Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Is Thirty Seconds Too Much to Ask?

Last night’s debacle called the Men's Divison I National Championship Game is likely still turning stomachs. Yes, a win’s a win and a title is a title if you’re a fan of the boys from Storrs; so congratulations to the UConn Huskies that actually scored a basket, blocked a shot or grabbed a rebound. That Butler played in back to back national championship games is a testament to the program, even in an era that has been (deservedly) maligned for watered down programs and greater NCAA malfeasance.

Yet, the greatest take away from the game for this Scribe wasn’t how bad both teams performed – and they were awful. It’s something far more maddening and still unconscionable.

Is it time to lower the men’s college basketball shot clock again?

It’s important to note the men’s game because as you’ll see tonight with the women’s national championship game, despite the physical differences in the players, there’s a quicker pace in their game.

"Okay, I got 24 seconds to work."
Some history: The NBA introduced the shot clock in 1954 after finding that fan and media interest declined year after year (the league itself was just eight years old) due to low-scoring, stall-fests. The introduction of the shot clock is credited to Danny Biasone, the founding owner of the Syracuse Nationals (they eventually became the Philadelphia 76ers) as he experimented with a clock during a scrimmage. He found that there was an immediate increase in offense, game pace and excitement in the game and pushed the Association to implement the clock in time for the start of the 1954-55 season.

Essentially, the game was reborn. Removed from the mere extension of the peach-basket era of the patriarch’s design (James Naismith), new strategies and maneuvers were developed and the five positions on the floor evolved in ways not previously conceived. Of course coaches found ways to stall anyway; stalling occurred far less regularly while remaining only a way to ensure a win in the final frames of a contest instead being a defined style of play.

The shot clock saved the professional game as other pro leagues across the globe adopted the standard 24-second clock. However, the NCAA was peculiarly slow. It was the women, not men, that played with the shot clock first in 1969; an experimental 30-second clock that was made permanent in 1970 and remains to this day. The testosterone crew added the clock, eventually, in 1985.


It was a 45-second shot clock and one that met decades of resistance long before its arrival as this Sports Illustrated article from 1982 explains. The clock was reduced again to 35 seconds after 1993-94.

Yet, somehow, the college game continues to be defined by a deliberate pace. Whereas the NBA was raked through the coals for a sluggish pace in the immediate years of the post-Jordan era – despite its existence during the Jordan era – the NCAA game managed to become slower and slower and slower.

Maybe the watered-down talent argument has a lot of merit. After all, in one of the most insane tournament games of all time, the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels ran all over Loyola Marymount in the 1990 Elite Eight, 131-101 (check the 1:50 mark). The eventual national champions boasted one of, it not the greatest college basketball team of all time (not just the early shot clock era), led by mad scientist head coach Jerry Tarkanian and future NBA stars in Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon. That amazing output in 1990 wasn’t just an offensive explosion as that team played exceptional defense all season long, allowing that end of the court to set the pace on the opposite side. [Keep in mind that for LM, Paul Westhead orchestrated a successful high-tempo offense himself.]

Yet, there’s something to be said that even in a shorter shot clock of 35 seconds, last night had the lowest scoring title game since 1946. Butler (which might be better than these back to back appearances show) played in the two lowest scoring games since the adoption of the clock. Let’s not forget that Maryland scintillated the world in 2002 against Indiana in a 64-52 contest, the third lowest of the era.

via AOL - if you can find it.
Now, shaving the clock isn’t just some manufactured manner of getting NBA fans to enjoy the men’s college game, though whether some like it or not, having those eyes are vital to viewership, sponsorships and for neutral site games, attendance. Lowering the shot clock again would compel better decision making by coaches and players.

College coaches are some of the most conservative play designers in sports; preferring to milk each second of the shot clock. They rather minimize mistakes and at the last second, outshoot zone defense (don’t laugh). This is made easier if there are some good rebounders on the team to extend the possession. Players seem to be pretty good at over-passing and running around the perimeter until the clock goes :01. It’s an exercise in stamina and strategy, but certainly not efficiency.

If you quicken the pace a bit, players could consider taking shots as soon as they are open. In fact, players might consider moving a second or two sooner to set them up for a better shot. Coaches should encourage their floor leaders to play with more options. On occasion, a player might decide to take the game on his shoulders and avoid going into six overtimes while having to play the next day.

Or better yet, you don’t have a scenario like the ’08 title game between Memphis and Kansas. There’s a reason for the reputation coach John Calipari as a terrible game manager late in games despite the NBA-level talent he has managed to recruit over the years. With a seven point lead in the final minutes of the second half, the Tigers, with Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, seemed to play keep-a-way, but Kansas – knowing that Memphis was a poor free-throw shooting squad – kept fouling and creating possessions on the other end. Kansas chipped at the lead and forced overtime. In the extra session, Rose and CD-R (leading scorer in the tournament) essentially stuck with a clock-milking perimeter game as opposed to attacking the basket after the Jayhawks jumped to and maintained the early lead.

These kids were recruited for a myriad of basketball skills that should be displayed more than the current game allows. This is a game that can use more attacks to the rim, not just brilliant backdoor cuts. This is a game that can truly benefit from displaying cleverly used, but aesthetically pleasing athleticism as opposed to one actual dunk in the last two title contests – the most bizarre stat in recent basketball history.

This isn’t to say that Brad Stevens or Jim Calhoun should flip the switch and become Mike D’Antoni and even Don Nelson next winter. Stevens built a good defensive program that could probably kick up the tempo a bit more once the Bulldogs get into conference play (because it’s easy to drop buckets against overmatched, non-conference lightweights in November). Calhoun, meanwhile, can always recruit the top players around the country and despite the typical ‘my way or the highway’ credo coaches live by, he could let the talents somewhat dictate the style of play.

The shorter shot clock would allow coaches to flaunt their supposed genius a bit, too.

Stop cringing. It'll be okay.
Now, some will say “Jason, you admitted that you don’t follow the college game very much anymore, so you can’t speak on it”. Yet, this is the main reason why it’s so difficult for a pro snob such as me to re-invest in college basketball. It’s not about tailoring the game to bring in more viewers or sell more merchandise. It’s about seeing how good these kids truly are when facing an inherent challenge in advancing the ranks of the game.

The game is too similar to high school except that instead of playing teens that already reached their athletic peak; they’re playing the cream of the secondary school crop. There’s a tremendous challenge in playing against the best young talents from top notch high schools and AAU programs. Yet, just as students have to adjust to an advance structure of education in the classroom with professors, lectures and tougher grading policies, as a player ascends in his career, he should be able to mature with a more advanced structure a higher level of game should imply.

Whenever a nationally televised championship elicits so much moaning and groaning about the quality of play, we expect the league to respond. More often than not, they have; from the NHL’s post-lockout rule changes to the NFL’s limitations on defensive contact to the NBA’s adoption of clear path fouls and restricted area in the paint. Some of these changes still ruffle feathers, but there’s no question that they have encouraged an evolution of game play by forcing coaches to expand playbooks and players to make physical adjustments.

Yet, this one modification won’t exactly threaten the look of the court, the physicality of the players or the playbook coaches employ. It will encourage the system to display the absolute best their players and coaches have to offer.

Now, about that pointless possession arrow…


Ed The Sports Fan said...

I think the idea is a novel one, and its something that the game could use from an aesthetic standpoint. I wonder if the mid-majors would be at risk....more uptempo game, less gimmicks, etc.

Great read Bro. Clinkscales. Keep doing work.

Jason Clinkscales said...

I do what I can.

Something tells me that the conversation has been had before, but I have a hard time understanding why there hasn't been a larger discussion in recent years, considering how many lambast the NCAA for diminished quality. No matter how much fans said they loved the scrappiness and imperfections throughout the first two weeks of the tournament, last night was proof that skill is paramount to long-term health of the sport. I just think that the game as is doesn't allow those skills to be revealed.

I tried my best to not speak as a pro snob, but being one, I can't help but to wonder why so many players struggle with decision making when they come out of college. Just knowning that players - especially guards - have to react quicker at the next level just makes this frustration grow by the second.