Why Is Scoring Down in College Basketball?

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Why Is Scoring Down in College Basketball?
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The fast-paced, free-flowing game that evolved from what James Naismith invented is not so fast-paced and free-flowing anymore. For the first time since 1982, college basketball teams are on pace to average less than 68 points per game.  

The current average through March 4 games is 67.58, according to college basketball stat guru Ken Pomeroy. At this pace, we will experience the worst scoring year since 1952.

Here are some examples of the carnage: On Nov. 30, Georgetown beat Tennessee 37-36 on national TV. On Jan. 26, Eastern Michigan beat Northern Illinois 42-25, with the Huskies scoring only four points in the first half. On Feb. 6, Kansas, a blue blood of this game, scored only 13 points in the first half at TCU. 

Scoring is unequivocally, statistically down, and there are three major reasons why. First, the game has slowed down substantially. Second, shooting percentages are at an all-time low. Finally, officials have allowed the game to become too physical. 


Why the Game Has Slowed

Pomeroy, who runs the stats site KenPom.com, has data that shows the game has been slowing down for years. The numbers on Pomeroy's site go back to 2004 and show that this season's average tempo of 66.0 possessions per game is the slowest in the last 10 seasons. 

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Paul Westhead

The perception is that coaches want more control, and they are slowing their offenses down to get it. Never do you see teams like Paul Westhead's Loyola Marymount, who pushed the pace and averaged 122.4 points per game in 1990. Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn wrote about Westhead's Loyola system before the season, a piece that longed for those days of more possessions and more points. 

Those days are gone. Northwestern State plays the fastest tempo in the country and averages 75.6 possessions per game, a snail's pace compared to the 103.6 possessions Loyola averaged in 1990, according to Winn's calculations.  

In major conferences, it's even rarer to see anyone try to play fast. North Carolina, Ole Miss and DePaul are the only teams in one of the six major conferences that rank in the top 20 in possessions per game, according to Pomeroy's data. 

If there's a misconception about pace of play, however, it's that slowing the game down is all on the offense. After all, why would a coach want fewer fast-break points? 

"Defenses are more geared towards stopping transition than they were 10 years ago, and that stops teams from getting fast-break opportunities," Pomeroy said in a phone interview from his home in Salt Lake City. "Typically, there's more offensive efficiency in fast-break opportunities than half-court chances."

Take the Georgetown and Tennessee game, for example. Neither team scored a fast-break bucket in the final five minutes, and it would have benefited both squads to score fast. 

According to Hoop-Math.com, the Hoyas shoot an effective field-goal percentage of 61.5 percent on their first shots that go up in the initial 10 seconds of the shot clock, and that number drops to 46.5 percent in the final 20 seconds of the shot clock. Tennessee's percentages are less drastic: 51.72 and 48.2, respectively. 

The difference in efficiency for Georgetown is the norm. 

Coaches realize this, so they try to combat those numbers by getting their team back on defense and sending fewer players to the offensive glass. Neither Georgetown nor Tennessee had a player pull down an offensive rebound in the final 12:48 of that game. 

This isn't unusual. Look at possession data in the last 10 years and how offensive rebounding numbers have decreased. 

Year Off. Reb. % Adj. Tempo PPG
2004 33.8 67.7 69.55
2005 33.8 67.3 69.21
2006 33.2 67.0 69.17
2007 33.5 66.9 69.46
2008 32.9 67.0 69.55
2009 32.9 66.5 68.82
2010 32.7 67.3 69.30
2011 32.3 66.7 69.05
2012 32.1 66.1 68.01
2013 31.8 66.0 67.58

Note: Offensive rebounding percentage and adjusted tempo statistics via KenPom.comPoints per game statistics via NCAA.com

 

Shorten the Shot Clock

Since there is no way to mandate coaches sending more players to the glass, the obvious solution to the pace-of-play problem is to reduce the shot clock. 

When the NCAA reduced the shot clock from 45 seconds to 35 seconds in 1994, scoring went from 73.6 points per game to 75.0. Pomeroy said he believes we will soon see a change from 35 seconds to 30 seconds, and scoring would again see a slight increase. 

But would a point or two really help the game that much? And at what cost? 

"On a possession level, reducing the shot clock is going to benefit the defense," Pomeroy said. 

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Stevens, the head coach at Butler, told me the same thing in November for a story that I wrote on how reducing the shot clock would impact college basketball at NBCSports.com:

I'd say a majority of our shots come well before that time," Stevens said of a 30-second clock. "The 24-second shot clock is a different animal all together, but the 30-second I think there’s enough time to feel a secondary break go into action or go into multiple reversals and getting something done. 

I don't think there’s any doubt that it wouldn't change the game drastically if you did that, but I do think you end up more isolated earlier. With the thought that the best college players are leaving after one or two years, are college players going to really thrive in that situation? I don't think that would be the case.

 

Where Did All the Shooters Go? 

If shortening the clock isn't the answer, how do we get more shots to fall? 

The NCAA rules committee tried to fix scoring four years ago by backing up the three-point line to 20 feet, nine inches. The premise was that moving the line back one foot would give big men more space to operate in the post. 

Looking at Pomeroy's data over the last 10 years, it's difficult to see much of a change from shooting outside or inside the arc, though moving the line back did produce a small drop. 

Year 3PA/FGA 3-point % 2-point %
2004 32.7 34.4 48.0
2005 33.0 34.6 48.0
2006 33.2 34.8 48.1
2007 34.2 34.9 48.7
2008 34.4 35.1 48.4
2009 33.1 34.2 48.0
2010 32.6 34.2 47.7
2011 32.9 34.4 47.8
2012 32.9 34.3 47.8
2013 33.0 33.9 47.5

Note: All statistics via KenPom.com.

 

The two data points of note are three-point and two-point shooting percentages this season. Both are at record lows, but only by mere tenths of a percentage point. 

If the shot clock is decreased, we might see these numbers drop even more. As Stevens pointed out, shorter possessions would lead to more isolation plays late in the clock (read: more bad shots). 

When the shot clock was reduced in 1994, field-goal percentages dropped from 45.2 percent from the previous season to 44.3. The number of three-pointers attempted went up—14.9 to 16.5—but percentages also dropped from 35.4 to 34.5. 

With all of this in mind, shortening the clock may not make the game that much more aesthetically pleasing. After all, no one wants to see more bricks—which brings us to the biggest issue. 

 

Call a Foul!

This season, according to Pomeroy's data, players are shooting 69.2 percent from the free-throw line. That is a good mark historically—it's tied for second-best in the last 10 seasons—but officials are sending players to the line less often. 

The following numbers reflect the number of free throws attempted divided by field goal attempts. 

Year FTA/FGA
2004 37.1
2005 36.5
2006 36.1
2007 36.7
2008 36.3
2009 36.4
2010 37.7
2011 37.7
2012 36.4
2013 35.9

Note: Free throw statistics via KenPom.com.

 

The concern is that if officials call more fouls, there will be too many stoppages and the game will somehow be less entertaining. 

No one was complaining in 1991 when scoring hit its peak. That season, the free throw rate was 38.3 percent, which is higher than any of the last 10 seasons. 

What's the solution to low scoring?

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So why is the NCAA not encouraging officials to blow their whistles? As Pomeroy said:

It's a really hard issue to solve. You can clean up the contact and call a bunch of fouls, and if you're able to do that, I'll be really impressed. It's so much more difficult to do that in college basketball than it is the NBA because you have conferences that hire their own officials and you don't really have a powerful authority.

He's right. Each league needs to hire its own officials. But it's not an easy issue to solve, and that's why scoring keeps falling. It's becoming increasingly difficult to not only make a shot, but to get a good one, free of contact. 

Can this be fixed? Possibly. 

But the NCAA doesn't need a Band-Aid or a reduced shot clock—it needs sweeping changes. It needs to enforce the rules of the game. It needs, as frightening as this may sound, to give itself more power when it comes to handling the officials. 

Naismith help us.

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