North Carolina

ACC’s increased scoring positive sign for college basketball

Six ACC teams, led by Duke’s 88.4 points per game, are averaging at least 80 points per game.
Six ACC teams, led by Duke’s 88.4 points per game, are averaging at least 80 points per game. cliddy@newsobserver.com

It was one of the most-asked questions of college basketball’s preseason: how would the sport’s new rules, and specifically the 30-second shot clock, affect the game? Would there be a dramatic difference? Would teams still struggle to score?

Would college basketball become watchable and attractive again to the casual fan?

Some coaches doubted that the new shot clock, shortened by five seconds, would inspire much change. Even Ken Pomeroy, the game’s unofficial statistician and data analyst, downplayed in a summer interview the difference the 30-second clock would make when it came to scoring.

“It probably won’t have a huge impact,” Pomeroy said then, in June.

And he may well turn out to be right once we examine the season in full come early April. But right now, at the start of conference play, it’s appropriate to conclude that in the ACC the rules changes have made a significant difference.

People who prefer a more free-flowing brand of basketball – those who prefer watching teams trade baskets instead of defensive stops and slow-it-down possessions – have reason to celebrate. And watch again. Scoring is up in the ACC. Way up.

And it’s up in part because of the 30-second shot clock and in part because of other rules changes – like the continued emphasis on calling fouls to reduce physical play – designed to speed up the game and bring it back to its roots as a free-flowing sport.

But first, an important caveat: scoring will decrease during the next few months. It always does during conference play, when the competition is better, the defenses stronger, the pressure more magnified and intense.

Still, points have been coming so freely to this point in this season, relative to the recent past, that it appears probable that this will be the highest-scoring season in the ACC in the past 15 years, which is the time period for which scoring data was most readily available.

Positive numbers:

▪ Six ACC teams, led by Duke’s 88.4 points per game, are averaging at least 80 points per game. At this point last season, three teams were averaging that many.

▪ Thirteen ACC teams, every one except for Clemson and Boston College, are averaging at least 70 points per game. At this point last season, eight teams were averaging that many.

You might say: “Big deal.” But increased scoring – which, in theory, makes college basketball more watchable – is indeed big deal for a game that for years now has been struggling for national attention and relevancy outside of March.

College basketball is still more than a niche sport in North Carolina and in other select markets. Nationally, though, this is all you need to know about the health of the game: Duke’s victory against Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl received better ratings than Duke’s overtime victory against North Carolina in basketball last February.

Let that sink in. A meaningless second- or third-tier bowl game in late December between two mediocre teams drew more national interest than one of college basketball’s most anticipated regular-season games. And why? Because college basketball doesn’t command the interest, on a national level, that it once did.

There are several reasons. For one, year after year the best and most talented college basketball players rarely return for another season. Those players often don’t even make it to their sophomore seasons. The one-and-done culture of the sport has undoubtedly eroded interest, though it’s difficult to quantify.

So, too, has the impression that the season doesn’t really start until January. And that’s generous, given that some might contend it doesn’t really start until March, when the games matter most. UNC’s loss at Northern Iowa in November? By the time March rolls around it might as well not have happened.

Then there’s perhaps the most glaring issue: In recent years the product just hasn’t been all that good. Which isn’t to say there haven’t been good, or even great, moments or games. Duke’s victory against Wisconsin in the national championship game last February, for instance, was well-played and dramatic despite neither team scoring 70 points.

That, though, is the exception to the rule in recent years. Scoring has been down. Physical play up. The quality of the game, overall, has been reminiscent of those unwatchable years in the NBA in the early-2000s, before the game reinvented itself into what it is today.

College basketball needs a similar renaissance. Maybe we’re in the midst of seeing one start.

That six ACC teams are averaging 80 points per game at this point is an encouraging sign. If even only two of them finish the season averaging that many, it’d be the first time since the 2008-09 season that two ACC teams averaged at least 80 points in a season.

Only two ACC teams have done that in the past four seasons combined. Some more numbers: Between the 2001-02 and 2008-09 seasons, nearly 87.2 percent of ACC teams – 75 of the 86 during that span – averaged at least 70 points per game. Only 11 didn’t.

Last season alone, 11 ACC teams failed to average 70 points per game. Which speaks to how difficult it has been to score, which speaks to why some – or, perhaps more accurately, many – have been turned off by the game.

So far this season, though, the game has been unrecognizable in a good way. At least it has been in the ACC, which is home to the nation’s top four most efficient offensive teams (Virginia, Duke, UNC and Notre Dame), according to kenpom.com.

At the start of conference play points have been more abundant than they’ve been in years, and all but two of the league’s teams – Notre Dame and Boston College – are scoring more now than they were a season ago at this time.

It might not last that way, throughout the grind of ACC play. Even so, increased scoring is a welcome sight for a sport that needs to provide people with a reason to watch before March.

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