John Calipari, Mike Kitts

After the weekend, fouls are up, but scoring is, too

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The biggest concern for many coaches — and journalists — heading into this season was how the new handchecking rules would affect college basketball.

If you haven’t been paying attention all summer, the facts are simple: the college game had far-too-often turned into low-scoring slugfests and the theory was that it was the result of referees becoming too tight with their whistle. Defenders were allowed to be to physical, eliminating freedom of movement and making the game difficult to play for kids that weren’t built like a fullback.

So the NCAA instituted some rule changes which weren’t exactly rule changes. Refs have been told to make a point of calling handchecks, eliminating armbars in the post and making it tougher to bump cutters heading through the lane.

Some of the numbers from the first weekend are in, and it’s quite obvious: referees are calling more fouls.

Jeff Eisenberg of The Dagger crunched the numbers. The first weekend saw an averaged of 42.29 fouls called per game, up from 35.3 a season ago. Nearly 20% of all games had more than 50 fouls called, and there were seven games with more than 60 fouls, the most notable being the 73-foul, 102=free throw whistlefest between Seton Hall and Niagara on Saturday night.

So yes, the games have been uglier. More fouls have been called. But it’s also worth noting: teams averaged 73.1 points this season, up from 67.5 points last season. And based on some numbers that were crunched by KPI Sports, only half of that increase was the result of teams getting paraded to the foul line.

The bottom-line is this: it was the first weekend of the season. Players, coaches and refs are still learning to adjust to the new way the old rules are being enforced. One weekend that featured a couple of ugly games is just that: one weekend with a couple of ugly games.

Players will adapt as long as the refs remain consistent in how they call the game. If they don’t, they’ll be spending a lot of time on the bench in foul trouble, and I can guarantee you that there isn’t a single player in the country that likes doing that.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.