
Andy Toole’s Robert Morris Colonials finished last in the NEC in free throw rate last season, but he’s not too worried about the new rules.
“We don’t teach our guys to foul,” Toole said. “It’s something that we talk about all the time about defending with your feet and your chest and position defense and things. I think the intent is hopefully to make the offense have more freedom of movement, but I also think that as a defender you have to be really engaged. You have to be anticipating. You have to be in the correct position. You have to be technically sound in order to defend and I think in a lot of ways that’s the way the game should be.”
One of the most technically sound defenders in the NEC is Kenneth Ortiz. The Wagner point guard is the two-time NEC Defensive Player of the Year. He was also part of a Seahawks defense that finished second to last in free throw rate, the only kink in Wagner’s second ranked defense. Of course the defensive success is all relative, because Ortiz and his teammates still allowed 1.01 points per possession. Even after committing 3.7 fouls per 40 minutes last season Ortiz isn’t worried about the new rules.
“I don’t think I’m going to change my style,” Ortiz said. “I’m the guy I am that got me the two-time defending championship. As far as the rules, I haven’t paid attention to it, because that’s my style of basketball. I don’t plan on changing it. Hopefully they adjust to me. The way I play. That’s just how I look at it.”
On the other hand, Ortiz’s head coach – Bashir Mason – is certainly worried about the impact that the new rules will have on his rotation.
“I think it’s going to hurt us a little bit, but we have to make the adjustment,” Mason said. “We really want to pressure and get after teams. Our goal is not to be one of the best defensive teams in the NEC, but one of the best defensive teams in the country. If we can’t play as physical as we’d like to and play as hard as we practice every day because of the rules then I think it’ll hurt us a little bit, but we have older guys that I think will be able to make the adjustment if they need to.”
Mason also has the advantage of having one of the deepest teams in the NEC. Even if Ortiz gets into foul trouble he’ll be able to turn to talented backcourt players such as Marcus Burton and Jay Harris. Another team with quite a bit of depth is Mount St. Mary’s. Jamion Christian thinks that the new rules might actually help his team and its Mayhem style of play because the added freedom could make the pace of play even faster.
“We play so many guys. The new rules are going to make for the tempo to go way up and we play a high-tempo game, so I think it’s really going to benefit teams with a lot of depth that really pride themselves on guard play,” Christian said. “We’re going to have to make some adjustments as far as playing some guys with two fouls… I don’t think it’ll change our defensive identity at all.”
While Fairleigh Dickinson’s first-year head coach Greg Herenda doesn’t have the depth of Mason or Christian, he still wants to implement an up-tempo pressure defense in his first season at FDU and he’s not worried about how the new rules will impact his full and three-quarters court traps.
“In the press we don’t kind of put our hands on players,” Herenda said. “I think in the halfcourt defense it’s going to hurt because if you’re guarding someone and you’re coming off a screen you’re going to put your forearm and your hands and whatever and now you can’t touch him. So now you’re chasing the offense. I think it might hurt halfcourt defense more than our press.”
All of the coaches and players in the NEC are getting an opportunity to see the new rules in effect before the season starts thanks to scrimmages. Getting officials into practice has been important so that they can show everyone how tightly the new rules will be enforced. Christian said that MSM has brought officials in already and that games were called “really tight.”
The actual impact of the rules won’t be seen for a few more weeks when the season starts on Nov. 8. Still, there’s a chance that the wide open NEC might be even higher scoring this season.