The 30-second clock’s a long-overdue solution to a problem we may not have

The last time any adjustment was made to the shot clock, Glenn Robinson was the reigning player of the year. It's been a long time coming.

The last time an adjustment was made to the shot clock was in 1994, when Glenn Robinson was the reigning player of the year. It’s been a while.

Last week the NCAA’s rules committee exceeded my loftiest expectations. Not only did the group recommend the adoption of a 30-second shot clock, it also:

  • Eliminated one second-half timeout
  • Enlarged the restricted area under the basket
  • Made any bench timeout called in close proximity to a scheduled media stoppage the “media timeout” all by itself (no more “bench timeout, four seconds of action, media timeout” sequences)
  • Gave officials the authority to review potential shot-clock violations on made field goals throughout the game
  • Prohibited coaches from calling live-ball timeouts
  • Enabled refs to call personals on players who on replay are found to have faked fouls
  • Reduced the penalty for class B technical fouls (e.g., hanging on the rim) to just one free throw
  • Ended the prohibition on dunking in pregame warmups.

That sound you heard on Friday was Twitter laboring mightily to wield its surgically implanted torches and pitchforks in the face what by any reasonable measure was a rather disconcerting overabundance of wish fulfillment. (How the NCAA can broadcast so much common sense in the span of but a few minutes while also keeping the RPI hooked to life support into a fourth decade is surely a quandary worthy of our finest organizational anthropologists.) 

These changes must all be approved next month by the NCAA’s playing rules oversight panel. Assuming this is merely a formality, the new shot clock will bring the men’s college game in line with how non-NBA teams have long played the sport both internationally and domestically on the women’s side.

The explicit premise shared by both supporters and critics of a shorter shot clock is that scoring is the sole and sufficient criterion with which to support or oppose this step. I on the other hand have been at some pains to distance myself from these scoring essentialists, be they pro- or anti-clock. My conscientious-objector status on this point can be stated more or less as follows: I’m actually not all that sure that scoring really is “down” in any meaningful sense, and I’m not certain that’s the most important question to be asked anyway.

Start with the fact that “scoring in college basketball” is driven mathematically by the two-thirds of Division I programs that casual fans never glimpse and by teams that even the majority of professional commentators rarely deign to observe. Call me strange, but I choose to leave it to the NCAA to fret about all of Division I and its per-game scoring averages.

For my part I much prefer to look at how the nation’s top third does in the portion of the schedule which such programs are required to play. In other words I choose to track scoring per 40 minutes (not per game — I don’t equate overtimes with good offense) in major-conference play.

What scoring crisis?
Major-conference games only, 2007-15


I’ll spare you the didactic homily on how the scale of a chart’s axis can be visually deceptive, except to say that the numbers 53 and 78 represent the lowest (1948) and highest (1971 and 1972)  levels of scoring recorded by D-I since the NCAA started tracking such things.

But let’s forget visuals entirely and stick to math. If we use 2007 as a baseline, the lowest figure we’ve seen for scoring in major-conference play since that time was a four percent decline from said benchmark in 2013. Meaning our worst-case scenario here is four percent. These numbers suggest to me that the news peg for scoring in major-conference basketball in recent years isn’t “decline,” much less “crisis,” but rather “numbing consistency.” (And if you’re thinking this all sounds suspiciously familiar, you’re correct: I am merely restating some points that have already been made in a rather more timely manner by Brian Cook.)

The paradoxical effects of fewer turnovers
If you really want to see a dramatic change in the game over the past decade or so, the statistical sizzle isn’t to be found in point totals but rather in turnovers. Just a few years ago it was still customary for major-conference teams to give the ball away on one in every five possessions in league play. Today that number fluctuates between 17 and 18 percent. This sounds like a small difference, but in percentage terms it dwarfs the scoring dip that has everyone running around screaming with their hands above their heads.

Perhaps coaches have noticed that Bo Ryan’s teams tend to score very efficiently season after season. Whatever the reason may be, there has been a marked decrease in turnovers at the highest levels of the college game. For example last season the league-wide average for turnover percentage in ACC play (16.9 percent) would have rated out as the best mark by any single team in the conference as recently as 2011. There’s your sea change, right there.

I say savor the paradox. Coaches are eliminating turnovers in a quest for more efficient scoring, but fewer turnovers can also correlate rather well with a decrease in the number of possessions — and thus fewer total points. Last season an average game in major-conference play contained just 64.1 possessions per 40 minutes, the slowest pace I’ve seen since I started tracking such things. And if unlike me you’re a scoring essentialist, one common-sense step to experiment with in a situation such as this would seem to be a shorter shot clock.

Mind you, scoring varies year by year even when we don’t tinker with the shot clock. Scoring will vary again next season and everyone will instantly say it’s because of the shot clock, even though that won’t be true. That being said, it’s not clear to me that there’s anything advantageous much less essential about a 35-second clock in particular. That number was merely the product of a compromise struck in 1994, when advocates of the late lamented 45-second status quo fought a rearguard action against the concept of an NBA-style 24-second clock.

An insufficiency of newly efficient basketball
This may be an appropriate moment to recall why college basketball has a shot clock in the first place. College basketball has a shot clock, quite simply, because of the 1982 ACC tournament title game:

The Tar Heels, in possession with a 44-43 lead and 7:34 remaining, called time and went into their stall. They did not shoot for seven minutes and six seconds.

The four-corner stall was once called the four-corner offense, but no offense appeared to be intended today. James Worthy, Mike Jordan, Jimmy Black, Matt Doherty, and Sam Perkins played catch until Virginia committed its seventh foul of the half, which sent Doherty to the line with 28 seconds left….

Doherty did not mind the four corners, saying: “I don’t care about the image of the sport. It was good for Carolina basketball because we won the game.” When asked about the tactic, Terry Holland, Virginia’s coach, said: “I’m not getting involved in that controversy. North Carolina did what it thought it had to do to win.”

The problem with the 1982 ACC tournament title game wasn’t a deficiency in the skill of the players (Michael Jordan, Ralph Sampson, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, et al.), a lack of schematic prowess on the part of the coaches or an absence of efficiency recorded by the respective offenses (on a per-possession basis both teams performed quite well). The problem with the 1982 ACC tournament title game was nothing more complex or puzzling than the fact that they just did not play enough basketball in those 40 minutes.

Right now, with our 35-second clock, teams aren’t playing quite enough basketball in 40 minutes. Even by their own admission, many coaches instruct their teams to run false motion in the belief (which I think is largely mistaken) that a strategic advantage will be achieved, the same kind of edge that Coach Smith secured for his team 33 years ago when he went four-corners with a one-point lead.

I define basketball as the active pursuit of scoring in confrontation with an opposing team, and I prefer basketball to false motion, timeouts and reviews. Call me a basketball essentialist: I favor any measure that will increase the amount of basketball played per 40 minutes, and whether this results in more scoring or not will be a matter for individual hoops palates. (Personally I am on the record as loving hoops excellence, be it on offense, defense, or both.) Last Friday the rules committee struck a blow for basketball essentialists everywhere. Well done, NCAA. Well done, and keep going.