Let them play

He likes reviews.

He likes reviews.

Perfecting what is already the best sport in the world will require addressing a rather ticklish situation that has arisen between the generations. At the risk of offending the age cohort to which I myself belong, college basketball is suffering from an infestation of adults.

The adults are the ones who insist on calling timeout over and over again in the game’s final minute. The adults are the ones who take way too long to review every call, particularly if it involves elbows being swung this way and that. The adults are the ones who whistle more fouls with each passing year. 

Proportionally more free throws, fewer shots from the field

Free throw rate (FTA/FGA)
NCAA tournament games

2012   0.34
2013   0.36
2014   0.38 (so far)

Let me repeat the “perfecting the world’s best sport” qualifier. The 2014 tournament has been outstanding, and the ratings reflect that. Seen in this light the fact that the in-tournament free throw rate continues to climb isn’t a searing indictment of what we’ve seen so far. More like a “Yeah, we’re going to want to keep an eye on this going forward” moment.

Perfecting the world’s best sport will entail sidling up to the adults, putting one arm around them, and thanking them in a soothing tone of voice for all they’ve done for the game. And as we smile all the while and praise the adults lavishly with our words, we will be marching them 10 steps away from the game and waving the grateful and long-suffering players onto the floor with our free hand.


Reduce the number of timeouts. A basketball game is not a G7 summit for goodness sake. Maybe the second-by-second wisdom and counsel of oh so omniscient adults is less necessary than we think, and if we let the players run the floor for two or even (gasp) three consecutive possessions without interruption we will find that entertaining things occur. The 45th minute of an overtime game is very often more palatable to the eye than the 40th because teams are given just one additional timeout for the extra period. We should strive to approximate that quality in regulation time.

Reconsider what a “foul” is. In the name of more scoring we’ve told offensive players to go and dribble into that defender. Free throws very often result, and free throws can indeed increase scoring. It is also the case, however, that free throws are boring. Maybe scoring would also be present in acceptable quantities if these were no-calls. If a player is in good defensive position — moving his feet with his arms raised — there should be a presumption of no-call. Right now it’s a presumed defensive foul.

Fix the elbow-flagrant-foul vortex of late-game-quality doom. Inadvertently and for entirely honorable purposes we’ve created a situation where players are encouraged to stick their faces into the vicinity of an opposing player’s whirling elbows. And if no contact results, the defender will often as not fake that contact soccer-style. This shows that the rewards for getting that call are too high. Adjust the reward accordingly. (My colleague Kevin Pelton has been all over this from the beginning and possibly even before the beginning. Salute.)

Give call-making authority to someone who is already in front of a courtside monitor. If I could promise you an officiating system that would get every call correct instantly, you would take that. Well, there is no such system, but one that gets most calls right as fast as possible may be not so wild a dream. As it stands the system of reviewing calls at the monitor rates out as pretty good on accuracy and poor on speed. Often as not Twitter has settled on the correct call before the official even has reached the scorer’s table. Station someone at that table. It will save precious seconds.

I also wonder whether my fellow adults haven’t over-coached their players something fierce, but that’s a topic for another day. In the here and now, the tweaks cited above are relatively easy to install. We’ll just have to do it sometime when the adults aren’t looking. Maybe during the Masters.