The NCAA Rules for 2014-2016 First Impressions

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet

A year has passed since FINA introduced a number of significant rule changes aimed at improving the presentation of the game by clarifying the intent and application of the Advantage Principle (WP7.3), reducing the number of whistles, reducing the wrestling at center and eliminate holding on the perimeter and during transition. To accomplish these goals, FINA’s TWPC revised a number of the existing rules, added a few new ones and elevated impeding from and ordinary foul (WP20.9) to an exclusion (WP21.8). A detailed discussion can be found here.

In keeping with its long-standing practice, the NCAA published its own update to correspond with the beginning of the 2014-2015 season, and effective through 2015-2016. While not adopting all of the new FINA rules, the NCAA seems to have focused specifically on those changes that have the most immediate and direct impact on the game.

The new rulebook starts with the customary Points of Emphasis, whose underlying theme this year appears to be the presentation of the game. Emphasizing collaboration between referees and managing decorum, restoring the Minor Act of Misconduct (21.13) and classifying the use of profanity as misconduct should all have a very positive effect on reducing the number of incidents due to disruptive behavior and lack of decorum, both in the pool and the bleachers.


Just as in the case of FINA, most of the major new rules adopted by the NCAA seem aimed at improving movement in the game. While not as broad in scope as FINA’s own changes, the new rules clearly follow a similar line of thinking. To begin with, WP7.3 was adopted verbatim, the only exception being that the instruction “The referees shall apply this principle to the fullest extent” is not a separate note but part of the rule itself. The modified wording eliminates the ambiguities found in previous language, making it clear and mandatory that the referee has to favor the attacking team.

The next major change (in order of impact) is the adoption of WP21.10. This rule was also adopted verbatim, and it serves to strengthen the existing (21.9) rule against holding. While intended to promote movement in the front court by punishing the all-too-common holding on the perimeter, thus far this rule seems to have a greater impact in the back court. In the college club game in particular, it is not unusual for inexperienced or under-conditioned players to grab and hold onto an attacker after a turn-over, which often results in the offended party pushing or kicking the defender off rather violently. For some reason however, the application of this rule has been somewhat tentative, perhaps because historically referees have been instructed to focus primarily on the center and the front court. Proper and consistent application of 21.10 requires changes in how the game is managed for the entire duration of the possession clock (see Coach D’s article “Creating a Movement Game”).

Interestingly, the NCAA’s rule makers did not elevate impeding (20.9) to an exclusion offense. Perhaps they felt that 21.10 is adequate for promote movement, but there are a number of cases where that is not so. For instance, one can impede movement without holding by pressing and blocking the attacker’s advance with one’s body while holding two hands up, particularly when the players are mismatched. Another case is swimming over the attacker’s legs or back during transition. These fouls often are ignored, particularly when they occur behind the line of the ball.

Another important change – or rather clarification – is what constitutes putting the ball in play, and the referees’ responsibility to indicate a live ball by dropping the arm from horizontal. While seemingly innocuous, this is important for two reasons. Firstly, it clearly signals the table when to restart the game clock. This will primarily benefit the club game, which usually has less experienced table officials. In addition, referees are now compelled to more strictly enforce 19.2, if only to protect themselves from getting bursitis of the shoulder.

Secondly, it signals the defender when (s)he may challenge the attacker after a free throw.  Considering that, under the revised 21.5, a defender is subject to exclusion if (s)he fails to move away from the attacker at the taking of a free throw, it is important that everyone knows when they are allowed to do so.

21.5 actually is an example of the NCAA taking a good thing and making it better. Although the NCAA interpretation of interference with a free throw already was superior to FINA’s, the added language clearly defines the timing and sequence of events allowed, which is particularly important in the case of a direct shot on goal.

The following rules are less likely to have a major impact on the game, and also differ from FINA. Firstly, the new rule awarding of an offensive foul for an improper shot on goal (20.17) also is different from previous NCAA wording, which award a goal throw instead. Doing so however required the ball to be returned to the back court, thus moving it away from the opponent’s goal. Another difference is that the goalkeeper advancing beyond the half-distance line is now an exclusion. The Minor Act of Misconduct (21.11) (completely absent in FINA) was reintroduced for the purpose of maintaining decorum and the overall presentation of the game. Lastly, under the new 21.15 the shot clock will not be reset in the case of a double exclusion, which makes sense since in most cases this foul is awarded when two players tangle up instead of playing the ball, and resetting the clock gives the attacker’s team an unearned advantage.


It has only been a month since the season started but it is already becoming clear how the rule changes affect the game. In the case of two-handed holding (21.10) it seems that, when properly applied the effect is just as the rule makers intended: create more movement in the game. Likewise, interference with a free throw (21.5) appears to promote better ball movement and increases the scoring opportunities from a direct shot. The simple act of dropping one’s arm to signal a live ball seems to improve both communication in the pool and the viewer experience [1]. While it is expected that it will take some time before referees learn to consistently apply, and players and coaches adapt to, the new rules, what is reassuring in this author’s opinion is that this time it is difficult to find fault with any of them. Time will tell.


[1] Based on questions and feedback from spectators at the Army club tournament last weekend