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2015-16 CBB Preview Questions: A different game, or is it?

November 3, 2015 Columns No Comments

College basketball’s Chicken Little phase has passed. The sky was allegedly falling, the sport was dubbed by some as “unwatchable,” in a crisis and two steps shy of oblivion, so this year we will have a game much different from the one we are used to.

Or maybe not.

Despite guarding a sport whose postseason ratings round-for-round continued to dominate those of the NBA, the NCAA basketball rules committee was coaxed by some loud but influential voices among coaches and media to make a host of alterations this summer, and those changes undoubtedly are the biggest overarching story entering the 2015-16 season.

We’re on record as being against most of them, while also questioning whether some will really be enforced. This issue has always been bigger than the tastes of the purist-minded, though, just as it’s bigger than the desires of some that have developed an almost creepy affection (far beyond simple appreciation) for the NBA and international versions of basketball.

The real questions entering the season are: will the average fan notice a change? And if they do, will they like it?

Let’s be up front right away: some fans don’t care how the sausage is made. Most of them are watching strictly to see Ol’ Alma Mater, Land Grant U. or their office pool pick win. They don’t particularly concern themselves with the details, as long as their team wins.

Even for those who are more persnickety or protective-take your pick-of their college basketball, the changes likely will be less noticeable than some might think.

Offensively, shaving five more seconds off the shot clock only nudges us even more towards where much of the game has already gone, which is a focus on set plays, ball screens and isolations. For our money, this is mind-numbing dullness, but if watching 72 ball screens in a game makes your heart go pitter-patter, then you’ll undoubtedly be celebrating when this year brings time for 73 & 74!

As has been discussed this summer by many, expect more teams to use token pressure defensively. This is nothing new-teams like San Diego State have been using it for several years-but you will certainly see more of it.

It must be noted: this is not the same as full-court pressure with the intent of turning a team over and speeding the game up. The goal is to use defense as a time-waster, leaving offenses with about 20-22 seconds for a possession. In other words, we now will have an entrenched defensive version of the “false motion” that so many detested before.

Zones already were on the increase too, and you’ll see even more. And why not? This isn’t the NBA; Klay Thompsons and Kyle Korvers or even Danny Greens are few and far between. Even those teams that do have zonebusters will struggle to get them free in essentially 20-second possessions, including those harried final eight seconds with the clock winding down.

About that dreaded false motion, there won’t be much less of it because there never was as much as the urban legend suggested. Reviewing games in the offseason, most teams using motion were working for shots, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s good offense; it’s just not always instant offense that some seem to expect. And there could be a case for some teams being too selective in their shots. As far as problems go, though, the ball screen is far more invasive in offenses than false motion ever was.

Other changes won’t be noticed in the least. The five-second closely guarded rule has been called less and less in recent years, and eliminating it only formalizes the guard isolation on the perimeter and encourages still more dribbling. Coaches’ timeouts just before a TV timeout were annoying, but instances of them were still rare, and expect coaches to merely save those timeouts for the end of the game now, offsetting whatever is gained with one fewer timeout. The semi-circle under the basket has always been the most overrated rule in basketball, and moving it out another foot won’t change that. On average, the circle comes into play about once a game.

As far as officials really enforcing rules allowing freedom of movement, color us skeptical at best. They say this year they really mean it and won’t back down. They said that two years ago, too.

So, at least there will be lots more scoring, right?

Quite possibly not. The shorter shot clock will likely result in a few more possessions per game, which should bring at least a few more points.

Over the final seven games of the NIT last year, though, including the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals, teams averaged 66.29 points per game-below the regular season average-and that was with the 30-second clock and included an overtime contest. Obviously this is an ultra-small sample size, but it shows there is no guarantee whatsoever that the shorter shot clock will result in even a slight increase in scoring.

If there is a significant uptick, it will be because of one thing: fouls. Just as calling fouls resulted in a 3.5 ppg increase from 2012-13 to 2013-14, if officials stick with doing so the entire season (again, we’re not hopeful), scoring could make a similar jump this year. We’ve said it before and will continue to say it: the only changes needed were reining in fouling defenses and limiting teams to three timeouts per game.

If scoring only increases slightly, then one might say college hoops this year looks almost the exact same as it did last year. Note those last two words: last year.

College basketball will continue to look far, far different from what it did 20-25 years ago in its heyday. It has now shaved a third from what the shot clock was in the early 1990s. Shortening the shot clock has not increased scoring, but it has prompted a nationwide obsession with halfcourt defense and a plummet in the variety of styles in the sport.

We most likely will not see more teams running because of these rule changes. We will not see more teams putting in full-court pressure defenses. Nor will we see more teams adopting patient offenses that attempt to wear defenses down, which would give coaches pause before emphasizing defense too much, because with only 30 seconds now they can’t do it if they wanted to.

Significant rule changes should have encouraged offensive innovation and provided motivation for coaches to focus on offense OR defense. That’s how the nation could have teams from UNLV and Oklahoma to Loyola Marymount and Southern averaging around 100 ppg, Georgetown and Princeton allowing 50 ppg, and all in the same year. Yet from all reports this summer, when these rule changes were announced, where did coaches go to in their labs? Right back to defense.

The best case scenario this year most likely is this: scoring goes up a fair amount early when a bunch of fouls are called, similar to 2013-14. It goes back down again when freedom of movement fades as the season goes on. The best coaches still find ways to win, and the season ends with another decent NCAA Tournament, and  a “decent” NCAA Tournament is still one of the best sporting events in the world. NBA-over-college fans still don’t flock to the sport, though, because there’s no reason for them to watch a 65% version of the NBA, which is where college basketball is teetering on the edge of now.

And you know what? That would still be OK, because many college hoops fans really weren’t looking for change anyway.

NCAA Tournament ratings proved it-what part of “highest average viewership in 22 years” indicated a sport that was “unwatchable?” Even last year, most college basketball fans enjoyed how the shot clock still enabled teams to find different ways to win and whose unpredictability in the postseason is unmatched. Some like college basketball precisely because it isn’t the NBA, and they really, really don’t want it to look more like the NBA.

Sure, the game could’ve used some tuning. It didn’t need a keg of dynamite. The desires to overhaul only went to show just how out of touch many movers and shakers in the sport are with how fans actually felt about it. Suggesting that college basketball is inferior to the NBA, international or women’s games because, for instance, it has halves and not quarters is flat-out ridiculous, something nearly all fans don’t spend two seconds thinking about.

College basketball, specifically the NCAA Tournament, is special not just because of upsets, but because of the possibility of them. If the 30-second shot clock continues to allow for the latter, then fans will be fine with it.

The worst case scenario is much bleaker. Under that, scoring doesn’t go up at all and we merely get more missed shots and ugly possessions. Worse, the rule changes affect college basketball’s crown jewel, the NCAA Tournament, resulting in favorites with NBA-level guards dominating and the unpredictability all but disappearing.

The worst nightmare for college basketball is the NCAA Tournament becoming a predictable event, much the way the women’s tournament has. Regardless of what one’s opinion on the talent in the women’s game is (you won’t find us knocking it here), the fact is its tourney has become an exceptionally dull watch until very late rounds because of the lack of national balance.

When the same teams advance every year, there’s really no reason to do an office pool. Interest in the NCAA Tournament will nosedive. A few fans whose teams benefit will be happy, some will take what they get, while others soon might come to realize hockey in person is really pretty cool.

It was understandable to want changes in college basketball. There’s no denying we’ve seen too much defense and a sameness on offense in recent years. The bottom line, though, is these rule changes should have encouraged a better balance between offense and defense. If they do not do that-in consequences intended or unintended-then, as harsh as it might be to say, they are a failure, a couple more possessions and a few more points per game or not.

Other quick hitter questions as we head into the season:

How will Kentucky fare with an almost all-new team? John Calipari will reload again with freshmen, which is nothing we haven’t heard before. For anyone who doesn’t appreciate what the Wildcats in all their youth did last year, though (prohibitive favorites entering the season, undefeated into April, etc.), simply remember that it was only the 2013 NIT when Robert Morris was knocking off Kentucky in the first round.

How will Duke fare with an almost all-new team? Some will dub this is heresy, but let’s be honest: at this point, there isn’t that much difference between Kentucky and Duke. To stay on top, the Blue Devils are every bit as willing to recruit one-year players as UK is. And that’s their choice. But there’s also a risk/reward factor to building this way, and it must be remembered even with an all-time great on the bench like Mike Krzyzewski that Final Fours under this model aren’t a given. (Again, see: Kentucky, 2013)

Is Maryland really a top five team, national favorite even? Or are they a club that won a lot of close games last year against unfamiliar Big Ten opponents, has to develop chemistry between returnees and newcomers and will miss Dez Wells more than anyone thinks? Just remember, it could be somewhere in the middle or even lean towards the latter and this team could still advance deeper in the NCAA Tournament than it did last year.

Along the same lines: are North Carolina and Indiana real Final Four contenders, or merely rated as such because of experience and/or brand name? It’s logical that preseason prognostications lean in favor of teams who return the most, or traditional powers for that matter, so there’s no blame to assign here. But caution is advised, as these were two teams who both leaked serious oil defensively last year. Especially in the case of Hoosiers, we’re talking about a squad that had no size last year, and it seems freshman Thomas Bryant is being counted on to carry an awfully heavy load in the frontcourt.

How far can the country’s best backcourt take Wichita State? Even with limited frontcourt scoring behind Darius Carter and a young bench stepping up by committee last year, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet led Wichita State to the Sweet 16. If someone can pick up Carter’s scoring tab and Connor Frankamp or others add even a little more firepower to fill in for Tekele Cotton’s defensive toughness, a second Final Four in four years is not out of the question.

Will people seriously wonder if Bo Ryan can work miracles after this season? The Wisconsin coach already is receiving an ultimate sign of respect with his team inside the top 20 in most polls despite very little tangible evidence returning to support it. Just two of seven players who averaged more than eight minutes per game return, which might suggest that there was little depth behind those seven, right? No program is better at developing players, though, and it’ll be thoroughly intriguing to see how much progress this young team makes.

How will the veterans blend with the newcomers at LSU and Texas A&M? And California too. All three schools are expected to be in or at least on the fringe of the top 25 after bringing in ballyhooed recruiting classes. All three also return an experienced nucleus. This isn’t to create false drama, but it’s a fact that in cases like these there can be a chemistry adjustment as players learn roles.

Can the Big East stay among the country’s elite…or get even better? With 10 NCAA tourney bids over the last two years, the ‘new’ Big East has been darn good (and if you’re not seeing it, you need to work harder to find Fox Sports 1). At the same time, postseason success has been limited, leading to some weak rationalizing of the regular season proficiency (the league is of course starting to get the ‘gaming the RPI’ treatment). More likely it has simply come down to matchups, but this year the league should get another chance to vanquish the last two years. Villanova, Georgetown, Butler and Xavier return considerable experience, while Creighton or Marquette could easily replace St. John’s for a year as another capable of being on that top 40 fringe.

Can Gonzaga’s backcourt grow up to support its frontcourt sufficiently? The Bulldogs are loaded up front-any team in the country would take Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer. At the same time, the Zags have questions at the guard spots with Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell departed. Josh Perkins will be key coming back from injury, and Eric McClellan could be a pleasant surprise if his scoring is closer to the 14.3 ppg he put up at Vanderbilt in 2013-14 than his 1.9 ppg with Gonzaga last year.

Has the leggings fad passed? We can only hope. Players wearing long johns under basketball shorts=yuck. Compression leggings should be strictly for practice; for games they’re like wearing a football jersey to church. When it means something, look good, not like you’re going for a 6 a.m. jog in Minnesota in mid-January. NBA players wearing them is no excuse.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam

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