Why there is a gender gap on whether college basketball should be played in quarters or halves

Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie gestures to her team during the first half in a regional semifinal against Connecitcut at the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie gestures to her team during the first half in a regional semifinal against Connecitcut at the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) AP

Analysis of recent changes in Congress and elsewhere celebrated a striking increase in leadership roles commanded by women. Similar clout remains a bit elusive in the precincts of college basketball, where the male and female versions of the game, and the thinking of coaches, sometimes seem to exist in different universes.

Take the ACC meetings last spring, when the men’s coaches breezed past consideration of a rules change the women recently instituted to speed play by splitting halves into 10-minute quarters. “It was just a question that came up, it was discussed and then we moved on,” recalls Miami coach Jim Larranaga. “No one is hugely in favor of it.”

Fair enough. Men’s and women’s basketball unquestionably differ in key ways, from the size of the ball to how much play occurs above the rim. What’s more, the men made changes a few years back that apparently achieved a long-desired goal, opening the floor for offenses.

“We’ve gotten this thing to the point now where our flow is good,” says Bryan Kersey, the ACC supervisor of officials for men’s basketball. “I don’t want to do anything to disrupt that.”

Nor is everyone in the women’s game an enthusiastic advocate of quartering the time and creating more breaks in play.

“I like halves,” says North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell. “I don’t like the stoppages.”

The UNC Tar Heels' women's basketball team played against Virginia Commonwealth on Wednesday. Their cheer section: Fifth graders.

Flow issues are a common knock on quarters. All the more reason for the ACC men to hear from female colleagues freshly introduced to the quarter system, including an in-house leader of the national effort to build a fast-play package around the change.

“God forbid to follow the women,” says Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie.

“When you can have four ends of period for that excitement of -- get (the ball) in, the clock’s winding down, call the play -- that’s more fun than only two,” says Nora Lynn Finch, the ACC Senior Associate Commissioner for Women’s Basketball who spearheaded the quartering reformation. “From our perspective, four is twice as good as two.”

Freedom of movement

Striking a note quite familiar among the men, Finch says the underlying goal of splitting halves and tinkering with other, related rules was to discourage physical play and increase freedom of movement. Then, progressing to territory where men’s basketball participants rarely venture, Finch declares the new approach frees players from the close ministrations of those on the bench.

“It would be a really good idea if the coaches taught the game in practice, and let the players play the game in the game,” the former coach suggests blasphemously. “At the same time we are education-oriented, and so we didn’t want to take away the coaches’ abilities to teach. So there’s this balance between teaching and controlling.”

That sounds suspiciously like the thinking of the Canadian immigrant who invented the game. James Naismith didn’t believe basketball required a coach pulling on-court levers to be played effectively; he inadvertently proved the point by becoming the only head coach in the University of Kansas’ illustrious hoops history to post a losing career record (55-60 from 1899 to 1907).

In 1891 Naismith laid out 13 rules to govern how basketball is played, many still applied in modified form. Among them was rule number 12, the briefest of the bunch, which states “The time shall be two 15-minute halves, with five minutes’ rest between.” (Gone, regrettably, is Naismith’s stricture that three consecutive fouls committed by the same team result in a goal credited to its opponent.)

Least-liked change

Yet the women’s shift to quarters, a departure from Naismith’s vision now in its fourth season, is hardly revolutionary. The arrangement has long been used in high school, NBA and international ball, with quarters of various lengths. In fact, men’s ball actually switched to 10-minute quarters for the 1951 season, the same year it introduced one-and-one free throw opportunities.

Twenty-minute halves returned for the 1954 NCAA season and have, like the one-and-one, remained since. Art Hyland, the secretary-rules editor for men’s basketball, is unsure why the time-keeping changes were made. Research undertaken before the women executed the move was inconclusive too.

A men’s return to quarters, a further step toward debatable uniformity across all levels of play, is under consideration by several NCAA committees, with a determination possible this spring. Also on the table are more popular changes tried in the 2018 postseason NIT – the elimination of one-and-ones, a shot clock reset to 20 seconds rather than 30 following an offensive rebound, a 3-point arc moved from 20 feet, 9 inches to 22.15 feet, mirroring the FIFA (international) line.

After last spring’s NIT, the 15 participating head coaches were surveyed for their reactions to the new twists. The least-liked adjustment was the four-quarter format, favored by 40 percent.

Many in the men’s game insist the quarter arrangement is doomed anyway, since it’s perceived to restrict TV’s opportunities to sell copious ads, far more desirable to place in their games than in those involving women. Still, it seems reasonable to court insights from female coaching veterans to see what can be learned.

Finch notes NCAA women employed FIBA rules such as a 30-second shot clock since they went to five players on a side in 1970. “It took the men more than 40 years to land on 30 seconds,” she says. “I wonder why? I wonder why?” She chuckles archly. “Because we had it.”

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