College basketball scores are up but there's still room for improvement
The numbers are in for the first month of the college basketball season, and they have a message.
The impact of the 30-second shot clock? The directive to officials to make calls that reduce physicality and ease freedom of movement? The new rules and general campaign intending to put a little fire in the offense?
So far, so good. But so much more to go.
Scoring is 73.90 points per team per game, up more than five points over this time last year. There are roughly four more shots, and four more possessions per team. Field goal percentage is .46 percent better. Points per possession have increased, slightly. Fouls are up, but only by 1.42, and free throw attempts by .75; important in that they were not a symptom of a blizzard of whistles.
What’s all that mean? Let’s bounce around the game.
J.D. Collins, in his first year as national coordinator of officials . . .
"I think we have to acknowledge we’ve had a positive start, yet I’m hesitant to go much further, because we have a long season to go."
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, chair of the men’s basketball oversight committee . . .
"From my perspective things, things are trending well. Field goal percentages are up slightly, which is a good thing, in that the shot clock did not result in what many people thought it would, teams taking bad shots.
"I’m very encouraged by what I’m seeing across the country."
Kansas coach Bill Self, a member of the oversight committee . . .
"I’d say it's going better than I thought it would. I thought it would be 15 fouls by each team each half. I think coaches have taught it a little different and I think certainly the players have adjusted. For the most part, they’re calling it the way it’s intended to be called."
Georgia State coach Ron Hunter, member of the committee and president of the NABC . . .
"I think it’s going OK, but I’ve been doing this for a long time and every time we put in new rules or a new emphasis, it's always great in November and December. I want to see what happens in January and February, when it really matters. That’s the key to all this."
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Indeed, two years ago there was a similar attempt to emphasize freedom of movement fouls and help oil the offenses, and there were many promising signs in the early season. But by March, most of the upward trends had melted away. Therein lies the challenge for the officials; to make the calls as prescribed, and keep making them.
Self said he had already noticed a possible retreat.
"I hate to say that, but I kind of do. I think the games are being called very, very good. But on-the-ball fouls are not being called with the same regularity they were called earlier, which could be a coincidence, or which could be not calling it quite as tight. It may just be because people are defending smarter.
"But I think it becomes more difficult once you get into conference games of high magnitude to make the same call in the last three minutes you made in early November."
And Dan Gavitt, NCAA vice president of men’s basketball championships, made the challenge ahead clear.
"I am pleased that the package of new playing rules has helped improve the pace of the game, which has resulted in more offensive production," he said. "But I have significant concerns that the officiating directive to reduce physicality in the game has fallen short of expectations so far.
"While the stats trends compare favorably to last season, they do not measure positively to two seasons ago when we saw increases offensively due to the emphasis on defending the ball on the perimeter. We have got to get after calling physical play in the low post and off the ball if we’re going to continue moving the game in the right direction heading into conference play in a couple of weeks."
Crunch time is ahead, in other words. Collins thinks this attempt has a better chance at sticking for three reasons.
"No. 1 is we have more support from the stakeholders of the game than ever before to make the necessary changes, those stakeholders being the men’s basketball oversight committee, the rules' committee, the commissioners. I think we just have a significant amount of support with everyone saying we need to have this done for the betterment of the game."
He also said the various coordinators around the country were doing a good job of getting the message across to their officials that the changes had to be made. And No. 3 is his own power, when it comes time in March to assign and advance NCAA Tournament officials.
"The bottom line is they have a choice to make. They’re either going to embrace the changes or they’re not," he said. "It’s their choice. They’re the ones on the floor, doing the actual officiating. But if they choose not to embrace the directive, then we have the ability to not choose them for the tournament. That is not an arrogant statement in any way. I think it’s called accountability."
And as Gavitt noted, lots of people will be watching.
"It is difficult to change habits and a culture of physical play that has developed over two decades, but we owe it to the players, coaches and fans to increase our efforts to call the rules of the game as written. This initiative will be judged in the basketball community by what happens over the next two months. I’m confident that J.D. Collins and the conference coordinators will work diligently with the game officials to get it done."
So the word is out, and the scoring is up. As of Thursday, 64 teams were averaging 80-plus points a game. That is sure to decrease as conference play begins, but still. By the end of the last season, only four teams were averaging 80.
One of them at the moment is Butler, second in the nation at 91.7 and the team that scored 144 points in one game.
"I still think we have too small of a sample size," Bulldogs coach Chris Holtmann said of the success of the changes. "But I think that the message has been made very clear to coaches, fans, officials, everybody across the board, that if we’re expecting it to go back to what it has been in the past, it's not going to happen.
"Officials are just like fans and everybody else. They want to see the game played and not stopped. They want a good flow to the game. But I also know they have the charge to call the game the way they’ve been asked to call it."
Collins provided an assessment on the progress for the officials.
"There are six key elements to the directive to reduce physicality: Hand checking/body bumping ball handlers, post play, rebounding, freedom of movement for cutters, screening and not rewarding offensive initiated contact on legal defenders. To date, the officials have done a great job with hand checking/body bumping the dribbler, screen plays and offense initiated contact on legal defenders. We still have room for improvement on physical play in the post, rebounding physicality and freedom of movement for cutters. We will be focusing on the latter three during the upcoming weeks."
There always will be in the eternal fragile relationship between the men on the bench and the men in stripes. So some of the former have issues.
"Consistency with the calls is something you always hear from coaches," Hunter said. "Making sure if it's two hands (for a foul) on this end, it has to be two hands on the other end, and it can’t be whether you’re home or away."
Tom Izzo, with his Michigan State team No. 1 in the polls, has not liked everything he’s seen.
"Just my opinion, but I’m not a fan of it. I’m all for freedom of movement, and yet this east and west stuff, when a guy's 30 feet from the basket, I’m just not for it. If I'm impeding the progress of a guy going to the basket, it's a foul. I think these touch fouls to me – and it's just my opinion – makes it harder on officials and fans. I think it lengthens the game and makes it a free throw contest."
Izzo mentioned the Michigan State-Providence game. "There were 15 pro scouts there wanting to see Kris Dunn from Providence and Denzel Valentine from Michigan State, and they were both sitting next to the coach (with fouls). So maybe the pro scouts were evaluating their coaching skills."
Added Self, "I do think there's some individual contact that is called that has nothing to do with the play that could be let go."
Valid points all. But on balance, most of the changes seem to be going well, and so do the offenses. Take the shorter shot clock. Conventional wisdom held the field percentage might go down, from more hurried bad shots. Instead, field goal percentage is 44.03 percent. It ended last season at 43.49.
"I don’t think it has created a negative by any stretch of the imagination," Guerrero said. "I do believe it has helped speed up the game, and it has helped speed up the game without impacting the game in a negative way. You haven’t seen people struggle to shoot because we've shortened the shot clock by five seconds. People have made the adjustment."
Bottom line? "I think the game is flowing rather nicely," Guerrero said.
"I think we're on our way to a better game," Hunter said. "I don’t think this is the end result. Just like what the NBA is doing, just like what women's basketball is doing, we have to continue to find ways to improve it. We were a little bit behind them so what we’re trying to do is catch up. We're nowhere near where we need to be."
The first-month numbers suggest they’re on their way.
"I do think it's less physical. I do think there’s more freedom of movement," Self said. "I would say as much as coaches kind of dreaded it going into this, that it would be a monumental-type change, coaches and players have adjusted pretty well. I don’t think coaches will want to go back. I don't think officials will."