Lawrence, Kan. — Shorter shot clocks and fewer timeouts. Less hand-checking and physical play. All designed to speed up the game of college basketball, encourage scoring and make it more aesthetically pleasing.
The rule changes implemented earlier this season were the most dramatic to hit the sport since the introduction of the 3-point arc, and they were accompanied by a seismic shift in how the game was to be officiated.
But the great irony has been this: College basketball now looks very much like it did 20 years ago, an elegant, free-flowing game rather than a rough-and-tumble sport.
“The rules changes are supposed to improve the game,” Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith said, “but also give players more freedom to express themselves and play the game the way we wanted it played.
“We’re in an entertainment field as well as an educational field,” he added. “We know that.”
There’s not much entertainment in a low-scoring, foul-filled game.
Field-goal percentages have been on the decline for years. Possessions, too. Scoring had dropped to 67 points on average last season, the lowest level since the ‘50s. Attendance plummeted right along with it, hurting the pocketbooks of many athletic departments.
That’s why the NCAA men’s basketball rules committee — made up of coaches, athletic directors, conference administrators and NCAA officials — brought about a slew of reforms this season. Most notable was changing the shot clock for the first time since before the 1993-94 season, when it went from 45 seconds to 35 seconds. It is now 30 seconds. The committee also expanded the restricted area in the paint, and eliminated one timeout by each team in the second half to help plodding games to a conclusion.
Going hand-in-hand with the rules changes was a directive to officials to more closely enforce them, particularly when it came to physical play on the perimeter and in the post.
“In my 30 years of college basketball, this is by far the most important year I’ve ever seen,” said Curtis Shaw, the Big 12’s director of officiating. “Our focus has to be on athletic skills, allowing the freedom of movement, to allow great athletes to score and play the game.
“We’re not necessarily looking for more shots,” Shaw explained. “What we are looking for is the opportunity for our players to get better shots, cleaner looks at the basket.”
Six weeks into the season, the changes seem to have worked.
Scoring has increased by more than six points per team for each game, while teams have gotten about four more possessions and taken nearly five more field-goal attempts. According to the NCAA, about 75 percent of those additional points have been due to improved pace of play, with the remaining 25 percent of scoring from increased efficiency.
In other words, teams have responded to quicker play by playing at a higher level.
That should allay the fears of coaches including West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who worried a shorter shot clock and fewer timeouts would result in more haphazard attempts.
“I think teams are playing a little faster,” acknowledged Creighton coach Greg McDermott, “and I think as long as scoring is up, I don’t think anybody is going to say anything.”
Especially if the game remains clean.
A couple years ago, the rules committee asked officials to clamp down on hand-checking and curtail physical play in the post, hoping it would lead to a similarly free-flowing game. Instead, games became a macabre foul-fest, and officials slowly backed off as conference play began.
But with the latest rule changes, and the shift in how games are called, the increased offense has not come from free throws — only one additional foul is being called on each team per game.
“I think they’ve helped,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said of the changes, “but the proof is going to be, ‘Are the officials … going to keep it going for the entire season?’”
Williams is also skeptical of a few changes, such as eliminating the 5-second closely guarded rule. If the premise of the changes is to speed things up, why remove a rule that forces ball movement? He also doesn’t like barring coaches from calling live-ball timeouts.
“They said, ‘Well, you know, the officials had a tough time knowing if it was the coach calling or one of the players or a fan,’” Williams said. “We’re paying them enough money. They ought to be able to figure out things like that.”
Those points aside, Williams said he believes the game is in a better place. Nobody has been held to 25 points for an entire game, like Washington State and Northern Illinois were in recent years, and teams are playing an up-and-down style reminiscent of college basketball’s halcyon days.
Iowa State beat rival Iowa 83-82 in a wildly entertaining game. Butler scored 144 points in a win over The Citadel. Defensive-minded Kansas is averaging nearly 90 points per contest.
In fact, Jayhawks coach Bill Self believes this may be his best shooting team. It’s loaded with guys who can pop open 3-pointers, but also cut to the basket and create shots off the dribble.
Precisely the kind of team that can flourish in college basketball’s new era.
“I guess,” Self said, “that’s our good fortune.”