A preface to shot-clock pessimism

I demand gotcha questions on where the candidates stand on the new shot clock. And I vote.

As hoops fans we demand that candidates take a stand on the new shot clock. And we vote.

I don’t know what will happen when the 30-second shot clock is introduced to the college game this November, and I’m prepared to wax fairly adamant and doctrinaire over my ignorance on this matter. The fact is no one knows what will happen, so the best we can do is engage in learned speculation.

Certainly I can be won over to speculating that this whole shot-clock thing is going to end rather badly. Why not? That is, after all, one of three possible outcomes. A year from now I suspect there will be a consensus view to the effect that the new shot clock has either been a success, a mixed blessing/non-event, or a failure. Other things being equal, “I have a bad feeling about this” has roughly a 33 percent chance of being correct. And a one-in-three probability qualifies as a strong likelihood in my book.

Nevertheless I’ve been struck by what’s been offered up in the way of trepidation on this question. Before I sign up for membership in the worried 33 percent, I confess I still have a couple questions that need answers.  

Why will next season be different than the non-NCAA 2015 postseason?
I am not surprised that the indefatigable Ken Pomeroy scooped up the data from what happened this past March when the NIT, CBI and CIT all used 30-second shot clocks for their games. (Ken found a modest increase in scoring over what would otherwise be expected from these same matchups under “normal” conditions.) I am somewhat surprised by how cavalierly his work has been cited in pieces that then forecast a new era of lower scoring under the 30-second clock. If you’ve seen Ken’s work and you still profess to be bearish on the new clock, it would seem to me a question presents itself rather unavoidably:

Why is next season going to be different than what transpired in the 75 games Ken studied? And, if you expect that certain dynamics will come into play next season (clutch-and-grab defenses feasting on newly time-stressed opposing offenses, say, and/or more possessions going late into the clock), why did those dynamics not come into play in the non-NCAA postseason we just saw?

Ken’s an understated sort, but if his stylistic antipode Donald Trump had done this same work he would be well within his rights to say “I’m really rich in data.” As voters we’re used to pollsters making inferences about the entire adult population of the United States based on what two thousand respondents say. We are of course quite right to be comfortable with such a procedure analytically speaking, so in this same context perhaps it’s worth noting that 75 college basketball games comprise the functional equivalent of polling something closer to two million people.

Does that mean we know with certainty that the 2015-16 season will be merely an echo of what we just saw in these second-level tournaments? Certainly not. There are any number of reasons why next season could play out differently. Maybe by then coaches will have had months to hatch fiendishly effective 30 Seconds of Hell defensive schemes. Or perhaps the motivations in the 2015-16 regular season will be markedly different than those that obtained in non-marquee postseason tournaments the previous year. For all we know the second-level tournaments by definition excluded precisely the elite programs that are best positioned to thrive defensively in the new 30-second era.

These all sound plausible enough to me — maybe one or more descriptions will turn out to be accurate. But for my money this is the hoop that pessimism will need to jump through in order to be persuasive. Ken’s 75 games constitute the elephant on steroids in this particular room, and said beast is yet to be acknowledged much less tamed.

Will efficiency really decrease enough to offset the likely increase in possessions?
In recent years as major-conference teams have successfully emulated Wisconsin and ended a higher percentage of their trips down the floor with a shot attempt rather than a turnover, games have come to consist of fewer and fewer possessions. If you’re the NCAA and you’re faced with this trend, one rather straightforward expedient is to compel teams, by rule, to shoot sooner. This is not rocket science, and if the experiment works it will simply nudge the game back to where it was a few seasons ago in terms of possessions per 40 minutes. That is indeed what occurred in terms of tempo during the non-NCAA tournaments this past postseason.

My pessimistic friends will grant all of the above but then additionally raise the question of whether all of those quantitatively shorter possessions might not be changed qualitatively in the defenses’ favor in 2015-16. That’s a very good question, one for which no one has an answer. On the one hand, if you seek solace look around you at women’s college hoops or FIBA. They’ve had 30-second clocks for a very long time and no one seems to be running around screaming with their hands above their heads about the dismal slugfests that result. On the other hand, maybe men’s college basketball is uniquely blighted with slugfest-inducing refs and/or folkways that will become even more egregious within the confined crucible of a half-minute. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that on at least one point my pessimistic friends are absolutely correct. Strictly speaking any shortening of the shot clock will result in a higher share of possessions being of the low-low-efficiency sort that go deep into the clock. So for instance when the shot clock was slashed by a whopping 22 percent before the 1994-95 season, the ensuing jump in scoring must have been due in no small measure to an acceleration in tempo. Might we see something similar next season in the wake of a relatively timid 14 percent reduction in the time allotted for each possession?

I don’t doubt for a moment that coaches will endeavor to take advantage of the new shorter clock defensively, but I’m yet to see any concomitant coverage on how these very same coaches will also seek to capitalize on the new clock offensively. And, anyway, if we really do find that new-clock basketball is the unholy mess that pessimists have forecast I trust we can simply change back to the old clock. Surely our errors are not such awfully solemn things. I’m not certain what will happen with the new clock, but the experiment is certainly worth a try.