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Scoring a Division I problem, not a college hoops problem

January 27, 2015 Columns No Comments

The topic came up yet again Monday during the ACC coaches teleconference. Coaches were posed a question about what can be done to pick up the pace of college basketball games and improve scoring?

The answers were predictable. From a Louisville Courier-Journal article, Rick Pitino requested better definitions of how fouls are called (we tried that last year; it started working, but officials didn’t like being told how to officiate games and some coaches took offense to not being able to brutalize opponents defensively). And of course, Pitino made another call for a 30-second shot clock, of which Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said “I think there will be great momentum for” when the rules committee meets after the season.

Shortening the shot clock continues to be a terrible idea because it does nothing to address the real problems, which are really rather confined. The problem is not the clock, but 1) how the clock is being used by teams offensively and 2) offensive players not allowed to operate when they do try because of officials who can hardly contain their excitement in calling moving screens but allow large amounts of defensive contact to pass.

The issues are local, though. If one takes a wide view of college basketball as a whole and examines the numbers, there is only one conclusion to come to: scoring-and, by association, pace of play-isn’t a college basketball problem. It’s a Division I college basketball problem.

According to national statistical reports on Monday, there are 15 NCAA Division I schools out of 345 (that’s 4.3% of them) scoring at least 80 points per game. Nearly two-thirds-223 teams-are averaging less than 70 points per game. Soak that in: 64.6% of NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams can’t average 70 points per game in a 40-minute game.

Now take a look at NCAA Division II. Sixty-three schools out of 294 (21.4%) are averaging 80 points per game or more. On the percentage, that’s just about five times the rate of D-I schools. More jarring: only 84 D-II schools total (28.6%) are averaging less than 70 points per game. Wait-thought we had a systematic problem here throughout the sport, right?

Go on to NCAA Division III, and the numbers reflect something of a middle range. Thirty of the 408 D-III schools (7.4%) are averaging at least 80 points per game. Nearly half, though-198-are averaging at least 70, making 51.5% that are not.

How about the NAIA, which has a long history of terrific hoops? Basketball is divided into two divisions there (a difference of eight scholarships for D-I schools vs. five for D-II). Between the two divisions, there are 45 of 229 teams (19.7%) averaging at least 80 points per game. Fifty-nine teams (26.4%) are averaging less than 70 points.

Of all the levels, Division III bears the most resemblance to Division I, but it’s not near the extreme. To dig a little deeper, 28 D-I schools are averaging less than 60 points per game (8.1%), while 21 of the 408 D-III schools are scoring that lightly (5.1%). Division I has nearly twice as many teams averaging 50 points per game as 80, while the ratio on that is nearly 1.5:1 in favor of higher scoring teams in D-III.

This is only a preliminary look at the numbers. The NCAA doesn’t keep official statistics for number of possessions, and unfortunately, there aren’t websites devoted to detailed analytics for small college divisions the way someone like Ken Pomeroy does for Division I. Frankly, though, the information tells the story well enough. Lower divisions have no problem with a 35-second shot clock.

(By the way: for those who think a 30-second shot clock automatically equals more scoring or a better game, the NCAA Division I women’s basketball statistics say otherwise. Even with a shorter clock, only nine of 343 D-I women’s teams are averaging at least 80 points per game. Barely over a quarter of those 343 teams-89 total-average even 70 points, while seventy-nine teams are not averaging even 60 points. This is not a dig in the least at the sport of women’s basketball, which is a perfectly good sport and is very well-coached, but at the idea that more frequent shots automatically make for more points.)

Keep in mind that any changes to the shot clock will apply for all levels of men’s college basketball. Not just Division I, but also divisions II and III, and the NAIA will certainly follow suit too. And yet, it’s abundantly clear that those lower divisions don’t really need any shot clock changes at all.

Having worked at NAIA and NCAA Division III schools over the last 9 1/2 years, will gladly attest to anyone that the statistical trends are not a coincidence. There are small college coaches who hang their hats on physical half court play, but there are also plenty of coaches at small colleges who coach offense intentionally, and allow their players the freedom to show it in games.

Most of those coaches do not neglect defense, and would pity anyone who suggested to their face otherwise. Their players are almost always shorter than Division I players. Only sometimes are they less athletic (especially at the NCAA Division II and NAIA levels, where at times you will see every bit as many dunks as you might in a high-level NCAA D-I game). The coaches have figured out how to balance both sides of the ball.

As far as physicality, small college games often mirror the big boys. When the officiating crackdown was ordered at the start of last year, some noticeably tried to abide while others all but ignored it. As the season went on, less and less was called, and now one would never know there was a point of emphasis on contact last year.

Some will jump right to the argument that the “length” of Division I players makes it so much harder for those teams to score. But aren’t Division I players also supposed to be more skilled and “talented”? Does talent now only apply to defense? The excuse doesn’t wash.

Small college teams have no problem figuring out how to put that orange ball in the orange basket. If Division I coaches and rule makers are plum out of ideas, then perhaps they need to start looking less to the higher levels (NBA) and more to the lower levels of the sport for inspiration.

(Statistic sources: NCAA Division I, Division II and Division III Men’s Basketball, NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball, and NAIA statistics websites)

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