Even though this year’s NCAA championship game between Louisville and Michigan was one of the best title contests in years, college basketball as a whole could use some upgrading. This is not a flippant judgment by some cranky outsider. My comments come from a sincere concern for the direction that the collegiate game is trending.
And I'm not alone.
Basketball analytics expert Ken Pomeroy points to the gradual slowing pace of the game:
From this year to last year, the pace of the game isn’t really that much different. But you look over the course of a decade, and it’s kind of gradually decreased year-by-year. It’s finally getting to the point that we’re seeing record lows of scoring because of it.
The Boston Globe’s Ron Glier gets even more specific:
In early February the 347 Division 1 men’s basketball teams were averaging 67.7 points a game, the lowest since 1982 (67.6). The final season statistics have not been calculated by the NCAA, but considering scores tend to drop in February and early March because games are more competitive, the national scoring average could drop to its lowest figure since 1952.
The Associated Press’s Paul Newberry points out that:
This season, teams are taking an average of 55.2 shots per game, which is roughly on par with the past few seasons but pales in comparison to the 1950s, `60s and early 70s, when the average was generally in the high 60s.
More than simply trying to find ways to put more shots in the air or points on the board, specific steps need to be taken to improve the quality of play. Adjustments to some basic rules are the quickest way to have a positive impact.
Here are four college basketball rule changes that would, without a doubt, make a difference.
One of the least troublesome rule changes that could be immediately implemented is to widen the lane.
Enlarging the lane would spread the court more and open up penetration opportunities by preventing teams from clogging the middle so easily. Low-post players would be that much further away from the basket and would unpack the paint.
A couple of years ago, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim stated that he was in favor of moving the three-point line back a foot and widening the lane. “It’ll take the banging out of the game and clean up the game. It’ll put the finesse back in.”
While there seem to be less and less players who are back-to-the-basket specialists, this rule change would not eliminate the importance of low post play or paint touches.
To go along with the previous rule change of widening the lane, a defensive three-second violation should be instituted at the college level much like the NBA did in 2001. Defending players should have to "guard a man" and not just the basket.
This would even apply to teams that are employing zone defenses. They would still have to be "within arm's length and in a guarding position." A player like St. John’s Chris Obekpa, the nation’s best returning shot blocker, couldn’t just camp out in the middle and get ready to swat shots as opponents drove the lane. He’d have to actively check a man or else the Red Storm would get T-ed up.
The positive impact on the quality of the game is obvious. Rather than sitting back, packing the lane and being able to clog the middle, teams would have to get out on the court and defend. This, along with a widened lane, would keep things more active, more interesting and more open.
Hand-checking isn't defense. Or maybe I should say that hand-checking should not be tolerated and refs should take action on it by blowing their whistles. Finding a dribbler with momentary contact is one thing. Grabbing a dribbler or pushing a player with a hand or forearm simply has to be stopped.
Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer described the practices of two top collegiate programs:
Take Louisville and Marquette, for example. Those teams advanced deep into the NCAA tournament because their coaches are smart enough to test the limits of what the rules allow: Poke, clutch and hip-check the man you’re guarding to disrupt offensive flow.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino used to call this his “Mother-in-Law Defense,” as in constant pressure and harassment. Not politically correct, but a great description of the intent.
Just before this year’s March Madness began, CBS Sports Network college basketball analyst Wally Szczerbiak remarked
If I was a player I would want to play in a system where I was able to play basketball not football or rugby like some of the Big East and Big 10 schools do.
Does limiting the tactics that on-ball defenders have at their disposal create bigger challenges for defenses? Absolutely.
But until hand-checking is reduced in college basketball, be ready for more lower-scoring "basketbrawl" matches to break out next season.
Michigan State's Tom Izzo is one of the most highly respected coaches in college basketball. His Spartans are known for the intense pressure they apply on their opponents on the defensive end of the court. You don't see much playing time for Izzo if you aren't ready to get after it on D.
NBCSports.com's Rob Dauster quoted Izzo recently when MSU's sideline leader offered his ideas of "what he thought were a couple ways that the nationwide scoring drought could be addressed. Namely, reducing the shot clock."
One of the guys I have great respect for — Johnny Dawkins, who is at Stanford — and we were in our meetings the other day, and he said, ‘We have the slowest game in the world. As you say, the international is less. The pro is less. The women’s is less. And here we are with 35 [seconds].
The NBA and FIBA use a 24-second shot clock, and women’s college basketball uses a 30-second clock despite the fact that they don’t have a 10-second backcourt violation.
If Izzo is in favor of speeding the game up, that speaks volumes. Most people would think that MSU's cagy coach would prefer controlling the game and the game clock even more. I guess this is how serious of a situation college basketball is facing.
But, not everyone believes that changing to a shorter shot clock will “fix the game.” SI.com’s Andy Glockner looks at the issue of quality of play in college hoops from a different perspective:
College basketball can effect more change simply by cracking down on handchecking and chucking cutters in the lane, and start giving the benefit of the doubt on block/charge calls to the offense. Forcing more possessions into the current overly physical box could actually have a worsening effect, especially as more and more coaches continue to eschew offensive rebounding in order to limit transition opportunities for opponents. Teams will continue to end up in more halfcourt sets, but now with fewer seconds to operate, which will definitely lead to more shots (and more turnovers), but almost certainly not better shots or more artful possessions.
While Glockner makes valid points, I will go with the opinions of a coach (Izzo) with skins on the wall and a coach (Dawkins) who was an elite-level player in his time. Their perspectives carry more weight in my book. If teams want to use all or most of the shot clock, nothing will stop them from working the ball until the last seconds of the possession. But lowering the shot clock to 30 would at least create more possessions and more shots.