College basketball games are too long, but quick fixes could be made


Scenes like this — the game stopped because of a timeout — are far too common these days in college basketball. (Garry Jones/AP)
John Feinstein
Columnist February 1

 College basketball isn’t broken. There’s too much that is good about the game to make a statement quite that dire.

But it could certainly use some fixing.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

This isn’t about the “one-and-done” rule, which needs to go the way of New Coke, or even the extraordinary arrogance of NCAA President Mark Emmert and his college-president cronies who think that if they keep claiming that “student-athletes” are amateurs often enough, the whole issue of giving athletes a voice will just go away.

This is about the way the game is played.

The NCAA rules committee made two important changes last spring to how the game is officiated. It ordered referees to crack down on hand-checking and also told them to learn what is a charge and what is a blocking foul.

Both were good ideas in concept. Hand-checking had gotten completely out of control, and the cardinal rule of defense had clearly become that the best way to stop someone with the ball was to get somewhere in their path and then fall down.

The changes have had mixed results. Early in the season, players were being called for hand-checks during pregame handshakes. Games lost any sense of flow because any attempt to play defense on the perimeter brought a whistle. As the season has moved into conference play, the better officials have gotten the hang of it: If a player’s movement is affected by contact, it’s a foul. If he goes past the defender even though there’s a hand on him, don’t stop the game and take away the offensive player’s advantage just to show your supervisor that you’re cracking down on hand-checks.

Unfortunately, weaker officials are still calling everything. But it has gotten better.

The block charge will always be the toughest call in basketball. It has been called better this year — the benefit of the doubt on a close call now going to the offensive player most of the time. That’s a welcome change from past years, when players began flopping during warmups.

But there’s more. Other changes are needed to bring some flow back to the games. Here are some of the issues and some solutions.

Issue: The games are much too long.

There are far too many timeouts. Because the NCAA is a slave to television, there are now nine mandatory TV timeouts — euphemistically called “media timeouts” — per game. This is true even if a game isn’t on TV. Beyond that, each coach is allowed five timeouts, four of them allegedly “30-second” timeouts that usually last a minute, the fifth a “full” timeout, thus allowing TV two more full breaks.

TV timeouts these days last at least two minutes, and often longer because of a report from a sideline reporter or the need to hold the game a little longer to promote what’s coming up next on the network. That means at minimum there are 22 minutes of full timeouts in most games and another eight minutes in “30-second” timeouts. That’s 30 solid minutes of nothing going on per game. What’s more, with the game being stopped and started constantly, it’s very difficult for a game to get any rhythm.

The NCAA tournament is even worse. The breaks there are closer to 2:30 and there’s another full timeout added in the first half. That means the dead time is closer to 40 minutes and halftime is 20 minutes long. That’s a full hour in each game when no one is playing basketball. It’s amazing the games are as good as they are under the circumstances.

Solution: TV has to have its timeouts because the rights fees being paid are so high. But it does not have to stretch the timeouts with promos and sideline reports and on-camera shots of the “talent” doing the games. More importantly, because TV is giving them at least nine timeouts already, coaches don’t need five more. Give them two full timeouts that last one minute and one 30-second timeout that actually lasts 30 seconds. One minute is plenty of time for a timeout. Most coaches spend the second minute of TV timeouts repeating themselves or talking among themselves.

Issue: The game shouldn’t be stopped when someone fouls out.

As it stands now, a team gets a free timeout because a player fouls out. Technically, a coach has 30 seconds to substitute when a player fouls out. It actually takes about two seconds.

Solution: No free timeout anymore. When someone fouls out, the players on the floor must line up for the free throw and the sub should be made immediately. Just play.

Issue: The notion that every player must slap every teammate’s hand after his first free throw is maddening. It also slows the game down even more.

Solution: Very simple. Once the official gives the ball to a foul shooter for his first shot, no one can make any kind of contact with him until after he has completed his free throws.

Issue: The endgame.

This is a problem at every level of basketball, but it has gotten completely out of hand in the college game. Cutting back on timeouts would help, but the biggest problem is trailing teams that start fouling with three minutes left and keep fouling until the last 10 seconds even if they’re still down 10.

Twenty-three years ago, the “double-bonus” was put into the game, meaning that teams automatically shot two free throws after an opponent’s 10th foul of the half instead of a one-and-one. It was meant to discourage teams from fouling late. It hasn’t worked. Teams still keep fouling, in part because even if a player makes both free throws, you can try to trade two for three. Sometimes it works.

More often, it just extends the game. The last minute of a game can take an eternity and only occasionally do the fouling tactics lead to miracle comebacks.

Solution: After a team’s 12th foul, make any foul three shots. And, after a team’s 15th foul, give the team that is fouled two shots and the ball. This will force teams to think twice about when to start fouling and how often to foul. If a game goes into overtime, everyone goes back to zero fouls and the third foul puts you into one-and-one, the fifth into the double-bonus and the seventh into the triple-bonus.

Coaches will argue that this will make miraculous comebacks more difficult. Not necessarily. Often when a team plays good defense in the end-game, it leads to quicker comebacks that actually involve playing basketball, not walking up and down the court to the foul line.

No matter how much you love college basketball, you don’t want to watch free throw shooting contests or NCAA tournament games that take close to three hours. The fixes aren’t that difficult. Just make them.

For more by John Feinstein, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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