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Rule changes are no magic bullet for increasing scoring

May 1, 2015 Columns No Comments

As we’re now coming up on a month into the off-season, a hot topic has been scoring in college basketball. It was down this year, and at times during the season it was the subject of much debate because of some painfully low-scoring games we saw in 2014-15. Scoring has been down for a while now, and there are lots of theories about it as well as solution ideas.

One solution idea has been bandied about quite a bit, to the point where it seems inevitable it will come. If it does, we can’t get our hopes up. Simply put, we shouldn’t expect rule changes to solve all our problems.

The proposals are all out there. Cut down the shot clock. Widen the lane. Change the block/charge arc. Get rid of some timeouts. Have officials call the game the way they did early in 2013-14, when they wanted freedom of movement and called fouls at a ridiculous clip. We’ve heard them all by now.

The three postseason tournaments aside from the NCAA Tournament were played with a 30-second shot clock with the idea of seeing how it works. Scoring did inch up during those tournaments, but it wasn’t up greatly. That shouldn’t be a surprise for a few reasons, not the least of which is that teams have been playing a certain way all season and weren’t likely to change drastically come tournament time. A change from 35 to 30 seconds doesn’t allow for many more possessions – if we use the entire shot clock, a 35-second shot clock allows for about 35 possessions in a half, while a 30-second clock allows for about 40.

Going from 35 to 30 seconds is reasonable with no other changes. However, changing down to 24 seconds, as some have proposed, would be problematic for a variety of reasons and especially all by itself. While the NBA allows zone defenses, that’s largely true in name only. If college teams can still play a zone defense, that could be a problem for scoring since young players don’t intuitively understand how you’re supposed to attack a zone defense.

As Adam Glatczak noted recently, in the last year of the 45-second shot clock – which feels like ancient times now – teams averaged 73.6 points per game, a full six points more than this year. As such, just looking at numbers, there is no reason we should expect a shorter shot clock to translate into an even appreciable increase in scoring.

There’s no question the block/charge call becomes more a point of contention all the time. Spend some time talking to a coach about the game, and when that subject comes up, they have a lot to say off the record. Making the arc bigger makes sense – while the NBA has its own half circle used for that, there’s no reason college can’t do the same thing. College is not the NBA, but fundamentally the block/charge rules and the judgment call that goes with it on a play is the same. Put more simply, a problem with so many of the charging calls that are made when a defender is so close to the basket – whether established or not – is that it’s not a basketball play to just jump in front of a guy like that as a defender.

Widening the lane might help, but considering how the game has changed away from post play, doing so would seem likely to yield little benefit as far as scoring goes. Getting rid of timeouts would be fine, considering we have eight media timeouts built into every game.

But none of this would truly improve scoring. None of it would get at the real problems, which is about the players and coaches.

Many have opined over the years that today’s game has a lot of problems with players’ skill levels and attention to fundamentals. The culture of basketball has gotten away from what makes the game beautiful, instead leaning towards mixtapes, highlight-reel dunks and behind-the-back or no-look passes, as well as “breaking ankles” (which is almost always a case of bad defense, not the offensive player doing anything special). Fans love it more than they love a well-executed pick-and-roll play or flex offense set because it’s more easily visual; SportsCenter highlights are full of dunks and big three-pointers, but not breaking down a well-run set unless they bring an analyst in for a few minutes. You can’t fault ESPN for catering to their audience, because they have a business to run.

This all starts at younger levels. It’s not just with travel teams or AAU, as many have talked about. But today’s high school stars are tomorrow’s college All-Americans and the next day’s NBA lottery picks. College coaches have remarked that they have to spend a lot of time “un-teaching” things when kids get to college to break bad habits, even with elite players. Our players today are more longer and athletic, but not necessarily better basketball players.

Watch some games, and you can see this. A lot of guards don’t know how to use ball screens effectively, and even in college you see plenty of instances where the ball handler goes before the screen is set and then pins a moving screen foul on his teammate. Plenty of players don’t know how to sell a shot on a pump fake, with many even going so quickly that it’s more like a ball fake. In transition especially, although also in the halfcourt set, seemingly a couple of times a game a player will get in the lane and charge into a defender instead of stopping and popping for a short jumper.

Those are just a few examples, indicative of the development players need today.

In particular, college coaches spend a lot of time emphasizing defense. Partly, that’s understandable; the old clich√© that offense comes and goes, but you can always defend and limit the other team, has some truth to it. Players also pay less attention to defense at earlier levels; many joke all the time that there’s no defense on the travel circuit in high school. At some point, though, you wonder if all the emphasis on defense in practices and in game plans isn’t taking away from players developing offensively and teams developing a chemistry at that end of the floor.

And perhaps this is exacerbating the reality that offense comes and goes.

That brings us to the coaches. Today’s teams are often over-coached, with so many plays, sometimes complex, to have to understand. While football players do it, often with bigger playbooks, they also only have to worry about one side of the ball, and it’s a slower-paced game than basketball because in a football game the ball is dead after every play, meaning there are more such stoppages even when the offensive team runs a no-huddle offense. Some coaches will even admit off the record that they think players are over-coached today.

This isn’t to say coaches should just roll out the balls. That’s not what anyone signs up for, and if coaches did that en masse, the product we see would be much worse. A game with structure is preferable to one without, no matter the talent level. But there may be something to be said for taking the reins off a bit, too, especially with more experienced teams.

Rule changes appear inevitable. Reports in recent days have suggested that you can bank on a 30-second shot clock becoming reality soon. The block/charge arc may well get changed, and that’s something that should happen regardless of any desire to improve scoring. More are sure to come.

The problem is that rule changes are unlikely to change the game for the better. These aren’t professional players, and certainly aren’t on the level of professionals. In fact, one head coach offered up that a 24-second shot clock could be “really bad” in college basketball. Scoring may indeed go up, but will the quality of play be any better? The answer is not a definite “yes” to that question. Thankfully, a 24-second shot clock doesn’t appear to be coming, but even going down to 30 seconds probably doesn’t come with benefits only.

Be wary of thinking that rule changes alone will increase scoring, and do so without affecting the product in other ways. There are many other variables to scoring in college basketball that changing the rules won’t affect, or will affect negatively. If these changes come about as expected and scoring doesn’t go up, or barely goes up, we shouldn’t be surprised. There is, simply put, no magic bullet for increasing scoring.

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