John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville is at its loudest as the shot clock winds down on visiting men’s basketball teams. Once the clock shows 10 seconds, Virginia fans rise to their feet, and the volume increases. When the clock hits zero and the referee pats his head to signal a shot-clock violation, the crowd roars to reward the Cavaliers’ heralded defense. Opposing coaches have marveled at how the cheers are as loud for defensive stops as they are for highlight-worthy dunks.
The Cavaliers have risen to a 28-1 record and the No. 2 national ranking while employing a style that slows the pace of play and favors defense. But not everyone shares Virginia fans’ enthusiasm for their team’s winning formula. To some, the Cavaliers are emblematic of a boring college game.
Virginia has gone on the offensive in response: University President Teresa Sullivan recently posed with the team mascot while holding a sign that read “NOT BORING.” Fans refer to critics of the deliberately slow style as “pacists.” Coach Tony Bennett has said he doesn’t care about criticism of his team.
“We are who we are,” Bennett said. “We can’t change it and become someone different just because people don’t like how we’re playing.”
With college basketball’s scoring at its lowest point in more than six decades and frustration rising over stagnating offense, one increasingly popular proposal to attempt to reverse the trend is a reduction of the 35-second clock. The NCAA announced last month that a 30-second shot clock will be used in this year’s National Invitation Tournament, and officials will review its effect after the postseason. Even Bennett is in favor of a shorter shot clock, but he and other coaches wonder if it’s a cure-all.
The night before ESPN color commentator Jay Bilas worked Maryland’s upset of Wisconsin, he watched his goddaughter play a high school game in the Washington area. The men’s college basketball game he worked the next day had a lengthier shot clock.
“It’s the longest clock in the world,” Bilas said. “The problem is we’re theorizing certain things when we have data from other games. The women’s college game has a 30-second shot clock. The international game has a 24-second shot clock, so what we’re saying is our players are not skilled enough nor smart enough to play basketball with a 24-second shot clock, but young kids in Europe and Asia can do it.”
The shot clock has been used in men’s college basketball since 1985, when a 45-second limit was implemented to keep offenses from holding the ball as a defensive tactic. The clock has been set at 35 seconds since the 1993-94 season.
The pace of the game, however, is slowing. According to data compiled by Ken Pomeroy, the creator of the popular college basketball Web site KenPom.com, possessions per 40 minutes are at their lowest point (64.9) since he began tracking the statistic in 2002. Through Feb. 8, possessions were down by 2.7 percent compared to the same time last season, and points per possession were down 2.9 percent, according to KPI Sports, an analytics Web site devoted to college basketball and football run by Kevin Pauga, the director of basketball operations at Michigan State.
Through March 3, Division I teams averaged 67.59 points, down from 71 last season. The 2012-13 season ended with a scoring average of 67.5 points, the fewest since 1952.
Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey said he’s eager to see the results of the NIT’s experiment with the 30-second shot clock. Brey said Atlantic Coast Conference coaches conducted a straw poll and were overwhelmingly in favor of shortening the shot clock to 30 seconds. Several others have said the change is inevitable and could come next season.
Count Bennett among the supporters. He argues a defensive team such as his would benefit from having to defend for five fewer seconds.
“I don’t want to go to 24 because this isn’t an NBA game,” he said. “I think the college game is unique in that regard. But 30 seconds is fine. I have no problem with that and I’m assuming that’s the direction it’ll go.”
But the notion that a shorter shot clock would mean more possessions, which would lead to more scoring, hasn’t borne out. During the last five years of the 45-second clock, teams averaged 75.2 points. In the first five years of the 35-second clock, the average dropped to 72.7.
And while many coaches from the “Power Five” conferences support a 30-second shot clock, they don’t necessarily believe it will improve the quality of college basketball. Turnovers per game have gradually dropped every year since 1999, but through Feb. 9, turnovers per possession were up 5.4 percent from the same time last season, per KPI Sports.
Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy said he doesn’t think a 30-second clock would solve a lot, but “it will let everybody think it’s going to solve a lot.” South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said it would lead to “more possessions of bad basketball.”
“I think the shorter shot clock will probably end up with worse [shooting] percentages,” Miami Coach Jim Larranaga said. “Teams won’t get as good of quality a shot as they’re getting now. I don’t think that increases scoring.”
While Virginia ranks 349th out of 351 Division I teams in Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo metric, which measures possessions per 40 minutes, Bennett said it’s a misnomer that the Cavaliers always hold the ball until the end of the shot clock. A 30-second shot clock could increase the number of possessions, but it wouldn’t be a drastic change.
“I don’t know if that’s the golden answer,” Bennett said. “But if that helps people sleep at night better, then so be it.”
Through nearly 14 minutes of Monday night’s game between Virginia and Syracuse, the teams totaled 15 points. The Cavaliers, a likely No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, had just two of them.
Pace wasn’t necessarily to blame for the teams combining to miss 19 shots in that stretch, and some coaches said that shooting and the diminishment of fundamentals have contributed to the decline of scoring. Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said college defenses have gotten better at taking away the paint, forcing teams to shoot from the perimeter, where he thinks shooting abilities and shot selection have gotten worse.
“It used to be you’d have three great shooters on the court at once; now if you have one or two, you’re lucky,” said Pitino, whose 16th-ranked team will play host to Virginia on Saturday. “The teams that have more are the ones that really excel.”
Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon said the decline in scoring is cyclical. Because some prominent teams are having success playing at a slower pace, others are imitating. When fast-paced teams are the ones winning, he said, the trend will change.
“With the small changes, often times, I don’t think we see the consequences,” Dixon said, using the decision in 2007 to move the three-point arc to 20 feet 9 inches from the basket as an example. “Putting the three out farther was going to make more teams play zone [defense], and that’s what’s happened. . . . That’s going to lead to less scoring because the zone takes longer to attack. There’s no question about it.
“A lot of things have been done, and sometimes there have been some changes that have been counterproductive to what they’re trying to do.”