Last summer, concerned about declining scoring and rising game times, the NCAA instituted a series of rules changes designed to make the sport more entertaining and more watchable. It shortened the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds, reduced how many and how often timeouts can be called and emphasized an existing rule about how physical defenders can be with players cutting for a pass.
The new rules worked as the sport’s governing body hoped. Scoring rose without diluting the quality of offense. Games moved more rapidly, especially at the end, which had so often become foul-fests. Teams took four more possessions per game compared to last season. Essentially, there’s more basketball in college basketball games.
“Overall, the rule changes were successful,” said Belmont Coach Rick Byrd, the outgoing chair of the NCAA rules committee. “The positive thing to me is, I worried, is efficiency, going to be affected? Is it going to be harder to get good shots? I think the efficiency is as good, if not better. I think the game is a better game this year.”
The reduction of the shot clock would inherently lead to more possessions, but administrators and coaches didn’t know if it would make games sloppier. Numbers suggest, if anything, the shorter shot clock has improved offensive play, with the faster pace actually helping players find rhythm.
Teams scored have 73 points per game, up 5.4 from last season, the lowest-scoring year in five decades and the culmination of scoring decreases for 13 of 15 seasons. Despite more possessions, turnovers have stayed static. With five fewer seconds to work with, offensive execution hasn’t suffered. Teams scored 1.03 points per possession on average last season, and this year they scored 1.04 points per possession.
Byrd noticed a telling trait about teams with deliberate offenses, successful teams like Virginia and Wisconsin serving as the poster children. If they had waited until eight or 10 seconds remained on the shot clock last year before making a concerted effort to find a shot, they still waited until eight or 10 seconds remained on the shot clock this year. Offensive sets like Wisconsin’s “Swing,” intricate as they are, didn’t take 35 to unfold. Teams were just exhausting those five seconds because they could.
“There’s just less false offense, less piddling around,” Byrd said. “The longer the shot clock, the longer teams will do nothing.”
Still, Byrd did not advocate for a further reduction of the shot clock. Already, he believes, college basketball teams have become overly reliant on dribble-drive offense, in which a guard penetrates for a shot or to find an open teammate. Shortening the shot clock further would only increase the uniformity and drive out complex offenses like Princeton’s and variants of it, such as the sets employed by Georgetown.
Byrd praised officials for sticking with the emphasis on preventing defenses from hand-checking guards and bumping cutters. Usually, he said, points of emphasis are employed early in the season, dissipate with conference play and are utterly forgotten come the tournament. This year, Byrd said, officials have kept at it and players and coaches have responded. Fouls, despite all the extra possessions, are only up 1.1 per team per game.
College basketball needed change, but the NCAA didn’t necessarily have motivation to make it. As ESPN commentator and frequent NCAA adversary Jay Bilas had pointed out, rule changes to improve quality of play would imply the NCAA is “selling” the game, something the organization is loathe to admit, even as it charges billions of dollars for the rights to air it.
Attendance dropped last season, and Sports Illustrated declared the game to be in the midst of “crisis.” But ratings didn’t fall at alarming rates, and those billions of dollars were guaranteed to pour in for the NCAA’s tournament broadcast contract with Turner. The appeal of college hoops will always rest in crazed arenas and alumni loyalty. The improvements this season, then, were far from guaranteed.
“I never felt that fans thought it was a bad product,” said Kenny Smith, an analyst for Turner, which will air the national title game on TBS for the first time this year. “That doesn’t mean you don’t need to change your recipe for the donuts. People are always going to root for their alma mater or root for their school in their city. There’s always going to be birthdays that need donuts. That doesn’t mean you need to change the recipe.”
The new recipe includes cleaner finishes. The end of close games in recent seasons became a persistent slog, a cavalcade of timeouts and game-extending fouling-and-free throw exhibitions that could begin with more than 90 seconds on the clock. Teams only received three, not four, timeouts in the second half, which helped change that this year. Shaving five seconds off the shot clock, and thereby mitigating how much the leading team could stall, made a bigger difference on coaches than expected, too.
“We used to go two-for-ones more often,” Byrd said. “The math is different, and you just don’t worry about it too much. There’s less time. There’s coaches that are better at arithmetic than I am. It did change your thought process – how many more possessions are there in the game? I found myself not trying to manipulate the time as much and just let the guys play.”
College basketball will always provide drama and teeth-gnashing, frenzied crowds and agony and joy. This year, it finally got something it lacked. More than in years, it’s just letting the guys play.