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Changes need to come from within, not just rule tweaks

May 1, 2014 Columns 3 Comments

The 2013-14 college basketball season wasn’t even over when some of the game’s caretakers were already looking to next season and beyond.

As reported by a number of outlets, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Committee met with media during the Final Four and shared that it was already batting around ideas on possible future rule changes. Their quest continues to make college basketball an easier game on the eyes, a worthwhile venture that was met with some success this past season, but clearly it’s going to take time. And it’s not going to be easy.

There are two things that have primarily affected the decline of not just offense but overall variety in the sport. One is coaches strangling their offenses, and the other is the amount of defensive contact allowed. Rules changed or re-emphasized alone can only do so much to change either of those.

Rule changes themselves won’t change a fault of coaches that even the rules committee itself notes-the desire to control whatever they can. For instance, the committee acknowledged that, among possible changes being looked at, coaches aren’t going to want to give up timeouts.

At this point, though, the push needs to be put on them to understand that the current allotment of timeouts is making for terrible basketball at the end of games, borderline unwatchable at times with all the timeouts and reviews. With the number of media timeouts now, plus replay reviews, there’s no reason coaches can’t subsist on three timeouts a game.

If this were reduced, then the rules committee can bypass some other possible changes, such as the debate about whether or not teams should be allowed to call timeout and receive a new 10-second count in the backcourt. If a coach is limited to three TOs per game, those timeouts are now considerably more valuable. If a team wants to use a timeout to save possession in the backcourt, let them.

On the subject of offense: some make the argument that the problem is players are less skilled offensively than 25 years ago. That is true. But being around small college basketball (NAIA and NCAA Division III) for the past eight years, can also tell you this: there are plenty of small college coaches that run offenses with plenty of movement and motion, generate lots of good shots, and give their players the freedom to take those shots early.

There is no good reason why Division I college basketball can’t have more of that. Dribbling 20-25 seconds off the clock and then running a ball-screen with three guys standing around is easier to defend than 3-5 guys moving, screening and cutting.

Yet the former is exactly what many offenses have become at the D-I level. Again, coaches might say it’s an adjustment to their players’ talent, but it’s hard to believe that small college players are the only ones who can learn how to cut and screen. Not every team needs to be playing the same style, mind you, but the rules committee should have an interest in encouraging more variety in offense.

One thing that is not the solution to anything is reducing the shot clock. This one continues to befuddle, just how such bright coaches can continue to make the wrong assumption on this.

History should make it abundantly clear: shot clock length is not what affects scoring. That point needs to be preached over and over and over. All one needs to do is look at the statistics, they’re right there in the NCAA record book.

Scoring was higher in the 1970’s with NO shot clock than it is now. And it was higher in the late 80’s and early 90’s with the 45-second shot clock than it is now. It is now considerably lower with the 35-second shot clock than it ever was with the 45-second clock.

It’s very easy to make the argument that the 35-second clock has made the game easier on defenses and harder on offenses. Defenses play 10 less seconds per possession than they used to. This already makes their jobs easier, and when offensive players are standing around, it’s considerably easier yet. At the same time, offenses obviously have less time to break down a defense, and there is less time to reset after a set play falls apart.

The view from here is the shorter clock and its relative proximity to the NBA’s 24-second clock has also encouraged coaches to-consciously or subconsciously-go away from motion offenses and to more of NBA-style offenses, with set plays, ball screens, isolation and lots of standing around.

The problem is, even if one thinks NBA offenses are the most effective way to play-debatable to some, heresy to others-most college teams don’t have skilled NBA-caliber scorers for late shot clock situations. Inevitably what happens is more and more possessions end with a high ball screen and players throwing up wild shots right at the end of the clock, either from deep or on out-of-control drives to the basket. And a lot of times they don’t go in.

Shrink the shot clock even more, and college basketball stylistically becomes even more of an NBA carbon copy, only with less talented players taking even more bad shots. You’ll see even less variety in how the game is played and worse basketball. If anything, the shot clock should go the other direction, back to 45 seconds. A longer clock isn’t going to make fast teams slow down, but it will expose more teams defensively, creating more separation between mediocre defensive teams and those that are truly good.

The bottom line is, finding different ways to score needs to be a priority for coaches. When it is, it will be reflected in scoring. The NCAA Tournament has proven for years that there are many ways to build a good team. But players need to be put in offenses that are proactive in creating opportunities. In this era of Moneyball and advanced metrics and the like, it’s amazing this hasn’t happened sooner.

The other problem affecting offense is the amount of contact allowed in the sport. Still.

The rules committee tried to address that this year, and it worked for a while. Scoring was up in November and December, but then continued a drip downward that by the end of the season resulted in scoring basically back at the way-too-low level of last year.

Hand-checking on the perimeter was not as prevalent this year as in the past, but in a number of cases it was still there. Moreover, the amount of contact inside really hasn’t changed a bit. Attending several D-I games this season, it was still jarring just how much and how heavy of contact was allowed in the paint.

The contact simply rewards lazy defense (and in fairness, occasionally lazy offense, too). Defenses have been allowed increasing liberties the past 15-20 years, and scoring reflects this. The rules committee rightly realized this last year, but clearly it’s going to take more than one year to convince some officials to change how they call a game.

The sport doesn’t need across-the-board rule changes. It does need continued tweaking in how it’s officiated. Judging by media stories, we’ll trust John Adams, NCAA coordinator of officials, is on top of that. It also needs just more…”thought” put into offense. Coaches need to be encouraged to be creative in finding those ways. Re-emphasizing rules that slant the game less towards defense and more towards the middle is a positive step in this direction. But the coaches are also going to have to take some steps themselves.

More notes:
-Looking back on this year’s NCAA Tournament…the tourney proved once again that it never fails to deliver. The first two full days of the tournament (sorry, from here the “first round” games are still play-in games, and always will be) were terrific. Pretty much any Kentucky game from the second rounder against Wichita State-the best game of the tournament-through the national semifinals was fantastic. Even if one doesn’t like the way John Calipari builds his teams, by the Final 4 it was hard to not appreciate just what a terrific run the Wildcats went on in this tourney, winning four straight games against terrific teams that were literally near replicas of each other.

Connecticut was a deserving champion, and may go down as one of the more anonymous champions in a long, long time. Even hearty college basketball fans would have a hard time naming more than three starters for the Huskies. As was noted in some articles, Connecticut’s run also shows just what a thin line there is between advancing and going out very early in the tourney. St. Joseph’s had the Huskies on the ropes in their opener, leading most of the game, and if SJU holds on, one wonders just how far the Hawks and their Iron Five starting lineup would’ve gone.

-Hooray for the success of teams from so-called “low-major” leagues. Mercer, Stephen F. Austin, North Dakota State and Harvard all scored wins, and all are from conferences that rarely, if ever, have at-large contenders. Typically we’re used to our underdog surprises coming from leagues like the Horizon, CAA, Mid-American or even Metro Atlantic. For anyone who believes that all conferences don’t deserve automatic berths to the tourney, these results should answer that.

-The NCAA takes a ton of hits, some of them deserved, others not, so we don’t take a shot haphazardly. But the NCAA needs to be called out for its NCAA Tournament practice of starting some Round of 64 games in nearly empty arenas.

In the third game of the day (which marks the second session of three on the weekend) at the first Thursday & Friday sub-regional sites, a number of them started before gatherings that would charitably be described as puny, possibly fewer than 1,000 people. The reason was because the games before them had run long, as well as that the upcoming game may have already been behind schedule. And the arenas had to be cleared before fans were admitted/re-admitted for the new session, since fans pay for tickets by the two-game session.

Clearing the arena is a common practice and makes sense. But there’s no reason why the start times for these games couldn’t have been pushed back 20-25 minutes, to give fans a more reasonable chance to get in the arena. If the teams have to wait a little longer to play, or if the TV networks have to push their programming back a little bit, so be it. Watching on TV, some of these games literally didn’t start filling up until past midway through the first half; in other words, some fans spending money on a session ticket were missing out on over 25% of the value for the price of the two-game ticket that they purchased. This is something the NCAA needs to address. It’s not too much to ask for fans to be given a realistic chance to see the entire game for which they’ve paid for.

-Finally, looking back at this season, some of our favorite teams to watch when got a chance to see them play, either in person or on TV. Not necessarily the best teams, and we didn’t see everyone by any means, but some of the most enjoyable we watched: Albany, UC Santa Barbara, Canisius, Creighton, Florida, Hampton, Hawaii, Iona, Louisville, Murray State, Providence, St. Bonaventure, St. Joseph’s, Southern, Stephen F. Austin, Toledo, Vermont, Virginia, Wichita State, William & Mary, Wisconsin. Most of the teams on this list have a distinctive style on offense or defense (or in a few cases, both), a star player or players worth the price of admission, or were just well-coached teams in general.

Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. Paul Borden says:

    One of the best, most insightful pieces analyzing college football I have read. With stoppages every four-plus minutes for “media” — HA! — timeouts, three discretionary timeouts are very much adequate for the game. Gametimes are another issue.

  2. Paul Borden says:

    One of the best, most insightful pieces analyzing college basketbalI have read. With stoppages every four-plus minutes for “media” — HA! — timeouts, three discretionary timeouts are very much adequate for the game. Gametimes are another issue.

  3. Paul Borden says:

    I’ve got college football on the brain. Sorry. What a dumb thing to do.

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