GONZAGA HAS BEEN one of the best offensive teams in the country this season, but you wouldn't have known it by watching the Bulldogs play at home against San Diego last Thursday night. The No. 3 Zags came into the game ranked seventh in the U.S. in points per game (79.7), first in field goal percentage (52.7) and third in offensive efficiency (1.21 points per possession). Yet thanks largely to the Toreros' insistence on slowing the pace and playing physical defense, Gonzaga scored a whopping 13 points in the first 17 minutes. The Zags led 22--17 at the half and went on to win 59--39. The teams shot a combined 40.4% from the floor, and each played 56 possessions, well below the national average of 64.9. After the game San Diego coach Bill Grier cited "the talent discrepancy between our two programs" as the reason for his team's purposefully sluggish play. "We had to play like that," he said.
San Diego may have gotten outscored in the end, but the real loser was college basketball. That same night, Arizona State put up just nine points in the first half of its 83--41 loss at No. 13 Utah. The night before, No. 22 VCU, which is known for its high-octane, helter-skelter pressure, needed two overtimes to crack the 60-point barrier before losing at Richmond by four. On Tuesday there were six games involving Top 25 teams, and in two the winner scored fewer than 60 points. In a third, No. 9 Notre Dame lost at home to Syracuse 65--60. Yet even that was preferable to No. 17 Louisville's nails-on-a-chalkboard squeaker over lowly Georgia Tech 52--51 the night before.
The 2014--15 season is shaping up to be the worst offensive season in modern college basketball history. Through Sunday teams were averaging 67.56 points, or the second fewest since 1952. The low for a season (67.50) was set just two years ago, after which the rules committee clamped down on physical defense and made it harder to draw a charge. Thanks to officials' lax enforcement of the guidelines established to limit overly physical defense, as well as a foolish decision by the rules committee to reverse the block/charge modification, scoring has declined by 3.44 points per game—the steepest single-season drop since '57--58. Moreover, the pace of games is the slowest since efficiency maven Ken Pomeroy started tracking tempo in 2001--02. That season, teams averaged 69.6 possessions per 40 minutes; at week's end they were averaging 64.9. Points per possession were down 2.9% from 2013--14, according to KPISports.net, while turnovers were up 5.4% per possession.
The numbers confirm what the fans already see: College basketball is facing a crisis. It's time for an extreme makeover.
WHILE NO one disputes the data, most explanations center on two myths.
1) The players aren't as good as they used to be. The one-and-done rule has been vilified, but don't forget: Before the NBA established its 19-year-old age minimum in 2005, the rule was none and done, so there are more gifted players in college basketball now, not fewer. Also, just 42 underclassmen entered the 2014 NBA draft. Nine were freshmen. That is not nearly enough to account for a decline measured across nearly 4,500 Division I players over some 8,000 games.
While it is difficult to measure skills in different eras, especially before and after the three-point line was implemented in 1986--87, there is one category in which an apples-to-apples comparison is possible: free throw shooting. If players really are worse, there would be a significant decline from the line. Yet in 1972--73, when scoring peaked at 77.7 points per game—without a shot clock or three-point line, mind you—teams converted 68.6% of their foul shots. This season teams are making 69.0%. There is nothing wrong with the way today's players shoot.
2) The officiating isn't as good as it used to be. Say what you want about the refs, at least they have been consistent. According to the NCAA's statistics dating back to 1947--48, the number of fouls committed per team per game has varied the least among all categories. Since 1953--54, that average has never dropped below 18.1 or risen above 20.6.
The primary reason for this crisis, then, isn't the players or referees. It's the coaches. Consider the rare case of Iowa State at Oklahoma on Feb. 9. The score at halftime was 46--46. The Sooners went on to win 94--83. The teams combined to shoot 49.2% from the field and 48.0% from three-point range. They each had 73 possessions, and a combined 26 fouls led to only 20 free throws. Yes, these are two Top 25 teams, but it's not like there was a surfeit of talent on the floor that night. Only one player, Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield, is likely to be drafted by the NBA in 2015, and he's projected to be a mid-second-rounder.
The game was fun to watch because the two coaches, the Sooners' Lon Kruger and the Cyclones' Fred Hoiberg, give their players the freedom to create points. It's no coincidence that both men have NBA backgrounds: Kruger coached the Hawks for three years and spent a season as an assistant with the Knicks, and Hoiberg had a 10-year career as a guard for three teams.
It's impossible to legislate offensive creativity, of course, but rules that help improve the flow of the game will encourage coaches to consider a more up-tempo style of play (page 24). We can't change the rules of the game, however, until we change the way rules get made. Or in this case, the way rules don't get made.
Start with the makeup of the 12-member rules committee. Because the rule book applies to all three divisions, three seats go to Division II schools and another three to D-III programs. Of the six spots allocated for Division I, five are currently held by representatives of mid-majors: Belmont coach Rick Byrd (the current chair), Marshall associate athletic director Jeff O'Malley, Akron coach Keith Dambrot, Long Island University coach Jack Perri and Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson. The 12th member is Karl Hicks, the deputy athletic director at Florida State. Marinate on that for a moment: Just one out of the 12 men on the rules committee is a member of a Power Five conference.
Though the people who serve on the rules committee are no doubt earnest and diligent, they are naturally protective of their own interests. A slower, rougher game benefits teams with lesser talent. Byrd, for example, says he likes a 35-second shot clock because "I don't think you can really run your offense in 30 seconds," even though most of the planet seems to be able to do just that.
And what do you do if you're a coach whose players aren't quick and tall enough to prevent the gazelles at Kansas and North Carolina from driving through the lane and finishing at the rim? You manipulate the rule book so it's easier to push a driver, bump a cutter or draw a charge.
The game thrives on upsets, of course, but they should happen because the underdogs executed better, not because they were allowed to grab their speedier opponents. "I hear people complain and say, 'Well, if you do these things, the teams with the better players are going to win,'" ESPN analyst Jay Bilas says. "And I'm thinking, Did you really just say that? That's like saying if we took all the sprinters and let them run in a straight line, the fastest guy would win. That's the whole point."
The representatives from Divisions II and III also have cost concerns that the elite D-I schools don't have. Proposals to redraw the three-point line or widen the lane have met resistance partly because the lower divisions were wary of spending the money. "When we first talked about putting in the arc [to assist with block/charge calls], the D-II and the D-III guys were saying, 'Damn, that's expensive.' That was holding stuff up," says Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who served on the committee from 2006 to '10 and was chairman in his final year.
It is critical, then, that the committee be restructured. The schools that are on television every night should have the most say. This is the same thinking that led the Power Five conferences to push through the "autonomy legislation," which has enabled them to do things like covering the full cost of attendance for their athletes, an idea that had previously been nixed by schools who couldn't afford it.
Having coaches make up the majority of the rules committee has also proved to be a bad idea. They're always going to be more inclined to protect their competitive interests than to improve the aesthetics of the game. Their undue influence is reflected in the response to the annual rules survey. The committee polls five groups: commissioners, referee coordinators, referees, media and coaches. Last year, when the survey asked whether the number of timeouts should be reduced, a strong majority of all the groups agreed that they should. Except for the coaches—74.3% of them disagreed. Coaches were also the only group that objected to the suggestion that only players should be allowed to call a timeout. On both questions, the coaches held sway. And the glut of timeouts has made the last few minutes of close games seem interminable. "Coaches have always felt that if you take timeouts away from them, it's like taking their firstborn," says Art Hyland, the rules committee's secretary editor.
IT'S NOT AS IF an imbalance in favor of the defense were a new problem. This has been faced, and solved, by just about every major sport. Over the last two decades, for example, the NFL and college football have greatly diminished the degree to which defenders can impede the progress of receivers, and they have outlawed excessive hits on quarterbacks. That begat the spread offense and the wide-open, pass-happy, no-huddle, high-scoring games that electrify football fans every fall weekend. Likewise, the NHL instituted a slew of rules following the 2004--05 work stoppage, including clamping down on obstruction, allowing two-line passes and installing a trapezoid behind the net to curtail a goalie's ability to play the puck.
The NBA offers an even better blueprint. Before the start of the 2000--01 season, then commissioner David Stern tapped Jerry Colangelo, the general manager of the Suns, to chair a special committee that was assigned to eliminate "all the muggings," as Colangelo puts it. They devised prohibitions against hand-checking and other tactics that had tipped the advantage too far to the defense. There were many games that got bogged down in fouls early on, but eventually the coaches and players adapted.
Colangelo, who is now the chairman of USA Basketball's board of directors, believes the college game needs to go through the same transition. "Basketball is a game of fluidity," he says. "It took about two years for everyone to adjust, but that dissipates over a period of time. You pay that price, but in the long term that's what was in the best interests of the game."
Those who have coached college players for U.S. teams in recent years swear that when American kids play in FIBA tournaments, they score points. They make shots. They're rewarded for beating their man off the dribble. Turns out all they need is a shorter clock, more space and a tighter whistle. "Anything you can do to increase freedom of movement is going to increase scoring," says VCU coach Shaka Smart, who has served as an assistant for USA Basketball's under-18 and under-19 teams for the last three years. "The players figured out how to play with the 24-second shot clock. We as coaches did too, because you can't run too many multiple sets. If you really want to increase scoring, you have to make the rules more to the advantage of the offense as opposed to the unbelievable advantage the defense has right now."
To be fair, the NBA has the luxury of a full-time staff of referees who have to call games for only 30 teams. That makes it easier to establish a top-down set of rules and hold officials accountable if they don't enforce those rules properly. For many years the NCAA has been urged to adopt a similar arrangement, instead of the current system under which each official is an independent contractor shuffling between conferences. The idea has been dismissed as too expensive—it would mean providing health insurance, for example—but it is starting to gain traction. Many conferences already have agreements with other leagues to share referees. Is it so impossible for the Power Five to band together, perhaps along with the Big East and Atlantic 10, and assemble a permanent staff? "It's already happening regionally. I don't think it's a big step to make it more of a national program," says Dan Gavitt, the NCAA's VP of championships. "But it takes the will of the membership to do that."
In the end the biggest problem college basketball faces is complacency. Usually it takes a hard hit to the financial bottom line to spur significant change, but that won't happen while the strongest conferences are locked into long-term, lucrative television contracts. Yet there's no doubt this crisis is real. And until the pace of change speeds up dramatically, this once-beautiful game will slowly but steadily grind to a halt.
"Anything you can do to increase movement is going to increase scoring," says Smart.
The rules have evolved to reward drawing fouls and making extra passes for open threes
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
Drawing fouls becomes a strategy as teams can no longer waive free throws and take the ball at midcourt
POSSESSIONS PER GAME
Free throws are no longer awarded for the first six personal fouls in a half
POINTS PER POSSESSION
The three-point line is introduced, encouraging teams to hold the ball for the best possible shot
The 45-second shot clock is established, but uptick in pace doesn't last
Lowering the shot clock to 35 fails to increase tempo
Three--point arc extended one foot, to 20'9"
DATA FROM KENPOM.COM
For an expanded version of this story, as well as other proposals to fix college hoops, go to SI.com/cbb
Five rule changes that can help reverse the downward trend in scoring, cut down on contact, increase movement and speed up the game
1 REDUCE THE SHOT CLOCK
Take it from 35 seconds to 30—or maybe even 24. "It's not hard," says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "A shorter clock means more possessions, and more possessions mean more points."
2 EXTEND THE ARC UNDER THE BASKET
A three-foot arc was added in 2011--12 to help officials decide the block/charge call under the hoop; in the pros the arc is four feet out. "That's the NCAA and our coaches saying we are not going to be the NBA," says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "It's a joke." The extra foot would pull help-side defenders further from the basket, thus unclogging the paint.
3 WIDEN THE LANE
Increasing the width to 14 feet (from 12) would push post players away from the basket and force them to learn to shoot with touch instead of just backing down and powering to the rim. Drivers would also have more space, allowing players to better showcase their athleticism.
4 MOVE BACK THE THREE-POINT LINE
The goal isn't to make the shot more difficult, it's to create more space. If the committee pushed the line from 20' to 22'2", which is where FIBA has it, that would give players more room to operate and be shorter than the NBA's distance of 23'9".
5 LIMIT TIMEOUTS
Even before a coach such as Kansas State's Bruce Weber (left)calls a single timeout, he is guaranteed nine stoppages of play—four media timeouts per half, which last 2:15 each, plus a 15-minute halftime. That's 33 minutes, or almost another game, for him to talk to his team. Yet on top of those breaks a coach is also granted one 60-second and four 30-second timeouts, one of which is known as the "use-it-or-lose-it" timeout because teams can carry only three 30-second timeouts into the second half. In other words, the rules actually incentivize a coach to call a first-half TO.
Illustration by IAN KELTIE
TONY GUTIERREZ/AP, JASON DECROW/AP, GREG THOMPSON/ICON SPORTSWIRE, ELLEN OZIER/AP, MIC SMITH/AP, SUE OGROCKI/AP
RUN 'N' FUN Oklahoma's Jordan Woodard (10) helped push the ball against Iowa State in a rare high-scoring game.
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
TRAFFIC JAM Widening the lane and extending the block/charge arc would unclog an area that's been hard for referees to manage.
ORLIN WAGNER/AP (WEBER)