As interest among more casual observers of college basketball has waned -- even as there is more college basketball on television than ever before -- what to do to "fix" the sport has become a topic of much debate among media and die-hard fans.
The stark reality is that Joe Sports Fan pays attention to college basketball for about three weeks ... or perhaps even just one or two, depending on how fast his bracket gets trashed after the NCAA tournament tips off.
Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis wrote a lengthy piece on Monday offering up ideas for making the sport better. Actually, that's not totally accurate; his ideas center around increasing scoring, which might or might not jive with your idea of making the sport better.
Personally, I don't think increasing scoring is some panacea, and the graph that Davis uses to illustrate the downward trend in scoring shows why:
Scoring was as prolific last season as it had been in 15 years ... and yet nobody was proclaiming college basketball "fixed." That's because scoring went up practically exclusively because of increased emphasis on calling fouls on the defense. As you all know -- thanks Pac-12! -- there's nothing interesting about watching guys stand around and shoot dozens of free throws.
That's the thing: Whatever proposed "solutions" people come up with must take aesthetics into account. After all, basketball was meant to be a beautiful, free-flowing game, and it no longer is that at the college level, morphing over the years into something much less attractive thanks to coaching strategies designed primarily to impede its beautiful, free-flowing nature through clutching, grabbing, bumping and deliberate slowdowns.
For me, it's less about "how can we manufacture more points?" than it is about "how can we make more college basketball look more like this again?"
I realize that game is cherry picking a bit, given the quality of players on these two particular teams. But notice how the defense is played - no grabbing, minimal bumping. As 1980s Duke Blue Devil-turned-television personality Jay Bilas said in Davis' piece:
"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."
This isn't someone simply wishing for the good ol' days -- the evidence is in the video. The game truly has changed.
College basketball never will return all the way to what it once was. But any suggestion for ways to improve the game should be judged in terms of whether it will help move the game back in that direction. To that end, let's look at Davis' ideas, each of which aren't unique to Davis; they're the kinds of suggestions we hear often. I'll rate each, not in terms of whether it will increase scoring -- all of them certainly would -- but whether it will help us put some beauty back in the game.
I'll be rating each idea with Bill Waltons. Why Bill Walton? Because the Big Red Deadhead is a college basketball legend who loves basketball more than all of us put together. Plus, there's the added bonus of him being a national treasure. The more Bill Waltons, the better the idea.
Shorten the shot clock to 30 seconds
This is the most common suggestion, and it's a good one. For most people, it's as simple as shorter shot clock = more possessions = more points = profit. But I think this misses the bigger point: Do teams actually need 35 seconds?
The number of possessions in a game has steadily been declining, and there's only one explanation: Control freak coaches worried about their jobs. They micromanage their teams by forcing their players to walk the ball up the court and then run a bunch of clock in the name of getting a good look.
But how many teams who work the shot clock to the final five seconds eventually end up with a shot that's better than one they could have had earlier in the shot clock? This is something the teams and coaches of yesteryear understood well. Many teams simply use the clock because they can, not because it actually will yield a higher percentage look. Shorten the clock, and teams will be forced to get on with it by taking a shot earlier in the clock that's likely as good (or better) than the one they'll get later. I'm convinced that the game will not only have more possessions, but they'll be possessions of roughly the same quality.
There's a lot of pressure on coaches to win to keep their jobs, and it seems as though many of them believe that means they need to exercise as much control as possible by slowing down the pace and calling out every offensive set. (And calling tons of timeouts. More on that later.) I believe this is what we saw in the torturous final season under Ken Bone.
It's just not necessary.
How do I know? Besides watching Ernie Kent improve WSU's offense by taking basically the same players and turning them loose by empowering them to take a shot in the first 20 seconds of a possession, I've also watched the women's game use a 30-second shot clock -- as it has for decades -- and those players seem to be able to run an offense just fine in that amount of time.
Unless you're under the impression that women can do things that men can't on a basketball floor, it's time to let go of this idea that 30 seconds isn't enough time to competently run an offense. Heck, the rest of the 20-year-olds on the planet have a 24-second shot clock thanks to FIBA!
The arc under the basket should be extended to four feet
I despise the role of the block/charge call in college basketball, as I will never understand how intentionally creating a collision for the purpose of generating a turnover should have a place in the sport. But if we're being honest, eliminating a charge or two a game by making it harder for a secondary defender to help near the basket isn't going to fundamentally make the game more beautiful. However, it will reduce the number of cheap charges and also likely reduce the number of collisions around the basket, since players know it will be harder to get the call.
I'm all for this. It just doesn't really fire me up, as I think the impact will be fairly negligible.
The lane should be wider
Meh. Davis argues it will unclog the space around the basket, but it seems to me that most teams primarily run some version of a 4-out offense due to the emergence of the stretch 4 and the lack of strong post players. I can't imagine this has much impact at all.
The three-point line should be deeper
Casual fans love to reject this one out of hand. "Shooting is so bad already! If you want to increase scoring, why would you want to make this shot harder??" Follow me for a minute, though. First off, remember that my primary goal isn't to increase scoring. People said the same thing about making the shot harder when the line was moved back to its current distance for 2008-09, but check this out:
You notice both attempts and makes were on the rise until the line was moved back, at which time both dropped sharply. And with the exception of attempts being up again this year (I'm not sure what's behind that), things basically are what they were before that rise started, which tells me that teams and players adapted to the harder shot. It's reasonable to think they'll do the same again, especially considering the rest of the planet plays at the FIBA line (22 feet vs. 20 feet) at the college-age level.
If you watch a lot of NBA basketball, you know that the biggest thing the extended three-point line does there is spread the floor. The difference in terms of space to operate is a bit jarring -- and the NBA is full of bigger and longer players! If it's reasonable to conclude that college players would eventually make their threes at roughly the same rate even with a longer line, why wouldn't you want to create more space for players inside the arc to do beautiful basketball things? Teams that want to pack it in will necessarily give up more open threes, and teams that want to guard the three will find it harder to impede the progress of drivers. Because of that, I'd argue this likely will cut down on charges even more than extending the arc.
Perhaps it also will encourage some players who have no business shooting threes to stop shooting threes. This is a great idea.
There should be fewer timeouts
Honestly, seven Waltons really isn't enough, this is that much of a no brainer. I've become a bit of a soccer fanatic, and so often, I think to myself during the final moments of a tense match, "WOW IT SURE IS AMAZING THESE GUYS CAN PLAY THE LAST THREE MINUTES WITHOUT CONFERRING WITH THEIR COACH EVERY 30 SECONDS!"
I was talking with Craig about this the other day, and he said something to the effect of, "When I flip over to a game with a minute to go and just a couple of timeouts between the two teams, I get really excited." Timeouts do not add to the drama. Players playing the sport adds to the drama.
Davis notes that when you factor in TV timeouts and halftime, coaches get roughly 33 minutes of actual time to talk to their players over the course of the two hours it takes to play the game. Think about that: For every three minutes the players are on the floor, the coach gets to talk to them for one. Any of you think that's not enough time to coach 'em up? And don't tell me execution is already terrible; I'm of the opinion that execution is awful because players have been trained to let their coaches do their thinking for them. Teach the players to start thinking for themselves again.
I'm also in favor of this:
Again, basketball was meant to be a free-flowing game, relatively continuous in nature. Reducing stoppages is a hugely positive move.
A final thought. Something I advocated for during a Twitter rant on this subject was simply more strict interpretation of foul infractions -- just blow the stupid whistle whenever an offensive player's progress is impeded, both on and off the ball. Of course, that was met with disdain, given how ugly that would make games (much like last season). It also probably seems counter to what I've been advocating for.
To me, though, it's akin to taking medicine to cure a sickness. It sucks in the short term, but sometimes that's the only way to fix a problem long term.
I understand it's distasteful, as it obviously would make for some ugly basketball at the outset. But how long would it take for teams to adapt? Probably not even an entire season. And we'd be left with a cleaner, more free-flowing game. In lieu of that, the aforementioned rules changes should help accomplish similar ends without an unsightly season of free throw shooting contests.
And no, I don't think any of this will reduce the charm of college basketball by making styles more vanilla or reducing the probability of upsets. Remember: The athletically gifted teams will have to stop clutching, bumping and pushing, too.
However, as Davis notes, there has to be a will to make a way, and right now, the will has to come from coaches -- the same coaches who are responsible for reducing possessions and increasing stoppages are the ones responsible for the rules.
I certainly hope the coaches wake up soon. I love college basketball -- one of my first jobs in journalism was as a college basketball editor -- but I've increasingly found many games difficult to watch. I just don't think much of college basketball is what the game was supposed to be. It doesn't have to be that way.
Which of these ideas do you think hold the most promise? Or do you have other ideas?