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Impressions from first week of college hoops season

November 24, 2015 Columns No Comments
glatczak

A number of stories in the college basketball preseason talked about teams and their goal to “play faster” this year. They wanted to pick up the pace. Run run run.

San Diego State was one of those teams, and while we hear teams talk of this every year, at first it looked promising that in this case it was real. The Aztecs scored 86 in an exhibition. They got up and down the court against Illinois State, scoring 71 against a good defensive team. They scored 76 in a fast-paced game that wound up a loss at Utah.

Then, SDSU scored 71 in a closer-than-expected win over San Diego Christian, an NAIA school that lost to Pepperdine 91-46 two nights earlier.

Three days later, the Aztecs lost to Arkansas-Little Rock 49-43.

Similar happened to Creighton, which scored 93 and 103 in a pair of blowout wins before being held to 65 by an Indiana team not known for defense (see: Maui, Wake Forest). Ditto for Georgia Tech, which ran up 116 and 107 points against Cornell and Wisconsin-Green Bay, respectively, sandwiched around 69 against Tennessee. The Yellow Jackets then scored 68 in a one-point loss to East Tennessee State on Sunday.

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It hasn’t taken long for the analysis to come in on the new rule changes this college basketball season. Predictably, the NCAA is already proclaiming its rule changes are working. Just like it did two years ago.

How did that turn out as the season went on?

Others are fairly noting the current numbers, but also projecting that those numbers confirm their beliefs that the changes were the right ones.

Before anyone jumps to conclusions based on a handful of games, let us spell it out in our calmest Aaron Rodgers voice:

R-E-L-A-X.

B-R-E-A-T-H-E.

And: I-T-apostrophe-S E-A-R-L-Y.

The numbers are encouraging, there is no doubt. The sport needed some teams to pick up the pace. (Whether it needed all of them to be mandated to do so is an argument that will never go away, no matter how this season turns out). We’re also seeing that coaches really can change when they want to. And certainly freedom of movement is a good thing, just like it was two years ago (yet inexplicably was forgotten about last year, including by many of the same ones who wanted so many rule changes).

We’ve tried to refrain from snap reactions one way or another, though, exactly because the above are just a few examples of how quickly teams’ styles of play can revert back to their patterns of the past, even as they fully come into a season with noble intentions. Everyone acknowledges that pace tends to slow down when we reach conference play, but for SDSU it hasn’t even taken that long. Even games that are typically tailored for the most physically gifted teams to get out and run up a big score-such as playing San Diego Christian-are no guarantees that we’ll see them.

The point is, no matter what the data is saying right now, it could be much different in a couple months, or even a couple weeks. So let’s take a deep breath before getting too excited one way or the other over the results from a handful of games. There’s nothing wrong with taking a look at where things are at, but it’s going to be some time before we can make any sweeping declarations of if rule changes are working-or not.

On top of that is the assumption that because scoring is up that we unilaterally, automatically have a better game. That’s debatable. As we note repeatedly, the NBA has a lot more scoring than college basketball, and a good number of college fans can’t stand watching the NBA.

With that said, here are a few observations from the first week-plus of the season:

Scoring and pace are up-for now. The numbers show it. Our eyes see it. It’s clear a number of coaches prepared for the shorter shot clock in particular by planning to push the ball up the court quicker and are running plays faster. This is again the NBA influence; coaches are implementing even more NBA-like offenses (see below), which means they’re bound to attack quicker.

What’s really interesting is that we’re starting to see that coaches really can change if they want to. Some teams running more is a good thing, but even if we love Buffalo wings, does one want to eat it every day? The bigger question, though: when games get closer and opponents are more familiar and more of their own size, so to speak (read: less guarantee games), will they really stick with it?

Coaches prepared for the freedom of movement emphasis. Perhaps one of the more surprising developments is how fouls haven’t been as prevalent as expected. In fact, many games are getting done quicker. One might say that scoring has gone up not because of fouls, but because of the threat of fouls. Credit that to coaches and the NCAA both taking the emphasis on movement more seriously before this season, though it certainly begs the question of why they couldn’t have done so a year ago and spared us a season and summer of overreactions. However, the question remains: as the season goes on, will teams continue to respect the emphasis or will they push boundaries? And if they do, will referees force them to comply, or will they creep back to recent habits?

Zones are up, and they’ll only increase. We’ve seen some fast-paced games early on that slowed to a screaming halt when something changed-the team trailing went to a zone. This is one area where the 30-second clock puts offenses at a real disadvantage. First, it takes time to recognize the zone, and sometimes teams aren’t able to find shots in 20ish seconds. They compensate in following possessions by trying to attack zones too quickly and forcing contested shots. You’ll see more as the season goes on.

It’s too early to get overly excited about upsets: Some seem to think this year’s surprising results are coming at a completely unseen pace. How quickly their memories forget.

Last year we had NJIT over Michigan, Long Beach State over Kansas State, Appalachian State over Virginia Tech, Texas Southern defeating Michigan State, Incarnate Word over Nebraska, Yale topping Connecticut. To name just a few.

Surprises happen all the time in college basketball. They’re a big part of what make the sport so appealing. It is encouraging that, so far, the shorter shot clock has not restricted them from happening. But let’s not pretend that the shot clock is bringing about something we’ve never seen before. It is not. And the truer test is not a week of games after the rules were just changed, but how those rules are adjusted to by both sides over time. It’s entirely possible we could have very few upsets over the next month, and then these hot takes will look like overreactions.

You now can’t tell one offense from another. What we’re already seeing with the shorter shot clock is furthering a trend from recent years: offensive variety in the sport is almost gone. A few more fast breaks in guarantee games and a little quicker attack from NBA-like offenses doesn’t change the fact that there is virtually no difference now in most teams’ offensive plans.

We could not have another ball screen the rest of the season and we’ll have seen enough in the first week to fill us for the whole year. Everyone is running ball screens, ball screens, ball screens. Yawn.

Teams have little choice but to run pick-and-roll offenses, because that’s all the shot clock allows. Princeton passing and moving the ball side-to-side for 35 seconds and then burning Georgetown back door as the shot clock winds down? Can’t happen. Maybe enough people don’t care, especially when November has provided an early rash of upsets. From this view, though, the sport is much worse for the lack of natural diversity in play missing now that the rules used to allow.

What we have early on is the NBA Lite game wanted by commentators, some coaches (generally those bringing in the best talent) and a certain TV network. Even if scoring remains up all season and for seasons beyond, though, the rules are not a resounding win, and are a loss for those of us who enjoyed the multiple aspects the college game has typically produced. Saddest of all is that if the sport would’ve gone back to the 45-second shot clock and kept the freedom of movement rules in place, statistically we would be in exactly the same place.

More notes:

Drake and Western Kentucky met Monday in the quarterfinals of the Gulf Coast Showcase, one of the numerous exempt tournaments that has popped up in recent years. The Bulldogs and Hilltoppers were playing for only the second time ever, and the first time since the two played the best game in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, if not quite the defining one.

Western Kentucky defeated Drake 101-99 in overtime in a first round game in that year’s tourney, but only after Ty Rogers hit a near 30-footer at the buzzer of overtime to give the Hilltoppers the win. For those who remember, it was a heartbreaking end to a dream season for the Bulldogs, who came out of nowhere to win 28 games, the Missouri Valley Conference regular season and postseason titles, a national rank as high as 14th and a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, while capturing the hearts of the state of Iowa for one winter.

That game saw Drake rally from 16 points down in the final eight minutes of regulation to tie, only to see WKU win in stunning manner. The game was one for the ages, if perhaps not remembered as much as Stephen Curry’s heroics for Davidson that year or Mario Chalmers hitting the clutch shot that propelled Kansas to the national title.Fast forward to last night: Drake rallied from an 11-point second half deficit to defeat Western Kentucky 81-79-in overtime appropriately enough. The game also featured one of the best individual performances of this season, as Northwestern transfer Kale Abrahamson scored 41 points. His line included 13 of 23 shooting, 4 of 10 from three-point range, plus 11 of 11 at the foul line.

Drake advances to a semifinal in the tourney now, and if that wasn’t enough, the Bulldogs could’ve faced Central Michigan in the semis. The Chippewas are coached by none other than Keno Davis, coach of that 2007-08 Drake team. Alas, CMU was defeated by Weber State 63-60 in the quarterfinals…

Speaking of Weber State and the Big Sky Conference, the league is off to a very nice start. In addition to the Wildcats defeating a Central Michigan team that is the MAC favorites, Montana defeated Boise State, Sacramento State topped Arizona State and Montana State beat Wyoming…

Working as an SID at small college games on both the men’s and women’s basketball sides, right away can tell anyone the differences now in rules between the two sports are beyond confusing. You’re also seeing it on TV, where commentators on men’s games continue to ask if the rules now permit teams to inbound from halfcourt after a timeout in the final minute (you can on the women’s side, cannot on the men’s).

There’s nothing wrong with subtle differences between the two sports-there was never anything wrong with the two sports having different shot clocks in the past, different backcourt rules, etc. Overhauling both sports at the same time, though, may have been too much for most who are involved in both.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam

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