Welcome to March, the greatest time of year if one is a college basketball fan or a fan of ridiculous last second buzzer beaters. Before we continue, let's all watch one together.
Unfortunately, the game of college basketball is unwell. Frankly, college basketball kind of sucks right now. Seth Davis at Sports Illustrated wrote a long piece about the problems afflicting offense in the college game. Both scoring and pace of play are down, and have been trending downwards for the last decade. Ken Pomeroy projects this season to be the slowest pace since he began tracking the statistic. It is not uncommon for games to have a team in single digits until deep in the first half.
Davis correctly notes that this is not because of players leaving early. Prior to the creation of the one and done rule, promising prospects could skip the college game entirely and enter the draft. Briefly imagine an alternate universe where LeBron and Kevin Garnett played college basketball. Imagine how absolutely unfair that would have been to every other college player. Not that the rule really makes much of a difference. The majority of top prospects are not drafted and played at least a year or two of college basketball before making the transition to the pro game.
Davis blames coaches for the slowdown, and he's mostly right. Coaches control the rule making boards, a clear conflict of interest. They hoard time-outs and pursue strategies deliberately designed to slow down the game to minimize talent disparities. Referees are also to blame, though how much is debatable. Fouls are not up dramatically, and most of the problems fans have with referees concern not calling fouls against the other team.
Some commentators claim that college basketball is unique, that the diversity of styles is a strength and not a weakness. Those commentators clearly did not watch Wyoming and Fresno State play three overtimes to crack 60 points, or watch Louisville and Utah, two top-10 teams at the time, struggle to break 50. There are many unique and wonderful facets to college basketball. Terrible offense should not be one of them.
It is past time for college basketball to accept that it can be unique and exciting while removing rules that make most games less interesting than an actuarial lecture. The Rules Committee can and should put in place rules to both speed and open up the game. They should do so at the next meeting. Here is my proposal for a more watchable college game.
1. Remove Coaches from Legislating the Game
Davis's story makes clear that as long as head coaches are a part of the rules committee, there will be no real progress made to make the game better. Not that this should be surprising. Coaches have a real vested interest, an interest that is frequently counted in the hundreds of thousands to millions, in making sure that they have as much freedom as possible to run their preferred system. Coaches have a natural desire to try to control as much as possible because only ridiculous control freak type A personalities become Division 1 head coaches.
2. Eliminate Charges
Want to make the game more watchable? Reward the offense for driving to the basket and punish the defense for not guarding players. After a positive step forward to call a blocking foul if a defender arrived after the offensive player began an upward motion, the NCAA regressed back to old rules. Once again, it has become acceptable for a defensive player to slide underneath a player in the air. Not only is this practice dangerous, it defeats the whole purpose of playing defense.
Of course, the charge is not limited to situations where players in the air. It's also on drives to the basket, where the arc under the basket is just three feet wide, a foot shorter than the NBA. Even increasing the arc length does not change the fundamental problem which is that staying on the ground and getting ran into by an offensive player is notggood defense.
Eliminating the charge is a new position for me. For a long time, I felt that charges had a place in the game. After all, without charges, what is to stop an offensive player from putting a shoulder down and ramming into an offensive player? I have since come to the conclusion that this is a false dichotomy. At minimum we can narrow the definition for what constitutes a charge. Player control fouls can be called for overly aggressive play that can be clearly defined. For example, a player who deliberately lowers a shoulder into a defender to create space can be called for a foul.
3. Institute Illegal Defense
I agree with proposals to increase the width of the court to open up more spacing, but increasing the width of the court does not change the incentive for a defense to pack the middle. As long as it is justifiable to play a zone defense with a big parked in the middle of the lane, getting to the basket will be unnecessarily difficult. Unlike the NBA, the average college team does not have tons of players who can shoot well from deep. That's the whole premise of the proliferation of zone defenses at the college level.
What will increase the space in the middle is if the defense is not allowed to camp in the lane. No defender should be allowed to stay in the lane for more than three seconds when not explicitly guarding an offensive player.
4. Reduce Time Wasting Opportunities
Why do coaches have so many timeouts? Good question. At the college level, there are ample opportunities for teams to get rest breaks through official timeouts. Additional timeouts exist because coaches like them. Why can a coach call a timeout from the bench when a player is in trouble, rewarding the team that made a mistake? Good question. Coaches should have fewer opportunities to call timeouts and fewer timeouts. The "use it or lose it" timeout in the first half should have been a wake up call that timeout proliferation had gotten out of control.
The shot clock should be shorter, but not because it will generate more points per possessions. The jury is out on that argument, but what is undisputed is that teams rarely take shots early in a possession, meaning that at least 14 to 15 seconds of the shot clock is wasted anyway. Instituting a 24 second shot clock speeds up the game by virtue of forcing offenses to begin their actions immediately instead of waiting several seconds to burn clock.
All unnecessary free throws should be done away with. Flagrant and intentional fouls should be an automatic two points. To be briefly sacrilegious to March Madness, I would even be fine if all the obviously intentional fouling to extend games were called as such.
The Way Forward
There is one final aspect to this plan. Officials must be given the support and the incentives to call games in a manner conducive to interest. The NCAA needs to empower its officials to call the game as intended. Most importantly, the NCAA should hire a permanent staff of officials. The usual argument is that this is too expensive, and it comes from an organization that signed a multi-billion dollar contract with CBS. If the NCAA is not going to compensate the players, then it might as well compensate its officials.
College basketball is dying a death by one thousand remote clicks, but it is possible to fix the issue in a way that provides an exciting product while retaining the best aspects of the game.
That would suck less.