In case you missed it, men’s college basketball has been indicted and convicted in the court of conventional thinking. Critics don’t want to watch teams prevent each other from scoring. OK, maybe Virginia, but that’s it. So now we get to see if a shortened shot clock changes the game for the better.
Most of the men’s action that riveted our attention this past season and beyond was actually “a joke,” UConn women’s coach Gene Auriemma informs us.
Or, if you prefer an NBA perspective, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban says the college game is “uglier than ugly.” ACC alums crowding the TV ranks generally agree, lobbying loudly for pet changes.
The NCAA tournament retains its popularity, the argument goes, but too often play during the rest of the season lacks “pace,” the new buzzword among critics. To their eyes, the game is too physical, too defense-oriented, too congealed.
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Other sports confronted with dominating defenses altered their rules to boost scoring. More fans love offense, we’re told, than appreciate proficient defense. Why sit through a 1-0 shutout when you can watch a 9-8 slugfest?
Consistent with that action-oriented theme, college basketball was urged to mimic its peers rather than prolong the boredom.
“There was enough noise, for lack of a better term, that something needs to be done when you’ve got 15-plus years of decline in scoring in our game,” says Rick Byrd, Belmont’s head coach and chair of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Committee. “I don’t think coaches in general think it’s as big an issue as others think it is.”
And so something was done. Whether the changes will make any difference, or the differences intended, is another matter entirely.
More possessions, but more points?
Pending approval by the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel, which convenes via conference call on June 8, the most visible change is immediately taking the men’s shot clock to 30 seconds from the current 35.
A shortened shot clock figures to generate more field goal tries. That’s not the same as producing more points. Precedent shows such a change is no offensive elixir: When the shot clock dropped from 45 seconds during the 1992-93 season to 35 seconds in 1993-94, ACC scoring declined by 4.4 points per game.
The 9-team league didn’t return to pre-35 second scoring levels until 2001.
Miami coach Jim Larranaga says the new shot clock “is going to have a great impact.” He speaks from experience -- his Hurricanes reached the final in a 2015 NIT that featured an experimental 30-second clock and minimal additional scoring. But he expects the impact may confound expectations.
“People think it’s going to create more scoring; it’s going to create more possessions,” Larranaga says. “If you want scoring to increase, you have to have teams shoot the ball better, players shoot the ball better.”
Underlining the notion better skills can thrive even in a competitive landscape supposedly dominated by physical defense, just last season both Notre Dame, the ACC champion, and Duke, the national champ, made more than half their field goal tries. The last time even one ACC squad finished a season shooting 50 percent or better was 1999 (Duke).
With teams granted only 30 seconds to shoot, Larranaga and others envision more zone presses and other defensive alignments intent on slowing opponents. With five fewer seconds to maneuver, shot selection likely will worsen, and with it shooting efficiency. An even greater premium will be placed on players able to create their own shots, an uncommon skill most likely found on top teams.
No wonder some observers remain skeptical of the new shot clock’s benefits. “I think people just make changes,” says John Clougherty, the ACC’s supervisor of men’s basketball officials. “You have to have a purpose for a change. Where’s the purpose of taking the shot clock from 35 to 30? If we do things, we do it with a purpose, I think. I don’t see what the purpose is.”
An array of less notable tweaks and adjustments were also made, many to keep the game moving. Among them: the restricted arc under the basket was extended from three feet to four feet to discourage congestion in the lane; timeouts were reduced in number and disruptive effect; and some technical fouls now earn one shot instead of two.
Unfortunately there was no discussion of the pace-killing length of TV timeouts, which seem to grow ever longer. “You’re not able to mess with that,” Byrd says of the NCAA committee of coaches and administrators. Certain realms are sacrosanct in college athletics.
Other changes still needed
Those looking to limit the physical nature of the game, or to accelerate the pace of play, missed promising possibilities for targeted change. The lane will not be widened to international dimensions to reduce congestion. No time limits were placed on frequently routine – and proliferating -- video reviews by officials.
The committee didn’t discuss cracking down on the veiled intentional fouls that stretch a game’s final moments to interminable lengths.
Overall the rulemakers stressed enforcing rules already adopted. (Camping in the lane for more than 3 seconds, perhaps?) “It’s not just the physicality, it’s calling the game the way it’s written in the rule book,” Byrd says. The coach considers that emphasis every bit as significant as the shortened shot clock that’s garnering most of the attention. Of course more whistles mean more stoppages and more impatient carping at the interruptions, at least until players adapt to stricter officiating.
Even the belief the game is consumed with physical play, the sort decried by coach Bo Ryan after Wisconsin lost the NCAA championship contest, is not as universally held as it might seem.
Larranaga says the college game is “brutal” inside, making it tough to develop willing low-post players. But Clougherty, a longtime game official, is not so sure. “I’m not a firm believer that this game is so much more physical than it once was. I officiated some really physical games in the Big East over my 20 years,” he says, referring to play in the 1980s and 1990s. “I do think we have some work to do at officiating off the ball that would free people up to get more open shots.”
In fact, the new clock may well tilt the advantage even further toward talent-laden programs that thrive in open-court situations. North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who prefers an attack fueled by as many possessions as possible, told the Asheville Citizen-Times last week, “I would like to have (a) 20-second clock, as fast as I like to play. But 30 seconds is good, and think it's a good move for the game.”
Byrd’s Belmont Bruins defeated UNC at the Smith Center in November 2013 and came within a point of Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium two years earlier. The coach with 711 wins worries that such competitiveness by an Ohio Valley Conference team could be compromised by the major change his committee enacted.
“College basketball has a diversity of offensive styles,” Byrd says. “I hope it doesn’t turn it into an isolation or ball screen only kind of look, because I think college basketball needs its own identity.”
As that identity evolves, the tinkerers should leave sufficient room for aggressive defense and deliberate play.