For fans who checked into college basketball last season just in time for March Madness, the sport appeared to be in pretty good shape.
Three of the four regional finals were decided by single digits, as were two of the three games at the Final Four in Indianapolis. Average TV viewership for the NCAA Tournament reached its highest point in 22 years.
Georgia State and UAB were the early underdog darlings, but by the final weekend, the mid-majors gave way to nine eventual first-round NBA Draft picks and four current or future Hall of Fame coaches in the Final Four.
Popular teams. Star coaches. Future pros. Close games. Compelling storylines. Villains.
Judging by three weeks of postseason play, the game had rarely been so compelling.
But for those you who were watching from November through February — and if you’re the type of person who buys this magazine, you probably were — you are well aware that these NCAA Tournament classics were not the norm for the 2014-15 season. For example, who can forget this unforgettable stretch of games in December?
• Wisconsin 49, Marquette 38 on Dec. 6
• Washington 49, San Diego State 36 on Dec. 7
• Eastern Michigan 45, Michigan 42 on Dec. 9
• Cal 45, Wyoming 42 on Dec. 10
• Nebraska 56, Cincinnati 55 in double overtime on Dec. 13
And that was just one week.
All of those games involved major programs. All five also involved bad offense (teams shooting less than 35 percent from the field) and a glacial pace (fewer than 120 total possessions in regulation).
Even higher-scoring, up-tempo games weren’t immune to slowing to a crawl when coaches hoarded timeouts until the final moments or when officials huddled around a tiny television at the scorer’s table. It wasn’t unusual for the final minute of a game to stretch to 15 minutes of real time.
If the pace of play in the sport isn’t in a state of crisis, it’s at least at a crossroads. Even in this era of tempo-free statistics that have revealed that points per game is not a true measure of effective offense, the downward scoring trend has been alarming.
Starting this season, the NCAA hopes the rules won’t be to blame if the game is unwatchable.
For 2015-16, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved a handful of rules designed to increase the pace of play, reduce the sport’s physicality and speed up end-of-game situations.
“We’re trying to get the balance between offense and defense to swing more to the offensive side,” says Belmont coach Rick Byrd, chair of the playing rules committee.
Scoring has been on a progressive decline during the last 15 years. Teams averaged 67.5 points per game in 2012-13, the lowest average since 1952. After a brief uptick to 71.0 points per game in 2013-14, scoring returned to snooze-inducing levels at 67.6 points per game a year ago. The scoring average (per team) has been greater than 70 points per game only once since 2003.
During the height of the sport’s popularity, teams averaged better than 70 points per game every season from 1986-87 through 2002-03. That’s the era of Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill at Duke, Jerry Tarkanian teams at UNLV, Rick Pitino teams at Kentucky and pro pipelines at UConn and Arizona.
Those teams played with a 45-second shot clock until 1993-94 and a 35-second shot clock thereafter.
Reducing the shot clock to 30 seconds — still short of the 24 seconds used by the NBA and FIBA — is the clear headliner of sweeping rules changes and directives to the officiating community designed to speed up the game.
But it might not be the most significant change.
The real power to tip the game back in favor of the offense belongs to hundreds of de-centralized independent contractors better known as referees.
“I don’t see 35 to 30 being a huge player at all,” Kansas coach Bill Self says. “I think how the officiating will be called is where we’ll see the biggest difference, the freedom of movement and less physicality. I don’t see the shot clock being a major deal.”
The rules committee has urged the officials to clean up physical play in the post and has mandated that players be stationary when they set a screen and be allowed greater freedom when they are moving without the ball. Most important, the committee reinforced a rule guideline from 2013-14, forbidding a player from keeping a hand or arm on an opponent, putting two hands on an opponent, hand-checking and using an arm to impede a dribbler.
This was supposed to be a point of emphasis two years ago, but after only a few months, officials fell back into old habits, and hand-checking was back. The game continued to be physical on the perimeter. Coaches continued to push the envelope with ball screens that were illegal — by the rule book — but in practice could continue with impunity. Post play became a wrestling match.
“There’s a whole lot of different opinions about what rules would be good and what rules would be bad, but no one has come to me and said the game needs to be more physical,” Byrd says. “We’ve just sort of incrementally got to a point where a lot of physical contact that is illegal in the rule book is being allowed on both sides.”
The NBA issued a similar edict in 1999, urging a tighter interpretation of the rules on physical play and improving the flow of the game. Over time, scoring boomed; since 2008-09, the league average (per team) has topped the 100-point mark four times.
“The NBA, they hit it on the head and hit it out of the park when they changed the plan altogether and scoring went up and appeal went up and it became a much more enjoyable game for the fans,” says Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, who coached in the NBA from 2000-03.
The fear is that the officials will settle back into their old ways and the game will change only for a short time. Even if officials intend to call the game by the letter of the law as planned, the desired effect of more freedom of movement for offensive players might not be fully realized for a couple of years.
“It took two-and-a-half years from what we’re told by NBA folks by the time they were comfortable with what they got,” Byrd says. “We’re going to have to be patient.”
The move to the 30-second shot clock has been lauded by many in the college basketball world — but beware of some unintended consequences. A number of coaches have said that the reduced clock will contribute to more zone defense and bring about an even slower game.
When the NCAA implemented the first shot clock at 45 seconds in 1985-86, scoring shot up from 69.2 points per game in 1984-85 to more than 76 points per game in a matter of four seasons.
Yet when 10 seconds were shaved off that shot clock in 1993-94, scoring increased for a season and then began its decline. The shorter shot clock and the scoring drop may only be a coincidence. Around the same time, players and coaches started to push the boundaries on physical defense, leading to the current predicament for officials.
Still, the decline is evidence that a shorter shot clock isn’t a cure-all.
Mississippi State coach Ben Howland fears that the officiating directives on physical play will result in more foul calls that will further slow the game to a crawl. He also believes that more teams will play zone defense.
“I think we’re going to see more zone, and what zone does is slow the game down,” Howland says. “You’re going to see more pressing and falling back into a zone and trying to get you to use more clock in the backcourt and then you have less time to attack the zone.
“I think you’re going to see less scoring, not more scoring.”
There’s also a fear that the goal of more possessions in a game — and thus more scoring — will diminish the effectiveness of unconventional offenses and random nature of the game. More possessions generally increase the likelihood that a more talented team will win a game. Teams that compensate for a deficit of talent with unorthodox, slower styles of play or more sets, cuts and passing might see their advantage diminished.
In part, that’s why the drastic move to the 24-second shot clock used by the NBA was not seriously discussed — even if some coaches would like the college game to go that direction.
“What I would be concerned about personally is if (the shot clock) goes any further it takes away the identity of the college basketball game from an offensive standpoint, the different kinds of offense people can run,” Byrd says. “You’re getting down there on the edge where Princeton can’t do their stuff very long. They would have to do what everybody else does and go one-on-one and use ball screens.”
On the other hand, pressing teams like VCU or Arkansas might have an edge when teams don’t have as much time to run offense in the halfcourt. And it’s tough enough to score against a team like Virginia in 35 seconds, much less 30.
“You can make a case that it helps the offensive-minded and you could make a case that it helps the defensive-minded because they don’t have to guard as long,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings says. “Over the course of time, the good coaches will be the good coaches and they’ll win the games.”
The idea, though, is that the college game had to do something, and that’s where other rules changes will leave less to the imagination.
The coaches lost a timeout in the second half and lost their ability to call a timeout during live play.
The goal is for the final minute of game time not to drag on for 15 minutes and alienate viewers looking for buzzer beaters.
Byrd says eliminating the five-second closely guarded rule was done to help the referees. Officials were trying to call the five-second rule while trying to call fouls, travels and double dribbles. The officiating of the five-second rule was so ineffective and inconsistent that the NCAA just ditched the rule.
Makes sense, but again, beware of some unintended consequences.
“We could see an NBA approach if you have a dominant ball handler like a John Wall,” Stallings says, “someone that is so superior that without there being a five-second (closely guarded) call on the dribble, they sit there and pound the ball like LeBron did in the NBA Finals and then they try to make a play in the final seconds of the shot clock.”
In that case, some coaches just don’t want to turn the college game into NBA Lite.
“I’m puzzled with the infatuation with the NBA,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins says. “We continue to go in that direction, and I think we have a better game. We have a game that is more pleasing to the eye. … There’s something to be said for someone who does a great job of guarding, playing in the halfcourt and doing those things.”
Panic, though, might not be in order. The game could open up only marginally as a result of rule changes.
The NIT, College Basketball Invitational and CollegeInsider.com Tournament all used the 30-second shot clock after last season, and the impact was marginal.
In a piece for Deadspin, tempo-free statistics analyst Ken Pomeroy examined scoring in those tournaments compared to past years and compared to the NCAA Tournament.
Scoring in the NIT and lesser tournaments are generally higher than the NCAA Tournament anyway, but the difference was 5.6 points per game more in the smaller tournaments, adjusting for matchups and expected points, Pomeroy wrote. That’s 2.4 points per game more than the normal difference between the NCAA Tournament and the NIT/CBI/CIT.
Could an extra two-and-half points per game be on the horizon in 2015-16?
“The differences that we saw in the (smaller) tournaments are reasonable to assume that’s what we’ll see in the regular season,” Pomeroy says. “When you watch a game with a 35-second shot clock, there’s not much urgency. There’s some dead time early in the possession. I think that’s where things will change.”
Pomeroy’s study also indicated that offensive efficiency was not negatively impacted in the NIT, CBI and CIT with the 30-second shot clock.
Judging the shot clock by the minimal changes in the smaller tournaments would be hasty, though.
Stallings, whose team lost in the NIT quarterfinals to Stanford, says he didn’t change any strategies going into the tournament — there simply wasn’t enough time.
“I did like it; I think I’ll like it more when we play with it more,” Stallings says. “We got up against the shot clock a few more times than we would during a normal game. I also liked that we told our guys that the clock’s going to be running here and you’ve got to be aggressive, and they seemed to respond well to that.”
And if that nudge means fewer games decided in the 40s and 50s and more open play, the NCAA hopes March Madness isn’t the only time the sport is played at its full potential.