The high school boys basketball playoffs start this week. (Weather permitting in some places.) That means the NCAA college basketball tournaments are imminent.
It has become fashionable, of course, to assert that Division I college basketball is “in trouble,” that it has become so slow and staid and overcontrolled it might ultimately wither into irrelevance. Some of this is hyperbole, since there’s an obvious upside to the parity that low scoring engenders, and since the NCAA tournament is still a financial windfall, and since a team like Wisconsin, under Bo Ryan, can drag games into the 30s and still win games and fill seats. But it is impossible not to notice that something is happening, that the balance has been thrown off, and it is silly not to acknowledge that the overarching trend is impacting how people view college basketball. “I’m not a guy who’s too concerned about whether the game is popular or not,” says Ken Pomeroy, who pioneered the notion of advanced college basketball statistics at his website, “but it certainly hurts the perception of it.”
Here is what the numbers confirm: Overall scoring, at slightly less than 68 points per game, is at its lowest level in three decades, and possessions are growing longer and longer. The game, as a whole, is slower and less free-flowing than it used to be. There are distinct lulls, and transition baskets are more and more difficult to come by. Ask why this is happening, and it becomes a Rorschach test: You will hear a dozen hypotheses from a dozen different sources, ranging from the length of the shot clock to the increased physicality on the perimeter to poor shot selection to the lack of competent post players to the profusion of timeouts to the NBA’s one-and-done rule to the spike in coaches’ salaries, all of which are entirely speculative, and any of which might be at least somewhat viable.
The last of Michael Weinreb’s hypotheses leads to another that may or may not be tied to coach salaries, because it applies to high school coaches too, most of whom are paid in no more than four figures. Weinreb interviewed former Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs, whose Sooner teams were among the nation’s scoring leaders:
Toward the end of his Oklahoma tenure, Tubbs says, he could feel the culture changing, veering toward the conservatism he both embraces outside of the game and despises within it. (In 1991, a few years before Tubbs left Oklahoma for TCU, overall scoring peaked at 77 points per game, and it’s been trailing downward ever since.) Tubbs brought up the shadow of “political correctness” with me several times, which seems like a bit of an oblique connection, but I think what he was trying to say is that the coaches who should be willing to gamble — coaches, like Tubbs, who are blessed with superior talent — simply don’t think it’s worth the risk anymore. And so they take command of everything that’s happening on the floor. They slow the game down to call offensive sets, and they play it safe on defense rather than risk giving up easy layups in transition. And the very notion of running wild like Tubbs’s teams did, or of throwing caution to the wind like Paul Westhead’s Loyola Marymount teams did, or of raising hell like Nolan Richardson’s Arkansas teams did, becomes a concept too fraught with potential danger to even consider implementing. The favorites now play at the underdog’s pace. And this, one coach told me, is how a team like Kansas loses to an obvious inferior like TCU.
“To take command of everything that’s happening on the floor” happens to blunt one of the supposed benefits of athletics. Players of team sports learn to work as a team, to realize the greater good is more important than the individual, and how to deal with success and failure. They also should learn decision-making on the fly, because in life sometimes you have to make important decisions quickly. Student–athletes do not learn when their coach does all the thinking and makes all the decisions. Employers do not want automatons working for them.
Of course, any story about slow-tempo basketball has obligatory shots at Wisconsin. Tubbs was not known for caring about others’ opinions when he coached, and that apparently hasn’t changed:
“The thing you’ve got to look at is if the stands are empty in the arena. I’m seeing a lot of empty seats. You can play really conservative if you fill the gym. At Wisconsin, they don’t know any better, do they?”
Tubbs’ rude comment about Wisconsin aside, he’s right about the financial issues, which, as I’ve argued before, apply to football as well. Division I college coaches of revenue sports (primarily football and men’s basketball, plus men’s hockey at Wisconsin) are judged not merely on wins and losses, but on whether they fill their stadiums. The revenue sports at D-I schools fund all the other sports. When Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas, I argued then (and believe now) that it was a stupid move because he was in no danger of losing his UW job because the Badgers filled Camp Randall Stadium, whether or not fans were always pleased with what they were seeing, or paying.
Whether UW fans like games in the 40s or not, Bo Ryan is similarly in no danger of losing his Wisconsin job. The aforementioned Pomeroy ranks Wisconsin fifth best in Division I and second best in the Big Ten, despite its 19–8 record. Ryan’s accomplishments at UW — Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles, something UW never did under Dick Bennett, and an Elite Eight team, the only area in which Bennett did better — make Ryan arguably the best coach UW has ever had. (It is interesting to note, though, that the UW Athletic Department was pushing season tickets into the regular season.)
Ryan is an example of the value of old sportswriters. Sports commentators working today assume that Wisconsin has always played a glacially slow style of basketball, dating back before Ryan to Bennett. Few probably realize that when Ryan was the coach at UW–Platteville, his teams tried to run and press their opponents out of the gym; in fact, UWP once led Division III in scoring under Ryan. Today’s sportswriters are too dense to realize that maybe Ryan’s offensive style is based on Ryan’s conclusions based on available talent within the state of Wisconsin.
Adding more hate, if you want to call it that, is Awful Announcing:
Tuesday night CBS Sports Network Debbie Antonelli went the extra mile to try and help viewers at home watching Rutgers-Syracuse. The score at the half was 19-15 Rutgers as both teams combined to shoot 22.2% from the field. Antonelli left the booth and went to the scorers table to try and select a new game ball and change the offensive luck of both teams. …
If only we could get whoever’s calling the next Wisconsin game to try this …
I’ve watched, covered and announced games of every conceivable tempo. I admit to preferring a faster pace, having covered the fastest-paced team of all, Grinnell College. It’s not that every game needs to be played at Grinnell’s insane pace, though. There are high-quality deliberate-paced games. There are also deliberate-paced games that are boring to watch, and there seem to be an increasing number of those kinds of games.
We know how the most successful sport, pro football, would handle this. The National Football League will tinker with its rules whenever the league feels it’s necessary to stoke fan interest, usually toward more offense. Today’s NFL game ties back to 1978, when the league liberalized what offensive linemen could do and restricted what defensive backs could do. The NFL realizes that sports is entertainment, and non-entertained fans don’t buy tickets and don’t spend money at the stadium.
College sports is entertainment too, whether or not the NCAA wants to admit that. Sportswriter complaints shouldn’t be the impetus for NCAA rule changes. Dropping TV ratings and diminishing attendance should be the impetus for NCAA rule changes. Fewer eyeballs watching games, in person or on TV, will ultimately mean less financial windfall for the NCAA.
Perhaps the most effective way (as the excellent sports editor of The Platteville Journal pointed out) to improve scoring has nothing to do with, as has been suggested elsewhere, the distance of the three-point line or the length of the shot clock. (Scoring now is below where it was in the days before the three-point shot and the shot clock, which demonstrates that coaches and players adjust to rules changes.) It doesn’t have to do with the lane, either, even though I’ve previously proposed the international lane, which trapezoid shape might make camping in the lane more difficult for offensive players.
It has to do with the officials’ calling the game as it is meant to be played, as opposed to how it’s played now.
What does watching old NCAA basketball demonstrate? It demonstrates how the game is supposed to be officiated. Playing inside shouldn’t reach contact levels consistent with charges for battery. Touching the player with the ball should be a foul. Contact should mean fouls. Not only would calling fouls mean more points directly (assuming players started practicing free throws again), it would mean changes in defensive approaches away from today’s no-autopsy no-foul strategy.
Coaches are not dumb. If officials called the correct fouls, coaches who played excessively physical styles would lose games. (This means you, Tom Izzo!) They would either adjust or get fired (because their teams lost and fans stopped showing up) and would have to find jobs as football defensive assistant coaches.