When one of the best coaches and one of the best teams in the country refuse even to try to score for nearly half a game, as Dean Smith and North Carolina did last week, college basketball needs a shot clock.
There must be forced action for a reason beyond the obvious, that the customers ought to get what they paid for and the entire sport could die of boredom. A shot clock, and perhaps even a three-point play to keep defenses honest, would get the game back where it belongs -- with the players.
In the wrong hands -- ironically, Smith is one of the few who runs a delay offense with imagination -- four corners is a coach's cop out, a way to rationalize losing a lead -- and the game -- by saying: "Well, this would have worked if only those guys could execute it."
There is a football analogy. It is the coach who, in the final two minutes, chooses not to attack, who runs clock-killing plays to set up an extremely long field goal and later lifts the burden from his shoulders with: "The kid just missed it."
So many coaches are so obsessed with stalling that countless games are, in fact, two games. One is 35 minutes of the artistry and the tactics that make college basketball special. The final five minutes are stallball.
It is the hoary NBA theory in reverse: the final two minutes of a college basketball game frequently are the worst.
Except that a week ago, in the final regular-season game against Duke, Smith infuriated the entire non-Carolina-blue hoop world by stalling for minutes at a time at the beginning of the game.
Surely the players were stunned.
"We don't second-guess him," guard Dave Colescott said. "We were behind him in it. If he had it to do all over again, he said he'd still do it. Actually, other people have made a big deal out of it. We just should have executed better."
Smith was just trying to control the tempo against a team he knew had a superior center. He carried it too far. Any collegiate shot-clock rule ought to keep both those points in mind.
There ought to be enough time before a team must shoot, perhaps as long as a minute, for it to be able to alter the tempo when the opposition changes defenses, from man to man to a zone.
That is what Smith had in mind when he flashed four corners late in the first half and with 8:02 left in the game. It failed dreadfully early but ultimately allowed the Tar Heels to win the rematch with Duke and also the ACC tournament.
In all, Carolina had 16 possessions in four corners -- and scored on 11 of them, including four layups and 14 of 16 free throws. But Carolina is as adept at the delay game as most others are inept.
Possibly, a shot clock need be used only in the final five minutes or so of a game. This would give a clearly inferior team a chance to score an upset in the only way possible -- by stalling. And some of the stall burden would be on the better team, if it failed to press early.
Every coach gets the stall itch.
"We were holding to win the game," said Duke's Bill Foster after his semifinal victory over North Carolina State in the ACC tournament Friday. He is one coach who rarely reins in his team.
The day before, the State coach, Norm Sloan, had boasted that there would be no "Wolf Pause" or "5 1/2 corners" from his team against the Blue Devils. Of course, State held the ball when it got the chance.
Did Smith consider holding the ball on Duke tonight?
"The only way we'd have held it tonight," he said, "is if we'd hired another two secretaries to answer the mail. I thought we had a great psychological advantage going in -- until (Bob) Bender got hurt.
"I thought all the pressure was on Duke last week, but then sometimes I overthink so don't pay any attention to it."
The one problem with a shot clock is that it makes life too easy for the defense. All any team must do is play reasonably tight man-for-man defense until the final 15 seconds or so, then pack a zone around the freethrow lane and force an outside shot.
There is an uncomplicated way to solve that, without eliminating zone defenses: Allow a team to play whatever defense it chooses when the shot clock is running, but also designate an area beyond which a field goal counts as three points.
The late ABA still had one of the best strategic and promotional ideas with its three -point rule -- and many arenas still have that half-moon-shaped line on their floors. If a shot clock comes to pass, every gym should have one.
And the game needs that additional bit of fine tuning.