The solution to fix the scoring epidemic in college basketball—reducing the shot clock—is like a fat guy deciding he’s going to lose weight by simply cutting candy bars out of his diet. It’ll help, but there’s a lot more work to be done.
Shortening the clock from 35 seconds to 30 is going to happen and there’s reason to believe it could happen this offseason.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo recently came out in favor of the shortened clock, and ESPN.com’s Andy Katz did an informal poll of college coaches that had 28 out of 37 in favor of reducing the clock. The men’s basketball rules committee will vote on the shortened clock in May, according to Katz.
The historically low scoring from this past year makes it obvious that something needs to be done. According to Ken Pomeroy’s data, teams averaged 67.49 points per game this season, the lowest total since 1952. That's what has sparked the reactionary shot clock discussion.
But shortening the clock is not only the reactionary response; it’s a temporary distraction from the real issues.
Here’s what Izzo told WWLS radio in Oklahoma City:
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.
This makes sense. Shortening the clock will lead to more possessions and to more points. But when you really start to examine its impact, you hardly see any progress.
Pomeroy’s numbers the last 10 seasons show that pace of play has slowed, but it has more to do with style of play than the clock.
I asked Pomeroy to send me the five lowest-possession games from this past year, and I went through the play-by-play data of each game to see how often a possession went more than 30 seconds*.
*This isn’t an exact science, because several seconds elapses between a shot attempt and a rebound—play-by-play data have them occurring simultaneously—and the game clock does not stop when the ball goes through the basket until the last minute of a game and last minute of overtime. This means another 10 or 12 seconds could roll off the game clock before the ball is inbounded and the shot clock begins, so if the play-by-play data shows 37 seconds between a made basket and the next shot, it's possible that only 27 seconds had gone off the shot clock.
Here is the data from the five-slowest games:
|Game||Tempo||31-plus second possessions|
|E. Michigan at N. Illinois||47.36||15|
|South Florida at Seton Hall||47.82||17|
|Minnesota at Nebraska||48.5||19|
|Savannah St. at W. Illinois||48.86||18|
|N. Dakota St. at IUPU Fort Wayne||49.03||12|
Let’s take the extreme from this data set and examine the Minnesota-Nebraska game. Let’s say that a reduced shot clock would have affected all 19 of those possessions—it’s more likely that it would have affected closer to half.
If you assume that a shot or turnover would have occurred five seconds earlier in each possession, that adds up to 1 minute, 35 seconds. The average possession this season took 18.2 seconds off the clock. That means that somewhere between two and three possessions for each team could have been added to that game with the shorter shot clock.
So if we assume that reducing the clock leads to two or three more possessions for each team per game, how much of an impact would that really make?
History says not much. When the shot clock was reduced from 45 seconds to 35 seconds in 1994, scoring went up from 73.6 points per game to 75.0. Shooting percentages dropped from 45.2 percent to 44.3.
That’s something, but the product didn’t look much different then and it’s not going to now. You could reduce the clock from 35 to 24, but the justifiable concern there is that the college game will morph into a poor man’s version of the NBA with more isolation. That will be a sloppier version of what we see now.
The real issues for why scoring is down is something I examined in March.
What's obvious from my research is that coaches are influencing pace of play more than the shot clock. Coaches have decided there’s too much risk in allowing transition opportunities for opponents, and that’s slowing the game down.
Reducing the clock is hardly going to change scoring, something Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan pointed out to Katz.
I'm OK with 30 seconds. [But] when they say go to 30, they'll think 'Oh man, the points will go up.' People are much more sophisticated on defense, bodies stronger. There is a lot more than the shot clock on why scoring is down.
Ryan is right that defenses are more sophisticated and players are stronger. That's part of the evolution of the game. But what should not be part of the evolution of the game is how physical officials have allowed it to become. This is what should be the real concern for college coaches. That is what the rule committee needs to address.
Changing how the game is called what could have a noticeable difference.
It’s also not an easy fix. Since officials work for conferences, it would take everyone on the same page. It would also force coaches to adjust how they coach their players to defend and to go through the growing pains of watching officials try to adjust. Some are probably uncomfortable with this.
That's why reducing the clock is a change they can get behind.
The rules committee should go ahead and reduce the clock, but they cannot stop there. Do not say that “we’ve fixed college basketball.”
A fat guy doesn’t get skinny by ditching candy bars, and college basketball isn’t going to look any better by simply ditching five seconds.