There Is No College Basketball Scoring Crisis Comment Count

Brian March 16th, 2015 at 12:28 PM

"College basketball is facing a crisis. It’s time for an extreme makeover."

-Seth Davis, 3/2/2015


[Bryan Fuller]

After a one-year surge in offense spurred by a sometimes-enforced focus on contact and the virtual elimination of off-ball charges, college basketball largely reverted to its old rules this year. The result: a fractional dip in scoring to new lows and sustained outcry from announcers and newspapermen alike.

Damn things like "division," full speed ahead:

Is college basketball in crisis?

Scoring is down. Pace is at an all-time low. Some teams are winning with defense, which is fine, but far too many others are surviving simply because — let's face it — they miss fewer shots.

Damn things like "bothering to look at even one stat," full speed ahead:

[Colorado head coach Tad] Boyle said several factors, including the way the game is officiated, has led to lower scoring. Teams also tend to do the same things offensively, which makes defending them easier. But for the most part Boyle boiled it down. "Better shooting, quite frankly, would really help," he said.

Seth Davis had a major SI piece decrying the decline:

The more things change, the more they ... get worse. College basketball is slower, more grinding, more physical and more, well, offensive than it has been in a long, long time. The 2014-15 season is shaping up to be the worst offensive season in modern history. Through Feb. 22, teams were averaging 67.1 points per game. That is the lowest average since 1952. The previous low for that span was set just two years ago. This more than reverses the gains that were made last season, after the rules committee made adjustments to clamp down on physical defense and make it harder to draw a charge. Thanks to lax enforcement by officials and a foolish decision to reverse the block/charge modification, scoring declined by 3.79 points per game. That is the steepest single-season drop on record.

As of late, the fretting has spread to the athletic director level, as those ADs look at their attendance figures. All of this looks at the state of the game today and shakes its head sadly at what we've lost.

And it's all nonsense.

College basketball has barely changed

The thing about college basketball is how little it's changed over the past 13 years. Kenpom has data back to 2002 showing an eerily static state of play, with a slight trend towards more efficiency.

Things that actually seem to have a trend are bolded:

Stat 2015 2010 2005 2002
Offensive efficiency 102.1 100.8 101 100.9
Possessions per game 64.8 67.3 67.3 69.5
eFG% 49 48.8 49.3 49.1
TO% 19.1 20.4 21.3 21.5
OREB% 31.1 32.7 33.8 34.1
FTA/FGA 37.1 37.7 36.5 37.6
3PT% 34.3 34.2 34.6 34.5
2PT% 47.8 47.7 48 47.8
FT% 69.2 68.9 68.7 69
Block% 9.6 9.2 8.8 8.5
Steal 9.4 9.8 10.4 10.3
3P/FGA 34.2 32.6 33 32.1
A/FGM 53.1 53.5 55.7 55.2

Shooting has remained shockingly static, as have all the individual components—despite the three point arc moving back slightly during this sample. Offensive efficiency has in fact increased even without the rules changes that a panicked committee instituted two years ago, implemented after a season (2013) in which offensive efficiency was a half-point worse per hundred possessions than it was in 2002.

Only a few things have actually changed: there are fewer turnovers and steals as teams take care of the ball better; there are fewer offensive rebounds as more teams adopt the Wisconsin/Michigan model of preventing transition opportunities at all costs. And there are fewer possessions.

That's it. Games are in fact getting shorter in terms of time spent doing the basketball. Free throw rates remain essentially constant as the denominator shrinks. There are fewer balls flung out of bounds, stopping the clock. Little that happens during the 40 minutes the clock is actually running has changed in 13 years. There are 7% fewer possessions. That is about it.

This holds at all levels. Major conference stats from leagues that had approximately the same membership over the course of these 13 years (ie, not the Big East) show the same broad trends, albeit with the additional jitter inherent in a much smaller sample size. The ACC has plummeted from the country's second-fastest league to #23:

ACC 2015 2010 2005 2002
Offensive efficiency 104.2 100.4 104.9 106.3
Possessions per game 63.3 67.8 70.5 74.2
eFG% 49.1 47 50 51.9
TO% 16.9 20 20.2 20.2
OREB% 31.4 35 35.2 33.7
FTA/FGA 33.8 36.5 38.9 37.7

The Big Ten is less dramatic but similar:

Big Ten 2015 2010 2005 2002
Offensive efficiency 104 102.8 103.2 102.4
Possessions per game 62.3 62.3 62.8 65.1
eFG% 49.3 49.5 50.6 50.9
TO% 17.3 18.9 20.6 21.3
OREB% 30.2 30.8 32.3 32
FTA/FGA 33.4 33 34.4 37

The Big Ten has shown some degradation of shooting as fewer fouls are called and effective field goal percentage slips, but the large decrease in turnovers has offset that.

The Big Twelve has undergone a dip in efficiency…

Big Twelve 2015 2010 2005 2002
Offensive efficiency 102.2 103.9 104.7 105.6
Possessions per game 64.7 69.1 65.4 70.2
eFG% 48 49.4 50.5 50.2
TO% 19 19.2 20.4 19.2
OREB% 33.7 32.6 33.9 34.9
FTA/FGA 39 39.5 36.8 33.5

…but again, we are talking about a league losing approximately one basket per game. Hardly a crisis. The Big Twelve still shows the overall slowdown and hints at the reduction in TOs and OREBs as well.

College basketball is fine when college basketball is being played


There is no college basketball scoring crisis. There is a college basketball actually-playing-basketball crisis.

It is not particularly surprising that athletic directors will leap at any explanation they can get their hands on to explain ever-slower games and declining attendance, even if that entails flogging a measly 7% decline in the number of shots as the end of basketball. It's not surprising because the alternative is finding the true culprits: the athletic directors themselves.

The athletic directors are the ones signing the contracts that see every timeout, and there are a million timeouts, followed by a commercial. They're the ones who implemented the ridiculous review system that stops play for minutes at a time to not give someone a flagrant foul or arbitrarily decide to overturn or not overturn an out of bounds call that was already pretty arbitrary.

They are the ones responsible for this:

Overall, the last 60 seconds of the 52 [most recent 2014 NCAA tourney] games combined have taken five hours, 44 minutes, and 51 seconds to complete. (That's including the five bonus final minutes from overtime games.) 5:44:51 is 605 percent longer than realtime; the average final minute took 5:57 to finish, with a median of 5:29.

That is insane.

Maybe people were inclined to put up with that when the alternatives were watching Hee-Haw or silently playing chess in a room with one very loud ticking clock. Not so much these days.

The problem is with the product. Fix the product. You might make less money right now, but with a better product you will be better off in the long run. Here's how you fix the product:

  • Coaches must sacrifice a digit to call a timeout. The timeout signal is now a head coach handing one of his freshly snipped fingers or toes to the referee. Until such time as the coach has too few fingers to manipulate the shears, he must snip the fingers off himself. Afterwards his wife or children must.

…what? "Too extreme," you say? "This is barbaric," you say? "I will not condone this sort of behavior in our society,"  you say?

Fine. Fine.

  • Severely reduce the number of timeouts. Ideally this is one, like hockey. More realistically you need to cut them down to three. Timeouts benefit nobody except megalomaniac coaches. They drastically lessen the immediacy of frantic finishes. By allowing teams in the lead to avoid five-second calls, tie-ups, and turnovers after getting trapped they reduce the chances of a trailing team coming back.
  • All remaining timeouts before the last five minutes take the place of media timeouts. The timeout-ten-seconds-of-play-timeout thing is an awful frustration in the middle of the game.
  • Media timeouts are every five minutes, not four.
  • If you want to shorten the shot clock to 30 seconds, okay I guess. I was previously opposed to this since it would lead to more ugly late clock shots from college basketball outfits without guys who are particularly good at isolation, but the stats over the 15 years suggest that basketball could withstand a slight dip in efficiency okay.

You'll give up some money initially, but increased competition for fewer spots will make up some of it—you're still the only live game in town these days—and increased ratings from being less positively insufferable to watch will support the rest. As a side benefit, people will be more inclined to watch your games when they consist largely of game instead of t-shirt cannon.

The game is the same. It is eerily the same. If there's a difference it's in the stuff in between the game.



March 16th, 2015 at 12:34 PM ^

As Jim Calhoun discussed last week on Mike and Mike, a couple real reasons for college basketball getting a bit uglier in the last 5 years or so has to do more with the influence of AAU basketball on skill development of players entering the NCAA and also younger and younger rosters. Some of these teams, like Kentucky, have fantastic athletes, but they still don't have the chance to further develop their skills and learn the Calipari offense in just one year. They are an absolute defensive nightmare right now and awesome in transition, but there is a reason Wisconsin looks better in half court sets. Bo Ryan's players have had a chance to hone their skills and learn the swing offense.  

MI Expat NY

March 16th, 2015 at 12:41 PM ^

Except, as Brian notes, offensive efficiancy is up and turnover percentage is down, while stats like shooting have remained the same.  The stats just don't back up the idea that kids are entering NCAA basketball with less skills than they used to have. 

Teams are younger because of early entrants to the NBA, but this is not a new problem.  Certainly not in the last 5 years or so.  

MI Expat NY

March 16th, 2015 at 1:27 PM ^

Even if you accept that as true, that doesn't support Calhoun's point.  Players aren't coming in with less skill because of AAU, they're not developing as far because they leave early.  And even then, it's not really pure skills they're developing but understanding the system and the level of play.

micheal honcho

March 16th, 2015 at 1:02 PM ^

Take even a player like last nights featured Christian Laettner. Guy owns scoring records for NCAA tournament play and they'll never be broken simply because if you can score 20, you leave.

Its a case of "dont hate the game, hate the playa'z" They short their own development as an individual but I think even more costly they never learn to function as a unit which is how you really get points.


March 16th, 2015 at 1:05 PM ^

The thing is Kentucky is #5 on KenPom's offensive efficiency.  They aren't probably as good as they would be after 3-4 years of coaching, but it's not like they are just running out there with no idea what they are doing.  

I agree the issue is really with the unevenness of how the game is being called especially as it relates to stoppages in play.  You watch the end of games and its just interminable when teams have 3-4 TOs to waste on in-bound plays.


March 16th, 2015 at 12:43 PM ^

teams winning with defense?  oh no!  Personally i like to see great defense, ball movment and offensive efficency.  Theres something wrong with the NBA not college basketball.


March 16th, 2015 at 1:06 PM ^

Yes, it's a variation on the compelling thing about college football where every game matters . . . in college basketball, every play matters.  

You get down 10 points, you are generally in trouble.  Yet that's only 5 baskets, or only 3 or so threes.  

I can't even watch an NBA game until the 4th quarter.  Because it just doesn't matter until then.


March 16th, 2015 at 2:35 PM ^

this year? How about Indiana-Penn State? Or Vanderbilt-Tennessee?


Lots of CFB games mean nothing, and making 10 point leads quasi-insurmountable makes games less compelling to watch, not more.  If you need "meaning" to convince yourself to watch a sporting event, you arguably aren't actually entertained by it. You really aren't  more entertained by this?

...than by Wisconsin or Virginia's oafish bigs bounce passing back and forth for 30 seconds/possession? 

This argument that "CBB should be different than the NBA by being less entertaining" doesn't make much sense to me.  


March 16th, 2015 at 3:11 PM ^

My main issue with the NBA is that games are too long.  48 minutes is too many.  40 is just right.  I also like having 20-minute halves instead of four 12-minute quarters.  With so many more possessions (due to the 24-second clock), and a generally higher level of scoring ability, NBA teams can come back from almost any deficit in one quarter.  But that makes the first three quarters not very compelling.  You can just tune in in the fourth quarter and see all that matters.

I do agree that the quality of play is superior to college ball, though.


South Bend Wolverine

March 16th, 2015 at 1:09 PM ^

Evidence please?  A 5-second call just means that the ball goes over to the other side, and then they get a chance to score.  It doesn't delete a possession from the game.

Frankly, removing time-outs would make a lot of these situations more exciting, because there would be much more motivation to try to get teams trapped, etc.  Right now, 9 times out of 10, your only reward is that you make the other team spend a time-out they didn't really need anyhow.  If you can actually get the ball by stymying the other team, then teams will press more to do so, leading to more aggressive defense (and also probably a few more transition buckets when teams get in behind the aggressive defense).  I'd say this overall is a more attacking mentality on both sides of the ball, which is what we want.


March 16th, 2015 at 12:47 PM ^

The timeout situation has completely killed the 'product' the last few years. Reducing timeouts needs to be addressed immediately, but I never fully understood the constant review of how much time is left on the clock when a ball goes through the basket or out of bounds in the last minute of the game. I understand the last minute of the game is crunch time in a close game but in theory does that mean the previous 39 minutes of game action were perfect on starts and stops with the clock? Drives me insane.

Yinka Double Dare

March 16th, 2015 at 12:52 PM ^

The slow pace can kinda suck, and dropping the shotclock to 30 probably bumps a game a bit closer to where pace was 15 years ago. I'm fine with that. But these games of timeoutsketball (with a side of official review 5 minute delays) get pretty aggravating.


March 16th, 2015 at 1:24 PM ^

This may be OT, but I wonder what correlation there might be between the average age of players and scoring.  I have a feeling that, if the one-and-dones stuck around a little longer, as more experienced players, they would be more likely to be able to score at a faster clip than their first-year counterparts, who rely on their coach to tell them to throw it around before hoisting their shot..

I looked at this article and was surprised how young all the real good teams were. It's hard for me to think that next year's Kentucky team wouldn't score more points if everyone stuck around.…


March 16th, 2015 at 12:53 PM ^

Change one rule and quality of life for fans goes way up. Anytime there is a non-shooting foul, if the fouled team is in the bonus or double bonus, the coach whose player was fouled has the option of inbounding the ball rather than shoot free throws. Done, the game just got better to watch.


March 16th, 2015 at 1:17 PM ^

As the above poster said, this would kill most late comeback attempts.  Not to mention the fact that I'm sure the crowds will be THRILLED to watch 15 consecutive inbounds followed by fouls as a team trying to come back goes for steals and slowly fouls out its entire team.  That sounds like great fun.


March 16th, 2015 at 1:40 PM ^

you actually have changed my mind here. My solution is not ideal, but as a poster below points out, you should not be able to benefit from violating the rules. Late game comebacks because of intentional fouls are cheap in my opinion. There comes a point where you either play defense and force a turnover, or you should just lose the game. I don't mean that teams should give up, but this game mechanic that allows a team to benefit from fouling seems broken to me.


March 16th, 2015 at 2:39 PM ^

What you propose isn't a solution at all.  Teams will still foul in their desperate attempt to get steals - in fact, they'll probably foul more because an inbounds is hardly a disincentive.  (Just look how often teams foul right now in the last minute when they have some to give.) More fouls and fewer changes of possession in the final minute would be brutal.



March 16th, 2015 at 12:56 PM ^

For me, it is the fouling at the end of the game that is the problem. You shouldn't be able to benefit from fouling. I don't think you can in any other sport. A reasonable way to address this is to give the option to the fouled team of either taking free throws or running the remaining shot clock off the game clock.

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March 16th, 2015 at 1:15 PM ^

I would not kill it totally.  Some of the most exciting finishes in history came because a team was able to foul to come back while the other team missed free throws, or made them but then gave up threes.  

Some of the great buzzer beaters in NCAA tournament history were set up by this.  You will see some this year, which is one of the reasons the whole country watches.  I would not want to give that up completely.  


March 16th, 2015 at 1:45 PM ^

Maybe you are right. I still maintain that breaking the rules of the game to actually improve your ability to win the game should be strongly discouraged or eliminated. In no other sport is this routinely allowed. For example, the nfl changed their rules to run time off the clock in situations where the fouling team would get an advantage. Maybe it is just calling more of these end game fouls for what they are - intentional fouls and awarding something more to the fouled team. Maybe end game fouls count as two fouls so people foul out a lot faster. Something should be done because for every great (and I would say undeserved) comeback, there are 10 long, crappy endings.

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March 17th, 2015 at 3:24 AM ^

I actually hate that guys can foul out. I remember crazy Bill Walton railing against this before. No other sport kicks guys out unless they're doimg something really dangerous. For one thing, a lot of fouls are suspect. So frustrating to see a team win basically because they got a star big man on a couple suspicious and/or ticky tack calls.


March 17th, 2015 at 6:49 AM ^

No other game does that, because no other game has such a small risk/reward ratio for committing penalties.

If you want to see games broken up into totally unwatchable little 45-second segments with 80-100 stoppages along the way, I can't think of a better way than to get rid of fouling out.  Why should I even remotely think of letting a guy have a layup if I can hack him without penalty and take my chances at the free-throw line?  Why should I do anything other than hack-a-Shaq if I can do it with impunity?

KenPom did a study on a short period of time when two conferences experimented with six fouls as the limit instead of five.  Even though the number of fouls per game nationwide dropped year over year, fouls in the two conferences went up.  About two extra fouls per game.  When they dropped the experiment, they immediately dropped to nationwide averages.  Raising the foul limit is a horrible idea; removing it is unspeakably bad.


March 16th, 2015 at 1:36 PM ^

Agreed. Fouling to trade shots is a tactic. The problem is when you have to cut to commercial break every freakin foul.

Three changes and all is solved:

1) Instead of 5 timeouts per half. You get five for the whole game. Save them all for the end or burn em as you go, I don't care. All timeouts are 60 seconds. And enforce the actual time of the time out. Refs are very slow in forcing the teams back on to the court in a timely manner for a multitude of reasons.

2) No more offiical intiated reviews. Coaches get one review request per game. Let the coaches choose if they really want to use it to try and get the flagarant called on an opposing player or just in case they need it to reverse a blown out of bounds call at the end of the game.

3) Limited number of commercial breaks per half. The idea that you go to a commercial break for anything other than a timeout with less than four minutes left in the game is ridiculous.



March 16th, 2015 at 2:31 PM ^

Five per game not per half you say? Okay, if I wasn't male, I would admit I was wrong. Instead, I'm going to copy and paste a bunch of stuff from the NCAA rulebook. Deal with that!

Art. 3. In games not involving electronic media and also those with typed Internet
coverage but without audio or video broadcast, the timeout format shall be:
a. Four 75-second timeouts and two 30-second timeouts for each team per
regulation game.
b. The four 75-second timeouts may be used at any time.
c. The two 30-second timeouts may be used at any time.
d. A player or a coach from the same team may request successive 30-second
1. When successive timeouts are granted, players are permitted to sit on
their bench only when the request has been made in advance.
2. When successive 30-second timeouts are granted, a warning signal
shall be sounded 15 seconds before the expiration of the final 30-
second timeout.
e. When there is an extra period(s), each team shall be entitled to one extra 75-
second timeout per extra period in addition to any timeouts it has not used
1. The extra timeout shall not be granted until after the ball becomes live
to begin the extra period(s).
f. Cheerleaders and mascots are permitted on the playing court only during a
full timeout or an intermission.
g. Bands/amplified music are permitted to play or be played only during
any timeout or intermission.
Art. 4. In games involving electronic media (i.e., radio, television, or Internet audio
or visual broadcast), when the electronic-media format calls for at least three
electronic-media timeouts in either half, the following shall be in effect:
a. When television is employed, there shall be four electronic-media timeouts
in each half. These electronic-media timeouts shall occur at the first dead
ball after the 16-, 12-, 8- and 4-minute marks when the game clock is
1. The first timeout requested by either team in the second half shall
become the length of a timeout called for by the electronic-media
2. When the first timeout requested by either team in the second half is
granted and creates the first dead ball after one of the 16-, 12-, 8- or 4-
minute marks, the electronic-media timeouts for those specified times
shall occur after the next dead ball.
Note: For NCAA Division I tournament games, the men’s or women’s
Division I basketball committee may make the first team-called timeout in
both halves an electronic-media timeout.
b. When radio or Internet audio or visual broadcast is being used, electronicmedia
timeouts shall occur at the first dead ball after the 16-, 12-, 8- and 4-
minute marks or after the 15-, 10- and 5-minute marks, when the game clock
is stopped, depending on the electronic-media agreement.
1. The first timeout requested by either team in the second half shall be 75
seconds long or longer when called for by the electronic-media agreement.
2. When the electronic-media agreement calls for fewer than three
electronic-media timeouts in one half, these electronic-media timeouts
shall occur at the first dead ball after the minute marks specified by
the electronic-media agreement.
c. Each team shall be entitled to four timeouts, 30 seconds each in length.
d. Each team may carry up to three 30-second timeouts into the second half.
e. Each team shall be entitled to one 60-second timeout that may be used any
time during the game.
1. No conference shall be permitted to extend the 60-second timeout by
electronic-media agreement in electronic-media games.
f. A player or a coach from the same team may request successive 30-second
1. When these successive timeouts are granted, players shall be allowed
to sit on their bench only when the request has been made in advance.
2. When successive 30-second timeouts are granted, a warning horn
shall be sounded 15 seconds before the expiration of the final 30-
second timeout.
g. Unused 30-second team timeouts from the second half may be used in extra


March 16th, 2015 at 3:09 PM ^

Please refer to Rule 5-14-10, on page 63:

"Art. 10. When the electronic-media agreement calls for AT LEAST THREE electronic-media timeouts in either half, the format shall be as follows:
a. Four 30-second timeouts for each team per regulation game.
1. Each team may carry up to three 30-second timeouts into the second half.
b. One 60-second timeout for each team per regulation game that may be used any time during the game."

So that's 5 timeouts total for the game, but only 4 may be carried into the second half.



March 16th, 2015 at 1:02 PM ^

foolish decision to reverse the block/charge modification


I don't know what sport Seth Davis was watching but the block/charge modification was one of the worst rule changes in major sports that I can remember.  


March 16th, 2015 at 1:39 PM ^

If the officials had the temerity/competence to stick with it, it was designed to disincentivize pack line, flop-charge defense as a viable defensive tactic. That would force a lot of coaches hands to implement more aggressive offensive and defensive systems (leading to more entertaining play).