One of the side benefits of watching a group of U.S. college stars prepare for an international tournament is it provides an interesting test case for whether a change in shot-clock length would benefit college hoops. The World University Games -- currently underway in Russia, with the United States having routed the United Arab Emirates and the Czech Republic to open group play -- is being contested with a 24-second shot clock rather than the college game’s current 35-second length, one that was a debate flashpoint earlier this spring when various rules changes were being discussed.
While it’s hard to draw definitive conclusions from an all-star team put together on short notice, speaking with a number of the guards and coaches at the team trials can help define the types of issues that would arise should the college clock be shortened.
"It’s a big factor. It’s a totally different game," said Colorado head coach Tad Boyle, who was a bench coach at the trials and whose point guard, Spencer Dinwiddie, is on the World University Games team. "I’m a big fan, I like the shot clock at 35 seconds. I think 35 is fine. It allows people who want to slow the game down and run some offense to be able to do that."
Diminishing the current variety of styles is one of the main concerns of those who oppose a shorter clock. A clock change would require 350-plus Division I teams, with variable levels of overall talent and point guard play, to conform to a much more uniform, quicker style of play. The more possessions in a game, the harder it is for the lesser team to stay in a game, so the side effect of a shorter clock likely would be fewer upsets.
That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for a lot of fans, especially those of major programs, so the bigger question is whether a shorter clock would actually improve the watchability of the sport. Scoring in college basketball is at its lowest point in decades, and while higher scores don’t necessarily translate to better basketball, people don't want to see more 38-37 games going forward, either.
In order to know better whether college teams (at least the top ones) could function well in a shorter-clock world, we need to identify what would have to change the most. According to several of the guards at the trials, the biggest difference actually comes in their own half of the court.
“[The 24-second clock] just makes us guards need to push the ball up even quicker,” said Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, who also made the final roster. “One of the coaches was saying to me to even push the ball on makes just so we can get it across and get our offense moving, because we don’t have many passes with the shot clock at 24 seconds instead of 35.”
“You don’t really think a lot about it, but it’s a lot shorter,” added Stanford’s Chasson Randle, who was one of the team's final cuts. “You have to race the ball up the court, and if you don’t, you could be paying for it.”
Ferrell noted that he didn’t feel rushed in the trials because the individual quality of his teammates was such that they were capable of creating shots in the shorter timeframe. But how would that then apply to the broader spectrum of Division I, where levels of talent are more disparate and almost every team has less overall quality than what was on display in these trials?
Even with aggressive pushing of the ball across halfcourt, teams often will find themselves short on time and options, and that’s before coaches adjust their own defensive strategies to make things even harder on the offenses.
“24 is a totally different game, especially with pressing,” Boyle said. “If [the defense goes] 2-2-1 back to a zone or a soft man, you’ll spend so much time [even getting into your offense]. You’ll have 13, 14 seconds and you’re going to see a lot more stuff off the dribble.”
That may be the largest concern of so-called short-clock detractors. Yes, the game would adjust over time. Players would develop new era-specific skills and coaches would change their approaches to fit the faster version of the sport, but the game itself likely would become a lot more homogeneous. Sans surpassing roster talent, offenses need to be able to look for second and third options to get better shots. Absent of that ability in a short-clock world, college basketball would take on a lot more NBA-style isolation as the shot clock runs down.
“The beauty of the game will be taken away,” Boyle said, “and a premium will be put on athleticism.” Not everyone will think that’s a bad thing, especially as U.S. basketball as a whole looks at ways to smooth out the development cycle from high school/AAU basketball to the pros, but for fans of college basketball, it's a major discussion point and one worth watching as you watch the World University Games unfold.