This first appeared in the March 26 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, the Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
The NCAA tournament is, deservedly, one of the highlights of the American sports calendar. For three weeks, the nation revels in last-second shots, dramatic upsets and Cinderella runs by unfamiliar teams — the latest being Loyola Chicago’s remarkable trip to the Final Four.
But for everything that is great about the tournament, one very important thing is not: the basketball itself.
Before anyone gets their haunches up, though, this isn’t a re-litigation of the alleged debate over whether the NBA is better than college basketball. The answer to that is obvious.
This is an attempt to bring the sport into the modern era and to make it more enjoyable to sit and watch a college game at any point of the season — not just in March, when the stakes are highest.
So here are 10 proposed changes to open up the game and make it far more enjoyable to watch. Most importantly, these changes would fix what is truly college basketball’s biggest problem: the over-involvement of its coaches.
1. Drop halves for four 10-minute quarters.
This one is easy. The idea that there are two 20-minute halves makes no sense. High schools play quarters. The NBA does, too. So does international ball. The women’s game has switched to it, and this year the National Invitation Tournament implemented it as an experiment.
It would break up the game into more manageable segments and would get rid of the need for television timeouts every four minutes, as the game is structured now. This is a common sense change — and the one that seems most likely of all of these to happen.
2. Change the fouling rules to get to the penalty quicker.
If a team doesn’t have many fouls called against it during a half, it can find itself in a situation where it has to foul three and four times in the final minute or so just to get the opposing team to the foul line. And if we are going to change the structure of the game from halves to quarters, we have to address the foul situation.
So here is a solution: After three fouls, teams will shoot free throws — and after four fouls, teams will shoot two from the charity stripe. And inside the final two minutes — like in the NBA — teams will automatically jump to two shots after two fouls — no matter how many were committed before then. It would streamline the end-of-game process and remove some of the benefit in the excessive fouling that happens now — yet another thing that slows these games down.
3. Reduce the shot clock from 30 seconds to 24.
4. Reduce the backcourt time from 10 seconds to eight.
The way the college game is structured, a team can build an eight- or 10-point lead with, say, six minutes to go, then sit on the ball for 28 seconds every possession before taking a shot. It’s a slightly modernized version of Dean Smith’s “Four Corners” offense and often makes the final 10 minutes of a game — what should be its most exciting period — a bore.
Reduce the shot clock to 24 seconds, as it is in the NBA, and it allows for more possessions — and, crucially, less time for the coaches on the sideline to be able to dictate what is happening on the court to their players. Pushing the college game in this direction will be a common refrain throughout this piece. And, given we are reducing the shot clock by 20 percent, we’ll do the same with the time teams are allowed to stay in the backcourt. In tandem, these changes could make a big difference.
5. Move the three-point line back from its current location (20 feet 9 inches) to the distance used by the International Basketball Federation (22 feet 2 inches).
In addition to taking away control of the game from the coaches and giving it to the players, the other key issue with college basketball is the lack of space for players to operate. That’s partly due to defensive rules (which we’ll get to), but the biggest problem is the three-point line is simply too close to the basket.
Moving the line from its current place to the NBA line — which is three feet farther from the hoop — is probably too much to ask. Moving it back to the FIBA line (also used by the WNBA) is a good compromise that would allow more opportunities for players to drive to the basket — which, in turn, would allow for more open shots on the perimeter after the defense was sucked in to stop those attacking players from getting to the rim.
6. Institute a defensive three seconds rule.
This change will drive fans of teams like Syracuse and its famed 2-3 zone into a frenzy, as it would prevent a key part of that defensive style — having a giant 7-footer standing under the basket at all times — from being functional. But the lack of space on the court and the ability of teams to pack the interior in a zone leads to opponents flinging up a series of contested shots from the perimeter — and, inevitably, ugly games to watch.
Yes, instituting a defensive three seconds rule would require some adjustments. But NBA teams are still able to run zones even with such a rule existing, and even teams like Syracuse would be able to adjust and keep most of its famed system in place — while also allowing teams to have a better chance of getting to the rim and scoring.
7. Allow teams to advance the ball to midcourt upon calling timeouts.
This one is obvious. Yes, being able to bring the ball to half court after calling a timeout would rob us of moments like Duke legend Christian Laettner’s shot against Kentucky after catching a full-court pass from Grant Hill, or Michigan freshman Jordan Poole’s three-pointer to beat Houston at the buzzer last weekend.
But having the opportunity to move the ball to half court would allow for far more teams to have a realistic chance at hitting a game-tying — or game-winning — shot. The goal here is to make the final moments of these games as entertaining as possible, and to give teams a chance to complete the kinds of comebacks that make college ball, and particularly the NCAA tournament, so special. This is one that needs to happen.
8. No timeouts after made baskets.
9. No substitutions after the last free throw is taken.
These rules are being put together because, while governing different things, they have the same impact. By calling a timeout after a made basket or allowing for substitutions after the last free throw is made (either two or three of them, depending on how many are being taken), coaches are able to stop the game and set up the defense. By doing away with this, like so many of the things on this list, it will take the game out of the hands of the coaches and put it in the hands of the players.
10. Stop counting technical fouls as personal fouls.
Why the NCAA has decided to count technicals as personal fouls is beyond me. There are already enough questions about the quality of college basketball referees in terms of getting the simple and obvious calls right. Add in that if a referee calls a quick-trigger technical foul, as one did with Alabama star Collin Sexton during this year’s tournament, it puts that player in further foul trouble and only exacerbates the problem.
There was some thought to include pushing the foul limit to six, instead of five, but five fouls for a 40-minute game is more than enough. Ensuring those five fouls are personal fouls — and not technicals — is a good middle ground.
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