On the day the NCAA men’s basketball rules committee proposed to shorten the shot clock, reduce timeouts and carve out more room for offensive players to move, a more cosmetic change floated by with almost no notice. Buried deep within the rundown of proposals was this: A call to remove the prohibition on dunking in warm-ups. It was easily the most superficial suggestion of the bunch, but it was still telling. The committee members were charged with making college hoops less of a slog. And they were so thorough that they recommended changing what happens before the game even starts.
The substance, of course, is in what transpires after that. Thus, there will be a 30-second shot clock for 2015-16, down from the 35-tick standard of the last two decades. There will be fewer timeouts for coaches to call, and more limitations on when they can call them. And there will be a renewed emphasis on reining in physicality across every square inch of the floor, from dribblers on the perimeter to players jostling in the post to would-be scorers moving away from the ball. This last bit may do more to enhance scoring than shaving five seconds off possession time. But these are all very good things that, in sum, should invigorate college basketball. (All of the proposed changes from the rules committee will need to be formally adopted by Playing Rules Oversight Panel when it meets on June 8.)
Give the committee credit: It did not fall under the spell of record-setting NCAA tournament ratings and assume that meant, well, anything. The members understood that March has a life of its own, and it has long been estranged from the other months of the college hoops calendar. They grasped the difference between exciting finishes and good basketball. They understood that true madness would be ignoring issues prevalent from November through February.
“We had very few close votes,” said Rick Byrd, the Belmont coach who serves as rules committee chairman. “Everybody listened and at the end they tried to do what was in the best interest of the game, even though they personally might not have agreed with it.”
Metrics matter more than ever in distinguishing what separates superior and inferior products. Wisconsin took its time this season, averaging the sixth-fewest possessions per game nationally, and yet it managed to run one of the most efficient offenses in years. But the bottom line mattered now more than ever, too. A per-team scoring rate of 67.74 points per game ranked as the third-lowest figure since 1952. It was only slightly better than the 67.5 of two seasons ago.
The alterations in timeout allocation and availability, along with the renewed emphasis on physical defense, were the most purposeful proposals set forth Thursday. Games were crushed under the weight of coaches who couldn’t help but micromanage situations, particularly as second halves wound down; in what should be the most dramatic moments, the flow of competition ran through clogged pipes. Those coaches now have one less timeout in the second half and cannot call for a play stoppage from the sideline during a live-ball situation. The players will determine the action now. And while that doesn’t guarantee a made shot or even a coherent attempt at one, it beats a stilted, staged ending anytime.
And giving offensive players more space beats anything. “Although the reduction in the shot clock to help increase scoring seemed to be the most discussed topic,” said Georgia State coach Ron Hunter, the president of the National Association of Basketball coaches, “the increase in the physicality of play has been a major concern for coaches.” Coaches who believe in strong defense can teach it within these standards. Defenders, move your feet. Anticipate cutters. Beat guys to a spot. Can’t use an arm bar to facilitate that? Too bad. Work harder. Defense can be brilliant, still. Arguably, it will be even more so when bear hugs are removed from the equation.
As meticulously examined as the shot clock change was—presidential appointees receive less vetting—its impact is unclear. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Thursday that he felt good about the 30-second shot clock before adding, “Might as well get to 30 as soon as possible because we’ll end up at 24 sooner or later.” It sounded like a joke, but it spoke to the uncertainty about just what comes next. Byrd said “well over 60%” of surveyed coaches supported the reduction, but that necessarily meant a decent chunk didn’t—some of whom Byrd noted were among the group that ultimately pushed this change. Not even the rules committee considered its most prominent proposal to be an elixir in itself.
“We don’t think it will cause a huge bump (in scoring),” Byrd said. “We think it’s part of the puzzle, just a piece that gets the game headed in the right direction.”
As Byrd and his peers surely know, the last shot-clock change for 1993-94 produced about a point-and-a-half scoring increase per game ... and that uptick vanished within three years. In the immediate future, the players on the floor should notice the variance. Duke, for instance, already practiced with a 28-second shot clock. “That seven felt like a big difference,” said guard Quinn Cook, who helped run the Blue Devils’ offense the past four seasons. “I think five will make a difference as well.”
“Five seconds sometimes seems like an eternity, but other times it goes by quick,” said T.J. McConnell, who just finished a two-year run as Arizona’s point guard in March. “If you’re a fast-paced team, I don’t think it matters that much. But if you try to slow the ball down and get into your sets, that might hurt you a little bit. When you’re a team like Arizona that pushes the ball and pushes the ball and gets it out in transition—those teams should be fine.”
There ought to be more possessions, if not more made shots. Teams could weaponize the reduced clock defensively, using even token pressure to erode the time an offense can spend finding a shot. Byrd said the committee contemplated that unintended consequence, but the solution there is pretty straightforward, too: Coach your team to dissect pressure better, and the team may find easier chances than it would triggering half-court offense with plenty of time in hand.
The effects of the 30-second clock can’t be guaranteed. There’s no guarantee, in fact, that there will be any effects at all. It is worth exploring, though.
A few suggestions put to paper by a committee on Friday won’t alone save college basketball. Some will argue, with great ferocity, that it doesn’t require saving. But there’s that level of toxic distress, and then there’s the need for help. And the game just got some help it needed.