In better position

NCAA change gives UNLV a subtle but much-needed rebounding advantage


Sam Morris

Wink Adams shoots a free throw during the UNLV game against Kennesaw State in the second round of the Duel in the Desert tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center in December.

Tue, Jan 15, 2008 (2 a.m.)

Will arc expansion hurt Rebels?

Next season will bring about a significant rule change that might affect UNLV’s national-best 3-point shooting streak, which the Rebels will try to extend to 701 games tonight against Brigham Young at the Thomas & Mack Center.

In May, the NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Committee greenlighted an increase in the 3-point arc distance from 19 feet 9 inches to 20 feet 9 inches for the 2008-09 season.

Rebels coach Lon Kruger doesn’t think it will have a major impact on strategies or the game.

The longer arc might inspire coaches to take advantage of increased spacing in the lane, Kruger says, and to feed the ball to low-post players. “But teams that are comfortable shooting outside that line now,” he says, “will probably still be comfortable outside that line.” The line will be 3 inches longer than the one used in international play.

However, the change could be confusing for men’s and women’s teams that share a court because the women’s line will remain at 19-9.

Duke and UCLA are top programs that will either have two permanent lines or constantly paint and repaint new ones between men’s and women’s games. At UNLV, the Lady Rebels mostly play at Cox Pavilion.

The UNLV men’s streak of games in which a 3-pointer was made started in 1986-87, when the NCAA implemented the arc. Vanderbilt is the closest program to the Rebels’ 685 treys. The Commodores trailed UNLV by just four games at the start of the season.

Opening up interior play was a main consideration in making the change, which had been debated and experimented with in recent seasons. In those games, however, attempts and percentages did not significantly differ from those from the 19-9 distance, so veteran coaches don’t expect the change to dramatically alter the game.

“It may reduce percentages just a bit,” Kruger says. “But again I don’t think it’ll have a tremendous impact.”

The streak, by the way, is something Kruger hears about only when it might be in jeopardy, as in last season against Air Force. “When we went until the last minute before we made one,” he says. “That’s the only time it comes up in a conversation.”

Many fans might not have noticed the major change in college basketball this season, even though they’ve seen it dozens of times during the course of every game.

“A lot of people probably haven’t even taken note of it,” UNLV coach Lon Kruger says.

Quick, what’s been altered?

The 3-point line? The width of the lane? The five-second call? Uniforms? Roster sizes? The ball?

Before sprinting for the Excedrin, conjure up a mental image of free throws. Anyone notice that players are no longer allowed to take a position on either side of the basket, close to the backboard?

On both sides, the alternating defensive and offensive players have aligned slots closer to the shooter, creating an open space next to the rim.

If that has escaped the average fan, he or she is not alone. Kruger says he hasn’t heard it being discussed in any arena, hotel lobby, restaurant or airport.

“I don’t know if it’s a major rule change, in terms of how it would affect the game,” he says. “It’s not like moving the 3-point line back or instituting a 35-second clock.

“But it’s significant in its own subtle way.”

The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Committee instituted the change in May to give the defensive players an advantage they always should have enjoyed.

In their previous positions, close to the basket, their edge could be negated if they got nudged aside by a stronger player or if an errant shot made a long carom off the rim.

“It was 50-50 that the defensive player would get the rebound,” UNLV assistant coach Steve Henson says. “In theory, the defensive player should have a little better shot at the ball.”

Kruger and Henson agree that the rule change has cleaned up the banging and physical inside play that took place when defensive players occupied those low-block positions.

It’s been timely, too, because the Rebels are one of the most undersized teams in the Mountain West Conference, if not in the country, this season.

“If we were in the first slot, it would be more tempting for bigger guys to try to jam us in lower,” Kruger says. “Yeah, moving it up has helped us, as a smaller team a little bit.”

UNLV forward-turned-center Matt Shaw celebrated the rule change when he first heard about it.

“I got beat a lot on that last season, getting pushed under the basket,” he says. “Once I found out the new rule was in, I was excited. It gives us an advantage to get the rebound.”

A 6-foot-8 sophomore who became the tallest UNLV player when Kruger kicked center Emmanuel Adeife off the team after its first game, Shaw says the Rebels will benefit from the rule change.

Against their nonconference opponents, the Rebels allowed only four rebounds to the other guys when they were shooting free throws.

“We’re not so tall,” Shaw says. “A lot of guys are longer and they can get those rebounds just coming over our backs, and it’s not even a foul because they’re taller.”

Not anymore.

Joe Darger has learned how to be subtle.

A 6-foot-7 junior who has been forced inside on defense because of UNLV’s lack of height, Darger tries to become even smaller when foes are at the line.

He slinks down, almost as if he were in a limbo contest on some tropical island, and tries to sneak around the opponent and into the empty slot closest to the rim.

Stealth is his main objective. He tries to not even touch his foe, in hopes of circling wide and back under to get to the rim.

“I try to mix it up, crash the boards and get a cheap rebound,” Darger says. “I won’t get one every game, but sometimes guys fall asleep.”

Fans do, too. Or were you one of the few who noticed the change in the free-throw lane this season?

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