The conversations are like hearing a mother talk about her son’s bad decisions. She loves him, always will, but hanging out on the corner late at night is nothing but trouble. She sees the dark road and hopes her dear boy makes the right changes before it’s too late.
This is the picture you get talking to people inside college basketball about their sport. They love the game, but hope it gets help.
In an age of growing value for sports properties, ratings are going down and it’s easy to see why. Scoring is at historic lows. Possessions are longer … and longer. Attacks on the rim are replaced by hip bumps on drives, providing incentive to shoot more and more guarded 3-pointers.
Four assistant coaches talked for this story — two from the Big 12, one each from the SEC and ACC — and at a minimum each advocated for a shorter shot clock. One called games “boring at times.”
They were granted anonymity for various reasons, including honesty but also because the smartest man of the bunch — no offense to those coaches — is speaking loudly and clearly.
“I will fight for college basketball until the death,” said Jay Bilas, the former Duke player and assistant coach, and current ESPN broadcaster. “But sitting by and watching this ship sink is not good enough. Who could defend what we’re seeing right now?”
The sport’s problems are coming out of the shadows in what is largely an ugly season. This will almost certainly be the slowest season since college basketball adopted the (then 45 seconds) shot clock. This is a season of hopeless shots and streams of timeouts slaughtering any flow.
One game was 17-14 at halftime and tied at 55-55 after an overtime. Nine teams from power conferences have won games without breaking 50 points. Temple won a game scoring 40 points, on 11-of-48 shooting. On Thursday, Georgia Tech — an ACC program that gives out scholarships — scored 28 points. In a full, 40-minute game. No wonder fewer people are watching.
The sport must change. It tried a year ago, when “freedom of movement” became a buzz phrase, and the changes worked. Scoring and possessions jumped. But officials didn’t have the stomach for it, and by conference play, with games taking on more importance and coaches continuing to pressure referees, the game basically reverted to its old ways.
It’s frustrating, because especially in private, so many people inside the sport know the game must evolve. That much is obvious. There are several simple shifts that could make the sport cleaner, faster, and better to watch (and play, for that matter).
But the thing is, the best way to make those smaller changes is to address one outdated, self-destructive and fundamental fact about college basketball: The game has no leader.
What kind of multibillion-dollar business operates without a CEO?
“There’s nobody in charge, and that has become abundantly clear,” Bilas said. “We deserve the game we’ve got now. We earned this.”
Jim Haney, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, acknowledges that there is a growing conversation from within the game to have a more centralized leader.
“I do think there is interest in trying to figure out how to manage it more effectively, and what would that look like,” Haney said.
That’s a start, at least.
This is hardly the first time a major sport has needed to adapt in a faster culture. In somewhat recent history, the NBA and NFL have each faced similar problems.
The NFL is the most obvious place to start. Football is a tough-guy culture, of course, and for decades the NFL glorified its nastiest and most bone-jarring (often bone-breaking) hits.
But at some point in the late 1990s or early 2000s, that culture began to cause problems. First, it was too many injuries to too many quarterbacks — affecting not only scoring and strategy, but interest from fans wanting to see stars. Then, a growing acknowledgment and acceptance of what the violence of football does to the brains and bodies of the men who play it.
In very different ways, both factors were affecting the attraction and in turn profits of the sport. The NFL responded with a series of rules changes — from the so-called strike zone on quarterbacks to how defenders can touch receivers — to increase scoring and reduce injuries.
The result: In the last 25 years, the top four seasons in touchdowns per game are the last four seasons. There have been criticisms about the wussification of a tough-guy sport, but even through all of the NFL’s other mistakes, the sport has never been more watched or more profitable.
The NBA’s moment — “Hi, I’m David Stern, and my league is boring” — came in the late 1990s. The “Jordan Rules” had morphed from How To Defend The Game’s Best Player to How To Defend Everyone. Anthony Mason was a star, and Pat Riley’s Heat was largely blamed for mucking up an entire league.
By the strike-shortened 1997-98 season, points and field-goal percentage were each at 30-year lows. The league responded by cracking down on hand-checks, low-post contact and isolated dribbling, among other changes. Immediately, scoring went up 6 percent, and pace increased by 5 percent.
The league has continued to shape rules and officiating in a way to influence scoring, ball movement and drives to the basket. Many observers say the NBA’s product has never been better.
This could be college basketball’s story, too.
By definition, players in college will never be as good as those in the NBA. But the environments are better, the passion bigger, and the platform enough that it is the world’s first look at the game’s biggest stars.
College basketball could be a better product, in other words. If not in comparison to the NBA — that’s entirely subjective — then certainly when compared with what it is at the moment.
“I love this game, and it’s become unwatchable,” Bilas said. “It’s hard for me to argue with people I know and respect those who don’t want to watch our game. It’s hard to build a case why they’re wrong.”
The easiest way to quicken college basketball is to shorten the shot clock, most reasonably from 35 seconds to 30. That’s the pace of both the women’s college game and the WNBA. The NBA and international game use 24 seconds.
This would cut down on coaches’ ability to micromanage every dribble. The NBA did a data study when the WNBA reduced its shot clock and found no increase in bad shots.
At the very least, this one change should be done as soon as possible.
“You’ll get kickback from some coaches,” one of the Big 12 assistants said, “because that means we’re giving up control. If my team isn’t as good as yours, I want to decrease possessions as much as I can. But it would make for a better game.”
Beyond that, the sport should actually commit to the “freedom of movement” changes it began last season with. Cutting down on hand checks, cleaning up the wrestling that goes on in the post and freeing offensive players to go to the basket both with and without the ball would make for a more open, higher-scoring and generally more enjoyable product to watch.
But that’s only a start. The lane should be widened, providing more space for the drives to the basket that result in so many highlights. The 3-point line could be moved back, opening the floor. Our ACC assistant even suggested widening the court — an acknowledgment of the increasing size and athleticism of players — to free up play, but admitted this was a logistical nightmare and probably a non-starter.
The college game could learn a lot from the international game. International games are the same 40 minutes of playing time as college ball, but generally take about 10 minutes fewer to complete with a more open and free-flowing style.
Some of this is with reduced timeouts and stricter substitution rules. Some of it is in playing 10-minute quarters instead of 20-minute halves. Team fouls reset at the quarter, meaning fewer free throws on common fouls.
All of these changes would make college basketball easier to watch, but arguing over the details without a higher-level change in how the sport is governed is like arguing what color to paint your new house without a construction company to build it.
Because the sport showed last year that it didn’t have the fortitude for changes that demonstrably increased scoring and possessions. There are many reasons for this, nearly all of them dealing with the awkward fact that officials are hired as independent contractors by conferences and not salaried employees by the NCAA.
This creates many problems that manifest themselves as way too much bureaucracy. You want to know why the NFL and NBA can implement changes and college basketball can’t?
Start with this: Those professional leagues have commissioners overseeing competition committees, and own the officials who determine how the games are played.
College basketball referees are hired independently by conferences, and often work five and six games a week. That means they are more easily influenced, both by the high-profile coaches on the sidelines and the different leagues they want to work for (which often have different emphases).
Those other leagues control their product, with a clear line of power. College basketball is run more like a loose confederation of leagues bound together only by television and the postseason cash cow.
For change to happen in college basketball, whom do you call?
“If you know, let me know, and maybe we can get a conference call with them,” Bilas said. “There’s all these bureaucratic hoops to jump through, and it’s not an efficient way to run a multibillion-dollar business. This means billions of dollars, and why we’re doing it this way is baffling to me.”
The idea of a college basketball commissioner is not ground-breaking. Mike Krzyzewski, most notably, has spoken about this and says he’s pushed for it for more than 20 years.
There is no shortage of candidates. Dan Gavitt, who runs the NCAA Tournament, would have the credibility and skill set. Stu Jackson, the NBA’s executive vice president for basketball operations, would bring fresh ideas and respected leadership.
Bilas would do a great job, actually, though his outspokenness on paying college athletes would probably muddy his candidacy.
“How much are they paying?” Bilas jokingly said when asked about being college basketball commissioner. “If I’d get the typical NCAA administrator buffet line of money, sure.”
In the immediate term, having a dedicated leader of the sport would help simplify issues such as how officiating is managed — which would allow more direct and focused improvements for the sport.
In the long term, it would also help the sport adapt to a customer base that is changing faster than ever.
“The NCAA only does stuff when their back is against the wall,” Bilas said. “And in the quality of the game, their back is against the wall. The game is of bad quality. The coaches aren’t bad. The players aren’t bad. We’ve got a bad product. We can fix it. The question is if we have the will to do it.”
The challenge is that for any of this to happen, the various fiefdoms in college basketball must agree that they have problems that need to be fixed.
In any context, consensus building is exponentially harder at the college level, with 350 Division I programs as opposed to 30 NBA franchises. What’s good for Kentucky isn’t necessarily good for Cornell. That difficulty may be amplified at the moment, with 11 years on each of college basketball’s two biggest TV contracts.
But if the sport is smart, it will address its obvious problems long before the immediate financial need arrives. That’s how a well-run business would operate, anyway.
“Anytime you think that you’ve arrived or can just rely on what has been, then you start to fall back,” Haney said. “Society changes, interests change, the way we communicate change. Who would’ve thought 20 years ago that people would be using a cell phone to watch games?
“You want to be constantly changing, adapting, looking into the future to remain relevant and viable. Particularly in a sport where there’s a dependency on people wanting to watch games (and) attend games, it’s important you’re interfacing with them.”
Now, that sounds like a man who could be commissioner.
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