After thrilling tournament, critical off-season ahead for college hoops
INDIANAPOLIS—The climax of the best month-long stretch on the sporting calendar ended Monday night with a taut and dramatic game befitting a spectacular NCAA tournament. Duke came back from a nine-point deficit in the second half to beat Wisconsin, 68-63, delivering Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski his fifth national title. Certainly, we should take one final shining moment to remember a tournament that gave us Nigel Hayes’ stenographer-antagonizing, Ron Hunter capsizing and Notre Dame’s magical 38 minutes. Wichita State taught us, yet again, not to be shocked. Tom Izzo reminded us that he’s Tom Izzo. And Wisconsin’s six straight late-game stops against Kentucky turned the Wildcats’ historic season into just that—history.
We can all agree that this NCAA tournament lived up to its annual billing as a seminal American sporting event. Fueled by the inclusive nature of gambling in office pools, the chaos of the knockout format and the inherent charm of the underdog, the tournament is engineered to lure everyone in year after year. With the drama subsided and your office pool decided, however, there’s no need for another homage to March magic.
As college basketball fans wake up to the off-season on Tuesday, we are again reminded of the yawning gap between the popularity of college basketball’s postseason compared to the irrelevancy of its regular season. “I don’t think internally we’re blinded by the success of the NCAA tournament,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA vice president of men’s basketball championships. “We realize the game needs to be worked on the other 11 months.”
The hangover from the NCAA tournament can’t be long, as college basketball enters one of its most critical off-seasons in recent memory. Outside of select pockets around the country—Lexington, Lawrence and the Triangle among them—college basketball has taken a free fall from the nation’s consciousness in every month not named March. (Or early April, if you want to be persnickety). The game has reached a crisis of relevance, pace and skill. It sits at a crossroads that shouldn’t be obscured by the historic ratings from Kentucky’s tournament games with Notre Dame and Wisconsin. Ultimately, the storyline about the Wildcats' pursuit of perfection bailed out this regular season from being a major dud. And without strong leadership and significant rules changes, the regular season will be as anonymous as the postseason is electric.
“Oh boy,” said Miami coach Jim Larranaga. “What an issue. I would say that the state of basketball and the NCAA tournament are in good shape. The game itself really needs to be looked at very, very closely. What do we want it to look like?”
The easy answer to that is much, much different. No more 21-19 halftime scores. No more officials taking so many trips to the monitor that they seem to be auditioning as film critics. No more slogging paces on the sideline, with coaches bleeding the shot clock and controlling every dribble. The highest rated regular season college basketball games this year—two contests between North Carolina and Duke that did a 2.6—rated worse than 50 college football regular season games. Yep, a middling game between Tennessee and Georgia on ESPN at noon on a Saturday crushes the best college basketball can muster.
Why? Iona coach Tim Cluess gave perhaps the season’s defining quote when he told The New York Times, “The product stinks.” College basketball is being played at a historically slow pace, and the scoring levels all year trended toward dismal lows. Scoring is lower than its been since before the shot clock was introduced in 1985-86 and the three-point line was implemented the next season. The skill level is too low, the officials too unpredictable and the leadership void that’s hovered over the sport for decades—who, um, is in charge?—has allowed the product to atrophy while conference commissioners keep cashing their checks from the $10.8 billion NCAA tournament television contract.
So what can be done to make sure the regular season isn’t just a four-month spring training? Well, a lot. Let’s start with the leadership, something the NCAA finally appears to have figured out. Well, at least attempted to figure out. The bloated NCAA structure made change in college basketball for decades about as complicated as herding cats on a prairie. For years, the NCAA’s inert cycles of needing committees to pick committees to potentially make change left the sport’s leaders so confused they didn’t know how even to introduce ideas for change.
There’s some optimism that things could be different. Before Monday's title game, Gavitt stressed courtside that the new Division I men’s basketball oversight committee, chaired by UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, could spearhead significant change. The 12-person committee already consists of Guerrero and three other administrators. It will also include a student athlete—novel concept—and likely a few coaches. The goal is to streamline ideas specially for men’s basketball and cut away typical NCAA bureaucracy. This committee is for big-picture ideas to be discussed, like making college basketball a one-semester sport to escape the nuclear winter of football’s shadow.
It will be a forum for potential transformative change, as the sport’s regular season has regressed to the point where it needs major changes to resuscitate it. “The men’s basketball oversight committee has a great opportunity to impact and enhance the game over the next 12 months,” Gavitt said. “It will centralize men’s basketball, which has been de-centralized.”
Then there are the rules. The committee meets May 13-15 this year, in what will be one of the most anticipated gatherings of that group. The most talked-about change is lowering the shot clock to 30 seconds, which could speed up the game. Larranaga's Miami team played five NIT games with the experimental shot clock and said it had a surprising impact on the games. He said he’d overhaul some strategy—including pressing more in full and three-quarters court—if it were implemented next season. But the preliminary data, according one college official, showed a difference of about one possession per game. In other words, not much. The NIT also used a four-foot restricted area in the paint instead of three feet, making it harder for a secondary defender to attempt to draw a charge. “You have to have that,” Larranaga said, endorsing the change as a no-brainer.
Other ideas bandied about in college basketball circles include the game being broken into quarters instead of halves, adopting the NBA’s eight-second rule to cross halfcourt and reviving the notion of calling fouls to improve offensive flow. “What I would say is that we need to examine what we want,” Larranaga said. “Do we want more scoring? Do we want the game to be faster? If we do, are we willing to do a couple of things and make some rules defensively?”
Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby warned that rule changes can’t impact the game too much if the skill levels of the players continue to decline. It’s a valid point, and speaks to the complicated confluence of factors that have led us here.
What’s certain is that change is needed, and the sport’s leaders are saying all the right things about serious discussion of significant change coming. It’s naïve to think that college basketball’s regular season will ever approach the popularity of the NCAA tournament. But it’s even more naïve to think that the game doesn’t need an overhaul to prevent it from being cemented as a one-month sport. And now that the off-season is here, the magic is gone and the game’s problems will continue to persist.
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