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College basketball’s NBA fixation on full display with proposed rule changes

May 15, 2015 Columns No Comments

If it wasn’t a known truth already, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Committee on Friday affirmed to all a flaw in the sport that has become ever more obvious in recent years.

The sport of college basketball and its coaches have a serious man crush on the NBA.

It is no coincidence that, of 12 major points of emphasis handed down from the rules committee on Friday, nine of them-a full 75%-are moves toward NBA standards, if not downright duplications. At this point the rules are proposals, but it’s considered a formality that they will pass in June.

If the rules committee’s goal is professional development and improving their own chances of eventually coaching the best players in the world in the pros, it might make sense.

On the other hand, if the goal is actually trying to do right by the sport and understanding how to satisfy its fans, it’s downright mystifying.

We’ve documented it, others have too: the ratings for the Final Four and NCAA Tournament dominate those for the NBA Finals and NBA Playoffs. The numbers are quite clear: for most fans, the sport was never in a “crisis,” contrary to what some media quite loudly and repeatedly proclaimed this year.

Most college basketball fans appreciate the sport’s variety and its different ways to win. They like that the sport typically observes the game’s rules, not making an all-but-stated different set of rules for superstars vs. the average player.

They like college hoops precisely because it isn’t the NBA.

At the rate of this year’s rule changes, though, we can expect traveling to be declared optional for college basketball officials by next year. That’s how far this pro preoccupation has gone.

On a simple logic level, it is impossible for college basketball to be the pro game. The players are not as skilled. The rules that work for the NBA do so because of NBA talent,  not because they accommodate an inclusive game where teams can win in any number of ways. But the rules committee is going to try to make them work anyway.

Friday was a day more than 20 years in the making. From the time college basketball shrunk its shot clock from 45 seconds to 35, the game has gone through a slow change. Pressing, motion offenses and movement slid out. Ball screens, set plays, offensive inertia and physicality crept in.

With less time on the shot clock, it was bound that college and NBA offenses began to look more alike. Of course, the shot clock change wasn’t the only factor leading to that, and other changes in the sport of basketball as a whole-AAU’s ascension and of course the permittance of increased physicality among them-have influenced it, but it was the accelerant.

The offenses looked more like NBA offenses, but not with NBA results as scoring and pace of play went down. Yet coaches’ fixation on the NBA went up. From the emphasis on ball screens, pick-and-roll offenses and more set plays, to the desire by some to shorten the shot clock, to ex-coaches and observers of the sport constantly telling us the NBA is a supposedly better game.

When these rule changes are inevitably passed, college basketball will be different, though probably not as different as some suspect. It almost certainly will not be better.

There may be a few more points, maybe a couple more possessions. There also will be more missed shots. Maybe pace speeds up a tad, but it doesn’t mean the game will be played better.

Defenses will have even more of an advantage than they did before. You saw what Virginia did with a 35-second shot clock last year. What will the Cavs do now with five less seconds?

There will be fewer different varieties of play, less of coaches finding ways to beat a more talented opponent. There will be even more ball screens and pick and rolls at the end of the shot clock than college hoops has been polluted with in recent years. For the vast majority of teams, those will be run by players who do not possess NBA talent.

That about sums it up: college basketball will become ever more a less-talented replica of the NBA.

It’s mind-boggling. If anyone is truly interested in the well-being of college basketball, why would they want this? Have they seen the TV ratings for the D-League?

There was absolutely nothing wrong with college basketball having slightly different rules from the NBA, or FIBA, or women’s basketball. The sport was already loved by many for what it was.

Most likely, the rich will get richer, and it’s quite likely this was at least a small part of some agendas to get these rules pushed through. Shorter possessions make it is easier for singular athletic talents as well as defensive-minded teams to dominate. Longer possessions allow more opportunity for less-athletically gifted teams to work for a good shot and eventually outfox athleticism.

Some will say there is nothing wrong with this, that the “best players” winning should be the goal of any sport.

There is a big difference, though, between the best teams, and the teams with the best players. College basketball used to provide plenty of room for those without stars but with a crafty coach to still be the best teams for at least 40 minutes. The amount of room for that has almost certainly been shrunk, and so soon will the sport’s variety. And it’s all because of an infatuation with a game that college basketball will never be, no matter how badly it wants to.

Reviewing the rule change proposals that were passed:
1) 30-second shot clock. Its impact on scoring and, most likely, possessions will be minimal, and may even be a hindrance. Look for more teams applying token pressure in the backcourt, which will waste time just like the “false motion” so many despise. Teams that thrive on defensive pressure will have a field day; if you thought Louisville did a lot of slapping and hand-checking in the backcourt before, just wait. The clock will make it even easier for teams like Virginia to play defense, as now they have to cover for five less seconds each possession.

When offensive teams get by the pressure, they will then run their set plays, which will be scouted out and won’t work, and then the possession will come down to another ball screen and a rushed shot as the clock expires. Or, teams may bypass set plays entirely and simply run more pick & rolls, with three guys standing around adjusting their compression outfits. You’ll get 2-3 more points per game, at most, as well as more missed shots and more bad shots, because-surprise!-the guys running pick & rolls at the end of the clock in college are not pros. More ball screen offenses, less motion, movement and teamwork. That’s progress?

It’s been stated time and again: scoring in college basketball was much higher with a 45-second clock than a 35-second clock. The sport’s recent problems with scoring had nothing to do with the length of the shot clock. Zero. Zilch. This is a fix to something that wasn’t broke.

2) Move restricted arc from three to four feet. The most overrated rule in the sport, notable only because it was one of the first indicators of coaches’ undying love for the NBA. The number of plays it actually affects in a game is not nearly as many as you’re led to believe; in fact, the statistic by the NCAA regarding number of block/charge plays refers to all such plays anywhere on the court-most of them are not under the hoop. We’re talking about one play per game on the average, maybe slightly more now that the shot clock has been reduced and if/when even more teams go to yawn-inducing NBA offenses, with offensive players driving out of control to the basket, except-again-you don’t have LeBron James finishing those drives. The line causes as much trouble as it solves, as officials still sometimes miss it and/or are more focused on looking at feet than whether a play is a block or charge. This is a mostly meaningless change, despite what others will tell you.

3 Elimination of the 5-second closely guarded call. This one is particularly frustrating, and illustrates just how little coaches understand the game’s problems. Too much dribbling is one of the offense-killers in college basketball and why so many teams stall out. (Weren’t we all once taught that it’s far quicker to move the ball by a pass than a dribble?) And yet, coaches apparently think we need even more dribbling in the sport, and now have taken away an incentive for a defender on the ball to pressure. This here is the very definition of clueless. If anything, the closely guarded call should’ve been extended further out, to encourage offensive players to do something with the ball, rather than dribbling away 15 seconds at a time. If the shot clock nudges coaches towards even more NBA-like offenses, this may well be the rule that shoves them down the waterslide.

4) Reduction of timeouts from five to four. This is good. But it could be better. No reason why it couldn’t have gone down to three. Will give credit that at least coaches finally gave some and put their interests behind the game’s on this. It just didn’t go far enough.

5) Ten-second backcourt clock not reset after a timeout. Silly change. If you reduce the number of timeouts, you make those timeouts more valuable. If teams still want to use those timeouts to save a possession, they should have every right to and not be penalized. Instead, we’ve now added yet another rule to favor defense, for really no reason.

6) Timeouts within 30 seconds of a scheduled media timeout become a full timeout, with exception of first team timeout in second half. This one sounds great, but it’s largely symbolic and actually accomplishes very little. The restrictions are such that it will rarely come into effect. At most, it encourages coaches to hold timeouts until a TV timeout, which most already do anyway.

7) Eliminating ability of coaches to call timeout when ball is in play. More aping of the NBA. Again, if you reduce timeouts an appropriate amount, they are more valuable, and coaches should be able to use them however they want. This is another supposed problem that really is no problem at all, and doesn’t require a fix.

8) Stricter enforcement of resumption of play after timeouts and foul outs. Does this mean elimination of the free timeout after a player fouls out? If not, then this is also largely symbolic, and up to officials.

9) Rules with goal of reducing physicality. This and a reduction in timeouts were the only two changes (or in this case re-emphasis) needed. The “freedom of movement” rules were heavily emphasized two years ago and scoring went way up. Last year they were ignored; scoring took a nosedive. This year they’re on the list again, which is good, but this was the very first change the sport needed-not a shorter shot clock. Will referees actually enforce them across the country, or will coaches again cry a river if officials call fouls again? You’ll know the answer by the scoring averages.

10) Hanging on rim technical reduced to one shot. No idea why someone spent time worrying about this. Why? Another prime example of the movers and shakers in the sport fawning over the NBA.

11) Allowing pregame dunking. Something that hopefully included no more than 15 minutes of discussion. Don’t really care either way. Maybe adds a touch more entertainment. The downside is the risk of injury. But if players want to risk that to put on a slam dunk contest before a game…go for it.

12) Experimentation with six fouls in postseason. Did we mention that coaches seem to have an obsession with the NBA? Simply do not understand why the sport would need this.

Is it really too much to ask players to avoid fouling? (Especially in recent years?) If you want more scoring, you tell defensive players to back off and not commit fouls. Plus, the more fouls you allow, the more likely games are going to devolve into free throw exhibitions, something many of the same people advocating for this claim to detest. Again, another rule that wasn’t broken, yet those in their crush on the NBA think needs a “fix.” Take it or leave it-we’ll leave it. As well as many of the rest of these.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam

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