"College basketball is facing a crisis. It’s time for an extreme makeover."
-Seth Davis, 3/2/2015
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:
|Possessions per game||64.8||67.3||67.3||69.5|
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:
|Possessions per game||63.3||67.8||70.5||74.2|
The Big Ten is less dramatic but similar:
|Possessions per game||62.3||62.3||62.8||65.1|
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…
|Possessions per game||64.7||69.1||65.4||70.2|
…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?
- 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.