After his team’s 87-78 victory against Arkansas during the NCAA Tournament in March, a victory that came in an up-tempo, free-flowing game, North Carolina coach Roy Williams was asked if what he had just witnessed was college basketball as it was meant to be played.
In a season short on scoring and long on long, ugly possessions, UNC’s victory in the round of 32 was a throwback to a different time, when points came more often and possessions weren’t as scarce. It was a reminder of how Williams prefers the sport to look.
“You know, I love the ball going up and down the court,” he said then. “If it was up to me, we’d have a 15-second (shot) clock, and it would really be fun then.”
College basketball won’t be played at that pace, but the hope, at least, is that it will be faster next season. In a move designed to speed the pace of play and increase scoring, both of which have been in decline for years, the NCAA earlier this week formally approved trimming the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds.
Williams, as he has said, wouldn’t mind seeing an even shorter shot clock. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewki favors the 24-second shot clock that the NBA and FIBA use.
At UNC, Duke and N.C. State, the shortened shot clock isn’t likely to have much of an impact. UNC prefers the fastest pace among the three, though Duke and N.C. State — which employed a slow-it-down strategy in its victory at UNC last season — don’t necessarily avoid playing faster.
Overall, though, the move to a 30-second shot clock is a positive development for a sport that has taken a beating in recent years. Not only has it become expected that the game’s very best players stick around for only a season — or maybe two — but ugly, low-scoring games have also become the norm.
Last season, for instance, teams averaged 67.6 points per game — tied for the lowest average during the past 50 years. Duke averaged 80.6 points per game, fourth in the country, a few more than UNC, which was 17th nationally at 77.9 points per game. N.C. State averaged 70.4 points, 95th overall. Only nine teams averaged 70 possessions per game — down from 58 teams in 2005, according to data on kenpom.com.
Ken Pomeroy, the statistician and college basketball analyst who runs that website, has for years studied decreased scoring and pace trends. Rick Byrd, the chairman of the NCAA men’s basketball rules committee, sought Pomeroy’s insight into how a 30-second shot clock might affect the sport.
The short answer: It’s unlikely to have a dramatic impact.
Pomeroy in March analyzed the postseason events outside of the NCAA Tournament — the NIT chief among them — that used an experimental 30-second shot clock. The results, which he wrote about on deadspin.com, surprised him.
“I was a little surprised that scoring didn’t increase more,” Pomeroy said during a recent phone interview. “I was kind of expecting more of a bump. It was definitely a surprise.”
Pomeroy adjusted for a variety of confounding factors and concluded the following:
—That a 30-second shot clock could be expected, on average, to result in an increase of about two possessions per game.
—And that scoring could be expected to increase “by about two points per game when you control for everything,” Pomeroy said.
So those expecting the 30-second shot clock to make a significant difference are likely to be disappointed. Still, it should help, and its implementation is a positive for a sport that had to do something to reverse scoring and pace trends that have at times made college basketball unwatchable.
“It’s a positive step in that as far as I know, nobody in the free world uses a shot clock longer than 30 seconds, when they are using a shot clock,” Pomeroy said. “So I think it kind of makes sense to bring back that part of the game in line with how other people are playing it.”
But expecting the shot clock to solve college basketball’s woes? That won’t happen.
“It won’t solve the scoring issues,” Pomeroy said. “It won’t solve the lack of transition play. There’s some — I think some of the officiating has to evolve a little bit more. It’s a complicated problem.
“I think people accuse the defenses of causing this issue, but offenses are actually more efficient than they’ve ever been.”
Trimming five seconds off the shot clock should lead to change, yes, but such change is likely to be incremental. Possessions should increase — by how much remains to be seen — and scoring, too, though not as much as it would have had college basketball gone to a 24-second shot clock.
There was never any momentum behind that idea, but it’s one that Krzyzewski favors. Williams, for whom the shot clock can’t be short enough, likely wouldn’t object, either.
Krzyzewski recently said he called Byrd, the chair of the rules committee, and told him that he’d accomplished more in one session than college basketball had done for itself in 30 years. Still, Krzyzewski said of the changes, “I don’t think it’s still enough.”
The shortened shot clock is expected to make the game more free-flowing — if only a little bit — but it will do nothing to address the decrease in transition-oriented play, or the decline in offensive rebounding, which Pomeroy said is another factor that has affected scoring. A shorter clock also isn’t likely to help the defense, he said.
“That was probably the meat of the most important takeaway because people are concerned that you take five seconds off the shot clock, it’s going to hurt offensive efficiency,” Pomeroy said. “But it looks like it probably won’t have a huge impact on that.
“And it will have a small impact on increasing pace of play.”
And what effect will it have on teams like, say, Virginia, which prefer the slowest of slow paces? Pomeroy doesn’t see much of one.
“I think you’ll see more urgency in bringing the ball up the court and getting into the offense,” he said. “And that’s why I don’t think efficiency will be affected too much. Because these (slower) teams by and large can play slightly faster if they want to. And now that they’re forced to, that’s what they’ll do.”
The game isn’t likely, though, to look all that much different than it did last season, and the season before or the season before that. It isn’t likely to look, overall, like what UNC and Arkansas provided during the NCAA Tournament.
The factors that have led to college basketball’s pace and scoring woes — improved defensive play combined with officials’ allowance of more physicality, the increased reliance on the 3-point shot, the decreased emphasis, by some teams, on transition play — aren’t going anywhere. And so the game will transform into a slightly-faster version of what it has become.
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