The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved several rule changes for Division I college basketball during the offseason, with each intended to increase scoring from the historic depths it plummeted to in recent seasons.
Reducing the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 seconds is the most significant of the changes and will be the one easily noticed by even a casual hoops fan. With less time to shoot, teams will be forced into their offense sooner, and the end result should be two or three additional possessions per game and - hopefully - more points on the scoreboard.
Noted college basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy studied the postseason CBI, CIT and NIT Tournaments, all of which used the 30-second shot clock last season, and found slight increases in possessions, scoring and offensive efficiency.
But smart college basketball coaches will adapt. They’re not going to sit back and watch opponents shred the nets. They’ll put their defenders in position to suppress such scoring. The best path to terrific defense, as Luke Winn of SI.com pointed out earlier this summer, is to force opponents to shoot late in the shot clock. Data that Winn compiled via Synergy Sports Technology reveals that college basketball teams are remarkably inefficient when they shoot with less than four seconds on the shot clock, scoring an average of 0.703 points on those possessions (an average Division I team scores 1.00 points per possession a game for the season).
And as Pomeroy’s data has revealed in recent seasons, the best defensive teams force opponents into longer possessions. For example, Virginia and Kentucky led the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency last season (points allowed per possession). Both ranked in the top 31 (out of 351) in opponent’s average possession length.
Conversely, faster possessions are better for the offense. Only four out of the 50 teams that allowed the shortest possessions ranked in the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com
So, what strategy will coaches use to improve their defense by forcing opponents into bad shots late in the shot clock? Zone defense is the obvious choice, because a good one can confuse offenses, control dribble penetration and in general force a team to take longer to run a set play. We’ve all seen an ugly offensive possession against a zone. A team passes the ball around the perimeter for 25-30 seconds, then forces up a contested, out of rhythm jump shot as the shot clock dwindles toward zero. Last season, the national DI average for 2-point jump shots was 35.7 percent per hoop-math.com. That's a number any coach would be thrilled to see his defense produce.
Zone defense has trended upward in recent seasons. Louisville used a press paired with a matchup zone en route to the 2013 national championship. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's teams have played man-to-man exclusively throughout his Hall of Fame career. But he implemented a zone midway through last season and it helped his talented offensive group improve defensively and cut the nets in Indianapolis.
“It’s a situation where you could see more zone,” veteran Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis said. “We’ll actually work more of it in the preseason, and go into the season expecting more of it. We want our offense to be prepared to face it.”
Zone comes with its own set of issues. Teams like Syracuse, which has played a 2-3 zone for three decades under coach Jim Boeheim, tend to foul more. They can also be susceptible to hot outside shooting.
Will Wade, in his first season as coach at VCU, used a zone defense during his two seasons at Chattanooga to help control tempo and improve his team’s poor defensive rebounding - defying the assumption that a team playing zone suffers in corralling caroms off the backboard.
He envisions more teams combining a “soft” fullcourt press with a zone to take time off the shot clock and force opponents into late, rushed shots.
“In a zone you can dictate where the shots are going to come from,” Wade said. “It also cuts down on some of the ball screen offense that so many teams run. Coaches are by nature control freaks and against a zone it puts a little bit more on your player. He has to react, understand the gaps. You can’t necessarily choreograph a zone offense from the sidelines as much as you can against man-to-man.”
Throughout his career at UNC Wilmington, Wright State and during the last five seasons at Clemson, coach Brad Brownell has earned a reputation as one of the game’s best defensive minds. His teams have relied on stingy halfcourt man-to-man to compete with the ultra-talented teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But Brownell used more zone in recent seasons. He envisions experimenting with zone early in the season and conversations with other coaches tell him they’ll follow suit, although he wonders if it will last once conference season comes when coaches tend to stick with the philosophy they trust.
“I could see teams using more of the softer pressing to use time to where the shot clock gets down to 22 seconds and somebody is around midcourt and setting up their offense,” Brownell said. “Some teams will fall back into man, but they’ll want to see how teams respond to some light pressure so their teams don’t have to defend as long.”
Miami (Fla.) associate head coach Chris Caputo believes that playing more zone can reduce the amount of practice time necessary to prepare for an opponent’s set plays.
And like most of the other coaches, he’s not convinced that a shorter shot clock will lead to a significant increase in scoring.
“The skill level of the player in college is not equal to the skill level of the NBA player,” he said.
Brownell pointed out that pros are more adept at hitting tough, contested shots late in the shot clock.
“I don’t know if it’s not going to lead to more bad shots,” Ellis said. “We are getting too close to the NBA game and people love the college game. I think there’s going to be more tougher shots which could lead to uglier basketball.”