The history of college basketball's offensive decline—and how to fix it
On April 1, 2000, Wisconsin and Michigan State faced off at the Final Four in Indianapolis. The game was slow, grinding and physical. At halftime, the Spartans led, 19-17. Sitting in his seat at the RCA Dome, Roy Williams cringed. Not only was he the chairman of the NCAA’s men’s basketball rules committee, but he was also the head coach at Kansas, whose inaugural coach, James Naismith, had written into the game’s original 13 rules a prohibition against “shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping or striking in any way the person of an opponent.”
Williams used that game to launch a crusade for change. That spring, his committee issued a single point of emphasis for officials: Clean up the rough stuff. And it worked, for a little while. The following fall, when Kansas defeated UCLA, 99-98, in an early season game at Madison Square Garden, Williams walked into the postgame news conference and quipped, “Did you like that better than 19-17?”
A decade and a half later, Williams, who is now the coach at North Carolina, chuckles at the memory. “I caught a lot of crap for that,” he says. “It was unbelievable how many people jumped on me and said I was criticizing two coaches. That was not the point. I just didn’t believe that was what basketball was intended to be.”
The more things change, the more they ... get worse. College basketball is slower, more grinding, more physical and more, well, offensive than it has been in a long, long time. The 2014-15 season is shaping up to be the worst offensive season in modern history. Through Feb. 22, teams were averaging 67.1 points per game. That is the lowest average since 1952. The previous low for that span was set just two years ago. This more than reverses the gains that were made last season, after the rules committee made adjustments to clamp down on physical defense and make it harder to draw a charge. Thanks to lax enforcement by officials and a foolish decision to reverse the block/charge modification, scoring declined by 3.79 points per game. That is the steepest single-season drop on record.
Millions of people are preparing set their sights on college basketball for March Madness, but the sport is not ready for its close-up. All season long, there have been games where the winning team struggles to reach 50 points. Halftime scores in the 19-17 range have been a nightly occurrence. And because too many coaches use too many time outs, games become interminable during the last few minutes. As a result, this game is in danger of turning off casual fans while losing ground with the younger set, who have more choices than ever before.
“I have great concerns,” says Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s vice president of men’s basketball championships. “The trends are long-term and unhealthy. I think some people understand the urgency of it, but there are others who think the rhetoric is sensationalized and that it’s not as bad as people make it out to be. There are enough people concerned that there is movement to get things done.”
That concern prompted the NCAA to announce earlier this month that it will experiment with a 30-second shot clock (instead of the current 35) and a bigger arc under the basket (to make it harder to draw a charge) during the postseason NIT next month. That is a hopeful sign, but the approach is still too cautious, too incremental. If we’re going to summon the requisite urgency to reverse the tide, we have to start by calling the situation what it is.
College basketball is facing a crisis. It’s time for an extreme makeover.
During his 29 years as the head coach at Belmont, Rick Byrd has established himself as one of the best in his profession. He has taken the Bruins to six NCAA tournaments, and on Jan.17 he claimed his 700th career win. Yet, the challenge of winning all those games feels small compared to the one he faces next spring, when he will convene the men’s basketball rules committee as its chairman. “I haven’t been involved with the rules committee long enough to know what other eras were like, but this has to be one of the most important meetings in a long time,” Byrd says. “I don’t think there’s any question that this gradual decline in offensive basketball is reaching a point where a lot of people think it’s just too ugly.”
The numbers tell a daunting story. Consider:
• Since 2000, scoring has declined year-to-year 13 times and increased twice. Overall field goal percentage has declined six times in the last eight seasons. Before that, it had decreased just four times in nine years.
• This is on pace to be the slowest season since efficiency maven Ken Pomeroy starting tracking tempo in 2002. That season, teams averaged 69.6 possessions per 40 minutes. This season, they are averaging 66.2.
• According to KPISports.net, points per possession are down 2.9 percent from last season, and field goal attempts are down 1.36 per game per team. Meanwhile, steals have increased by 2.7% and teams are committing 5.1% more turnovers per possession.
While no one disputes the trajectory of the data, there are many theories as to why things are tacking in that direction. Many of those theories center on two myths:
Myth number one: The players aren’t as good as they used to be. This argument holds that because of the one-and-done rule, college basketball is losing its top talent. And on the front end, the grassroots basketball culture in which young players come of age is blamed for withering skills.
That, however, does not stand up to the math. First of all, people tend to forget that before the NBA established its 19-year-old age minimum in 2005, the rule was none and done. So there are more highly gifted players in college basketball in the one-and-done era, not fewer.
Second, just 42 underclassmen entered the 2014 NBA draft. Nine were freshmen. That is not nearly enough to account for a decline measured across some 8,000 games played by nearly 4,500 Division I athletes.
While it is difficult to measure skills in different eras, especially before and after the three-point line was implemented in 1986-87, there is one category where we can make an apples-to-apples comparison, and that’s free throw shooting. The distance between the plane of the backboard and the foul line has remained constant at 15 feet. If players really are worse, then overall free throw percentage should reflect that.
Guess what: It doesn’t. In 1972, when scoring peaked at 77.7 points per game—this was without a shot clock and three-point line, mind you—teams converted 68.6% of their attempts from the foul line. This season, teams are making 68.9%. Last year’s clip of 69.6% was the highest it had been since 1979. There is nothing wrong with the way college players shoot.
Myth number two: The referees aren’t as good as they used to be. Say what you want about the zebras, but at least they have been consistent. According to the NCAA’s official statistics, if you trace all the offensive categories back to 1948, the most constant is the number of fouls committed per team per game. Since 1955, that average has never dropped below 18.07 or risen above 20.6.
Today’s referees don’t lack competence. They lack empowerment. Give them a set of rules to make things better, and they will enforce them. That was evident last season, when the adjustments to physical play and the block/charge call yielded the biggest increase in scoring since 1964. Yes, there were more free throws, but that only accounted for half of the bump. “We told the referees last year there are four things you can’t do to a dribbler, and they called the fouls they were supposed to call,” says John Adams, the NCAA’s national coordinator of officiating. “I don’t think the officials care what the rules are. Tell us what the rules are, and we’ll make the calls.
The extra whistles were a shock to the system, especially early on, but they served their purpose. Most everyone liked the reduced number of charge calls, which is why it was so inexplicable when the rules committee went back to requiring a secondary defender to be in legal guarding position by the time the offensive player was in the air. Last year, the defender had to be there when the player began his upward motion, which can be a difference of more than a full second.
Why was the rule changed back? Because officials said it was too hard to judge. The committee caved. “The refs were saying it’s very difficult to determine exactly when upward motion started because guys double pump and do different things before they leave the floor,” Byrd says. “There were an awful lot of things we were expecting the officials to see.”
This lack of perseverance is manifest on every front, and it is crippling. It takes a sturdy spine to stick with big changes. Right now, this sport doesn’t have one.
For a long time, the attitude among college basketball’s cognoscenti has been that the game should look distinct from its professional counterparts. That is reasonable, but right now the game is too distinct, not just from the NBA but also from other sports like football and hockey. Here are five rules changes that would push the pendulum back in the right direction:
1. The shot clock should be shortened to 30 seconds.
Some prominent coaches, like Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Villanova’s Jay Wright, who both have extensive international experience, would like to see the clock reduced to 24 seconds, which is the case in the NBA and FIBA. Reducing it to 30 would speed up the game while allowing college basketball to remain distinctive. “Why wouldn’t we go to 30? That’s a better question,” asks Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “We didn’t go to 30 in the first place because the women had it. People wanted to be different. It’s not hard to figure out. A shorter clock means more possessions, and more possessions means more points.”
History shows that to be the case. When the 45-second clock was trimmed to 35 for the 1993-94 season, scoring went from 73.6 points per game to 75.0. Those gains were short-lived, but it supports the idea that a shorter clock helps.
2. The arc under the basket should be extended to four feet.
It wasn’t until the 2010-11 season that the rules committee established a secondary defender could not take a charge under the basket. At first, the committee declined to put down an arc, and when it did in 2011, it was placed at three feet. That is one foot shorter than the NBA’s circle, and it is obviously insufficient. “That thing is like a bee bee on a four-lane highway. It’s a joke,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says. “That’s the NCAA and our coaches saying we are not going to be the NBA. I look at it as, the NBA plays a hundred games a year. Let’s learn from them.”
Izzo is so opposed to the charge call that he refuses to teach his players to take them. He believes it is dangerous, and he does not want to be hypocritical. There is a place for this play—charges are called regularly in NBA games—but there is broad consensus that too many collisions reward the defense. Plus, it’s the toughest call a referee has to make. Says Adams, “A four-foot restricted arc would help unclog an area that’s an officiating headache.”
3. The lane should be wider.
The college lane is 12 feet wide. The NBA’s is 16 feet. FIBA’s used to be shaped like a trapezoid, but in 2010 it adopted the NBA’s 16-foot rectangle. The college lane should have that same width, but even an increase to 14 feet would be an improvement. A wider lane would push post players away from the basket, which in turn would force them to learn to shoot with touch as opposed to just backing down and powering to the rim. That’s what players do—they adapt. A wider lane would also create more space for drivers, allowing players to showcase their athleticism better.
4. The three-point line should be deeper.
The goal here isn’t to make the shot more difficult; it’s to create more space. That’s why the line was moved in 2008 from its original distance of 19' 9", to the current 20'. With a wider lane, the college line will need to be extended again. If the committee pushed it to 22' 2", which is where FIBA has it, that would preserve some distinction with the NBA’s distance of 23' 9".
5. There should be fewer time outs.
In January, the website Rushthecourt.net published a breakdown of the final 3 minutes, 37 seconds of a game between Indiana and Ohio State. The Buckeyes mounted a comeback and came within a buzzer-beating three-pointer of sending the game into overtime. It should have been riveting, except those last three-and-half minutes took almost 32 minutes in real time. Free throws and three replay reviews slowed down the action, but the primary reason it took so long was that the two coaches called a combined six time outs.
Even before a coach calls a single time out, he is guaranteed nine stoppages of play—four media time outs per half, which last 2 minutes, 15 seconds each, plus a 15-minute halftime. That’s 33 minutes, or almost another entire game, to talk to his team. Yet, on top of those breaks, a coach is also granted four 30-second time outs and one 60-second time out. One of those 30-second time outs is referred to as the “use-it-or-lose-it” time out because teams only get to call three 30-second time outs in the second half. In other words, the rules actually incentivize a coach to call a time he out he wouldn’t otherwise take.
Sure, the refs need to speed up their replay reviews, but reducing the number of time outs is the best way to shorten the game. Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese complains that “the college game in the last two minutes is absolutely awful.” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who heads a competition committee that studies these issues, agrees. “We’ve got to find ways to expedite the last few minutes,” he says. “The games are slowing down to the point where the only people who are going to watch are diehard fans of those two teams.”
Unfortunately, the men who call all those time outs are the same ones who write the rules. College basketball coaches are fierce competitors. They’re under a lot of pressure. They are not about to relinquish control. “Coaches have always felt that if you take time outs away from them, it’s like taking their first born,” says Art Hyland, the rules committee’s secretary editor.
Which brings us to the heart of the issue. The primary reason college basketball faces a scoring crisis isn’t the rules. It isn’t the refs, it isn’t the players, it isn’t the officiating coordinators, it isn’t the conference commissioners, and it isn’t the television networks. It’s the coaches.
Consider the game that Iowa State played at Oklahoma on Feb. 9. The score at halftime was 46-46. Oklahoma went on to win, 94-83. The teams combined to shoot 49% from the field and 48% from three-point range. They each played 73 possessions. They committed just 26 fouls and combined to shoot only 20 free throws. Yes, these are two top 25 teams, but it’s not like there was a surfeit of talent on the floor that night. The website draftexpress.com lists just one player on either roster, Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield, in its current mock NBA draft, and he’s projected to be a mid-second rounder.
The reason the game was so fun to watch was because the two coaches, Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger and Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg, let their players go. It is no coincidence that both those men have NBA backgrounds. Kruger was the coach of the Atlanta Hawks for three years and spent a season as an assistant with the New York Knicks. Hoiberg played 10 years in the league for three different teams.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to legislate offensive creativity. The only way to spur more people to coach that way is to create rules that force them to. Alas, we can’t change the rules of the game until we change the way rules get made. Or as is often the case, the way rules don’t get made.
Start with the makeup of the rules committee. There are 12 members, but three spots are given to Division II schools and another three to Division III schools. That’s because the rulebook applies to all three divisions. Of the six seats allocated for Division I, five are currently occupied by men who work at the mid-major level: Belmont coach Rick Byrd (the current chair), Marshall associate athletic director Jeff O’Malley, Akron coach Keith Dambrot, Long Island University coach Jack Perri and Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson. The 12th man is Karl Hicks, the deputy athletic director at Florida State.
Marinate on that for a moment: Just one out of the 12 men on the rules committee works for a school in a Power Five conference.
No wonder the game is stuck in reverse. Though the people who serve on the rules committee are no doubt earnest and diligent, they are naturally protective of their own interests. A slower, rougher game benefits teams with lesser talent. Byrd, for example, says he likes the shot clock where it is because “I don’t think you can really run your offense in 30 seconds,” even though most of the planet seems to be able to do just that.
And what do you do if you’re a coach whose players aren’t quick and tall enough to prevent the gazelles at Kansas and North Carolina from driving through the lane and finishing at the rim? You manipulate the rulebook so it’s easier to push a driver, bump a cutter, shove a post player or draw a charge.
There is a place for upsets, of course, but they should happen because underdogs executed better, not because they were allowed to grab their speedier opponents. “I hear people complain and say, well if you do these things, the teams with the better players are going to win,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas says. “And I’m thinking, did you really just say that? That’s like saying if we took all the sprinters and let them run in a straight line, the fastest guy would win. That’s the whole point.”
The representatives from Division II and Division III also have cost concerns that the elite Division I schools don’t have. Proposals to change the lines on the court have met resistance partly because the lower divisions were wary of spending the money. “When we first talked about putting in the arc, the D-II and the D-III guys were saying, ‘Damn, that’s expensive.’ That was holding stuff up,” says Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who served on the committee from 2006-10 and was chairman in his final year. It makes even less sense that the men’s and women’s rules committee have traditionally worked in close consultation, even though they operate under a different set of rules. In the past, if the women objected strongly to a change the men’s committee had proposed, that idea was often tabled.
It is critical, then, that the committee be restructured. The schools that are on television every night are the ones that should have the most say. This is the same thinking that led the Power Five conferences to push through the autonomy legislation that has enabled them to do things like paying their athletes the full cost of attendance, an idea which had previously been nixed by schools who couldn’t afford to do so. “It’s a Division I tournament, so I think there should be a Division I group making rules,” Delany says. “Other people can follow if they want.”
However, there’s a broader question that needs to be addressed. Why are coaches even on the rules committee in the first place? They are always going to be more concerned with their competitive interests than the overall state of the game.
The undue influence is reflected in the response to the annual rules survey. The committee polls five groups: commissioners, referee coordinators, referees, media, and coaches. Last year, when the survey asked whether the number of time outs should be reduced, a strong majority of all the groups agreed that they should—except for coaches, of whom 74% disagreed. Coaches were also the only group that objected to the suggestion that only players should be allowed to call time out. On both questions, the coaches got their way.
Five years ago, Delany created a competition committee to monitor the game and offer suggestions, although it has no authority to impose change. The degree to which things have devolved was made to clear a few years ago when the group watched a video that was put together by the NCAA. The video showed extended segments of Final Four games dating back to 1954. Bilas, who serves on the panel and played in the 1986 Final Four when he was a senior at Duke, was amazed by what he saw. “When you see film from the old days, and sadly my era is the old days, the game looks so much cleaner,” he says. “We watched video of the 1985 final game between Villanova and Georgetown, and there was not one charge/block play. Not one. People talk about Georgetown intimidating people, but they intimidated people by blocking their shots, stealing the ball and dunking on them, not by bodying up a post man and bumping a cutter, or grabbing cutters so you’re disrupting the timing of an offense. The way guys play today, they’d foul out in the first five minutes.”
A great deal has changed since then, yet the game has failed to adapt. “The body types are so much different than they were 20 years ago,” Brey says. “Look at Patrick Ewing’s build. Look at Eddie Pinckney’s build. They were sleeker. Now you’ve got point guards seeing how much they can bench press, you’ve got personal trainers and nutritionists. If you’re a lean frontline guy, it’s hard to survive.”
In recent years, the task of preaching the freedom-of-movement gospel has fallen to Adams, the NCAA’s officiating czar. Adams does not have the authority to assign officials to games during the regular season. He does, however, have a huge say in who works what round in the NCAA tournament, and he has used his carrot-and-stick routine to prod his zebras into enforcing the rules regarding contact.
Adams, however, announced at the start of the season that he is retiring after the 2015 Final Four. Gavitt hopes to name his successor before the start of the NCAA tournament. All eyes are on this decision.
“We need to make one last desperate run at physical play when we hire this new John Adams replacement,” Brey says. “My hope is that with autonomy and everything else going on, a perfect storm might be coming together so we can finally get some stuff passed.”
When it comes to solving intractable problems, we are often told that where there’s a will, there’s a way. But the way out of college basketball’s mess is clear. The question is, do the people who run the sport have the will to come up with a plan and see it through?
Plenty of other sports have done it. Over the last two decades, the NFL and college football have greatly diminished the degree to which defenders can impede the progress of receivers, and they have outlawed excessive hits on quarterbacks. That begat the spread offense and the wide-open, pass-happy, no-huddle, high-scoring games that electrify football fans every fall weekend. Likewise, the NHL instituted a slew of new rules following the 2004-05 work stoppage, including clamping down on obstruction, the elimination of the rule against the two-line pass, and installing a trapezoid behind the net, which limited goalies’ abilities to play the puck. The changes have been widely praised for improving the aesthetic of the game, but scoring has flatlined due to improved goaltending. As another effort, the NHL before the 2013-14 season enacted a rule limiting the size of goalies’ equipment.
The NBA offers the best blueprint. Before the start of the 2000-01 season, then-commissioner David Stern tapped Jerry Colangelo, the general manager of the Phoenix Suns, to chair a special committee that was assigned to eliminate “all the muggings,” as Colangelo puts it. They devised prohibitions against hand-checking and other tactics that had tipped the advantage too far to the defense. There were many games that got bogged down in fouls early on, but eventually the coaches and players adapted.
Colangelo, who is now the chairman of USA Basketball’s board of directors, believes college basketball needs to go through the same transition. “Basketball ultimately is a game of fluidity,” he says. “It took about two years for everyone to adjust, but that dissipates over a period of time. You pay that price, but in the long-term that’s what was in the best interests of the game.”
Those who have coached American college players for Team USA in recent years swear that when our kids play in FIBA tournaments, they score points. They make shots. They’re rewarded for beating their man off the dribble. Turns out all they need is a shorter clock, some more space, and a tighter whistle. “Anything you can do to increase freedom of movement is going to increase scoring,” says VCU coach Shaka Smart, who has served as an assistant coach for USA Basketball’s under-18 and under-19 teams the last three years. “The players just kind of figured out how to play with the 24-second shot clock. We as coaches did, too, because you can’t run too many multiple sets. If you really want to increase scoring, you have to make the rules more to the advantage of the offense as opposed to the unbelievable advantage the defense has right now.”
To be fair, the NBA has the luxury of a fulltime staff of referees who only have to call games for 30 teams. For many years, people have been calling on the NCAA to adopt a similar arrangement, instead of the current system where each official is an independent contractor shuffling between leagues. The idea has been dismissed as too expensive—it would mean providing health insurance, for example—but it is starting to gain traction. Many conferences already have agreements with other leagues to share referees. Is it so impossible to imagine the Power Five conferences banding together, perhaps along with the other leagues like the Big East and Atlantic 10, to assemble a permanent staff? “It’s already happening regionally. I don’t think it’s a big step to make it more of a national program,” Gavitt says. “But it takes the will of the membership to do that.”
There’s that word again—will. In the end, the biggest problem college basketball faces is complacency. Usually, it takes a hard hit to the financial bottom line to spur significant change, but that won’t happen while the strongest leagues are locked into long-term, lucrative television contracts. Yet, for those who watch the game, coach the game, play the game, write about the game and love the game, there is no doubt that this crisis is real. The downward spiral might be slow, but it is inexorable. And until the pace of change speeds up dramatically, this once-beautiful game will slowly but steadily grind to a halt.